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As author of the bestselling Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe, and Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer has emerged as the nation's number one scourge of superstition and bad science. Now, in The Borderlands of Science, he takes us to the place where real science (such as the big bang theory), borderland science (superstring theory), and just plain nonsense (Big Foot) collide with one another.
Shermer argues that science is the best lens through which to view the world, but he recognizes that it's often difficult for most of us to tell where valid science leaves off and borderland science begins. To help us, Shermer looks at a range of topics that put the boundary line in high relief. For instance, he discusses the many "theories of everything" that try to reduce the complexity of the world to a single principle, and shows how most fall into the category of pseudoscience. He examines the work of Darwin and Freud, explaining why one is among the great scientists in history, while the other has become nothing more than a historical curiosity. He also shows how Carl Sagan's life exemplified the struggle we all face to find a balance between being open-minded enough to recognize radical new ideas but not so open-minded that our brains fall out. And finally, he reveals how scientists themselves can be led astray, as seen in the infamous Piltdown Hoax.
Michael Shermer's enlightening volume will be a valuable aid to anyone bewildered by the many scientific theories swirling about. It will help us stay grounded in common sense as we try to evaluate everything from SETI and acupuncture to hypnosis and cloning.
Reality Must Take Precedence in
the Search for Truth
Martha: Truth and illusion George; you don't know the difference.
George: No; but we must carry on as though we did.
— Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
WITHIN HOURS OF THE TRAGIC DEATH of Princess Diana, theoriesabout what really happened to her began to proliferate via the Internet. Oneposting admonished readers: "Anyone who doesn't know that the order to murderDiana came from the Hanover/Windsor power structure is lacking an understandingof world affairs." Another explained: "A car wreck can very easilybe engineered." The conspirators, it seems, were "acting on papal orders andfinanced by Du Pont." Within days the BBC reported that Libyan leader MuammarQaddafi told his followers in a televised speech that the "accident" was acombined French and British conspiracy "because they were annoyed that anArab man might marry a British princess."
By the time of the funeral, dozens of theories were ripe for the picking,including: Diana was murdered, but Dodi was an innocent victim; the driverwas a "Manchurian Candidate" programmed to self-destruct at the right moment;Trevor Rees-Jones was in on the murder as a secret service agent; eitherM.I.5, the British Domestic Intelligence Agency, or M.I.6, the British SecretService, orchestrated the murder; Diana'smurder came about because of herstand against land mines—the arms industry was not going to put up with thisattack on one of their major profit centers; Diana was three months pregnantand the monarchy was not going to allow any half-Arab child to become apart of the British Empire. The most bizarre conspiracy theory of all revealedthat Diana was supposed to move to America and marry Bill Clinton, withHillary either murdered or stepping out of the picture. Son William (the heir)would remain in England to become king, while second son Harry (the spare)moves to America, becoming a U.S. senator. By controlling both American andBritish banking and politics, the Rockefellers (who orchestrated the conspiracy),would rule the world and finally better their archrivals, the Rothschilds. Theproblem, we are informed, is that Princess Di wouldn't marry Clinton, so sheneeded to be eliminated. Perhaps he was too preoccupied with Monica to noticeDiana.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell once observed: "Why should it be thatwhenever men have looked for something solid on which to found their lives,they have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths ofan immemorial imagination." That's not quite right. Thinking is a combinationof imagination and facts (and pseudo "factoids"). For example, what evidencedo these cyber-conspiratorialists offer for their theories? They begin with the"fact" that everyone knows that the Rothschilds and Rockefellers have beencompeting to take over the world. Then they note that in July, 1996, AmschelRothschild was "murdered" in Paris, on the anniversary of the "murder" of JohnD. Rockefeller III. In February 1997, Pamela Harriman, U.S. ambassador toFrance and a major financial supporter of Al Gore (controlled by the Rothschilds),was "murdered" in Paris. Di was "murdered" on a sacred section ofthe Paris highway called Pont de l'Alma, from which is derived the word "Pontiff,"or "Pope," and is also an ancient site dating back to the time of the Merovingiankings in the sixth and seventh centuries. Before this, Pont de l'Almahad been a pagan sacrificial site. One translation has it meaning "bridge of thesoul," another as "passage of nourishment." Since all true European royalty isdescended from the Merovingians, themselves descendants from Christ (see, forexample, the book The Hanover Plot by Hugh Schonfield), the tunnel in whichPrincess Di was murdered is spectacularly well connected to history. Oh, anddon't forget, TWA Flight 800 was Paris-bound before it was "shot down," andamong its victims were 60 French nationals and eight members of the FrenchSecret Police.
TRUTH AND ILLUSION
Okay, so most of us don't buy into such wild speculations about cabalistic plotsto take over the world, but why not? Because we have a knowledge filter that,unlike George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wool?, helps us discriminate betweentruth and illusion. Most of the time the knowledge filter works quite well. Wecan tell the difference between truth and illusion, and when we can't there isusually a good reason for it—a magician is trying to fool us, or we choose tobe fooled. Think of the knowledge filter as a mental module that screens incomingideas for their veracity. It works by comparing new facts and ideas withwhat we already know from previous experiences.
Society too has knowledge filters. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and televisionnetworks have journalistic standards and ethics that ask the same sorts ofquestions our personal knowledge filters ask. You rarely see an unopposed gueston Nightline, for example. There is always another perspective to a story, apoint-counterpoint to most assertions. Medicine and science have a built-inknowledge filter called the peer-review system. In order to get a paper publishedin a medical or scientific journal it must be read by several of your colleagues.Rarely is a paper immediately accepted for publication. Most are rejected onfirst submission, and those that are published usually go through numerousresubmissions, or are published in journals of lower reputation. Errors areweeded out, faulty reasoning is exposed, inappropriate conclusions are rebuffed.And since the reviewers remain anonymous, the critiques can sometimes bequite harsh. This is no place for the thin-skinned.
But after centuries of constructing knowledge filters in the various fields ofinformation dispersal, something has gone terribly wrong. Ideas are doing end-runsaround the normal channels of communication, via what promises to bethe most powerful source of knowledge diffusion in history—the Internet.Good ideas, bad ideas, interesting ideas, and wacky ideas stream through cyberspaceinto our computers at breathtaking speed. On one level that's good.Recall what the printing press did for the accelerating rate of knowledge growth.In religion it made everyone his or her own priest; in science it made everyonehis or her own scholar. The Protestant Reformation and Scientific Revolutionwere the result. The telegraph, telephone, radio, and television had similar impacts.The problem is that it takes time for the knowledge filters to be implemented.There are no standards on the Internet, no peer review, and no editorsfact-checking a story before publication. Matt Drudge's Internet gossip columnis a case in point. This "Walter Winchell" of the Web is considered by many tobe the king of cybergossip — post first and ask questions later. Sometimes hescoops the big boys with breaking stories that turn out true, other times hereceives letters from attorneys threatening libel suits. Drudge summed it up witha statement to USA Today: "I don't give a damn what the bureau chief's goingto think. I don't have one." And that's the point.
The result of this new everyone-their-own publisher is a mind-blurring potpourriof factoids and theory-mongering for the choosing. But how do wechoose? I don't have time to check out all the sources and evidence for theseideas, do you? How do you know the government isn't hiding the bodies ofaliens from another planet, or that the CIA did not smuggle drugs into thestreets of Los Angeles, or that a secret branch of the government didn't inventAIDS to decimate the gay and black populations? After all, the government haslied to us so often in the past (and who knows how much more they haven'tadmitted) that it sometimes seems like anything is possible. Maybe Kurt Cobainwas murdered. Maybe the Du Pont family maneuvered Congress to make marijuanaillegal for fear that cannabis would supplant many of their own manufacturedchemicals. Maybe the KKK really does run Snapple (see the "slave" shipon its label). I'm skeptical of all of these claims, but short of conducting myown investigations into each and every case, how can I know for sure?
HOW THE KNOWLEDGE FILTER WORKS
Let's begin with a simple example of how one's knowledge filter works wheretruth and illusion overlap—dreams. When we are asleep the knowledge filter isoff and dreams seem as real as our waking experiences. When we first wake upand our minds are in a fog, the line between truth and illusion is blurry. Butwith time it clears and we can reflect with amusement about what once seemedso real. We can discriminate between truth and illusion with dreams becauseour knowledge filter compares them with reality. For some people, however,their knowledge filters never engage and their dreams become reality, as in asignificant percentage of alien abduction claims.
While we are awake our knowledge filters are hard at work comparing newimages in the world with old images in memory. When you do a doubletakeof someone's face, your knowledge filter is making lightning-fast comparisonsof specific features of that face with all the faces in your memory. The knowledgefilter then declares "match" or "no match." Ideas are treated much the sameway. Recall the last time you encountered a get-rich scheme that seemed togood to be true. It probably was, but until you get burned the knowledge filterhas no database from which to compare. Thus, most of us fall for such schemesat least once. Someone recently sent me a plan on how I can make beaucoupbucks in the Asian stock market through a company called "Financial Astrology."It seems that the forecasts of a professional "Financial Astrologer" were71 percent and 74 percent accurate for the past two quarters respectively. For"only" $395 I can get her next picks. So why don't I mail my check or creditcard number in their postage-paid return envelope? Because my knowledge filterhas heard of schemes like this before—predict the rise or fall of eight stocks thatwill generate a possible 256 different outcomes (28). Mail these 256 outcomes toa large database, keeping track of who gets what combination. Assuming a stockhas an equal chance of going up or down, for every group of 256 recipients,one person on average will get a letter with all predictions correct, 7 people willhave 7 of the 8 correct and 28 will have 6 out of 8 correct. Mail letters to thosewho have received only your correct picks and ask them to send in their money.Clever, huh?
TRUTH AND ILLUSION IN MEDICINE
Things get more complicated with medical and scientific ideas. Answers to ourknowledge filter's questions are not always obvious. The facts do not just speakfor themselves. Experts disagree. How are nonexperts to know what to think?Is coffee bad for you or not? Do breast implants cause degenerative tissue diseaseor don't they? Should we use air bags or shouldn't we? Is the hole in the ozonecaused by pollution or isn't it? Is there a greenhouse effect warming the earth,or is this warming trend just part of the ongoing variation in global temperatures?Just what is the carrying capacity of the earth—are we already past it andon our way to doomsday, or are we nowhere near it and able to handle anotherten billion souls?
knows this better than Deepak Chopra, a traditional medicaldoctor turned alternative medical guru (and author, novelist, poet, screenplaywriter, lecturer, CD-ROM producer, and regular talk show guest). His successmay be attributed to any number of factors—his medical credentials, his seemingpolymathic mastery of such abstruse sciences as quantum mechanics, hisIndian accent, his marketing acumen—the most important being that he meetsan apparently unfulfilled need in millions of people that is not being met bytraditional medicine. Take a trip to his Center for Well Being, nestled in a cozycorner of old town La Jolla that hugs the jagged cliffs overlooking the PacificOcean, and you'll see what I mean. Wholesomely attractive women in Californiacasual wear greet you at the welcome desk. An organic juice and salad bar invitesyou to first pass through the bookstore that is nothing short of a Chopra Shrineoffering all manner of nostrums not to be found on the shelves of your localpharmacy. Incense and massage oil call forth primal memories of smells andfeelings that shut out real-world stresses and anxieties. Books on love and lifeand lust bring a sense that here is to be found Something Special. I don't recallgetting these same feelings at my local Kaiser. When was the last time yourHMO told you "Bring your mind into balance and your body will follow." CanWestern medicine claim "the 5,000 year old healing traditions of Ayurvedawhich address the full range of human experience"? Have you ever seen a medicalbrochure with anything resembling the following offer?: "This mind bodyconnection holds the potential for not only freedom from disease, but a higherstate of health. By enlivening our inner healer, balance, wholeness, and well beingcan be restored." This is feel-good medicine. Large, multistoried hospitals withcomputers, instruments, and faceless physicians who grudgingly give you eightminutes of their time (the average doctor visit) amounts to feel-bad medicine.
Something is amiss here. A recent survey of the nation's 126 medical schoolsfound that 34 of them offer course electives in alternative medicine. In 1991, theNational Institutes of Health established an Office of Alternative Medicine totest such claims. Why don't we have an Office of Alternative Airlines, wherethey test planes with one wing? Because regular airlines' success rate is so remarkablyhigh compared to other forms of transportation that there is no publicdemand for it. Modern medicine cannot claim such success rates. Frankly, thereis no way I would ever go to Doc Chopra before I would go to Doc Kaiser,and all of the alternative medical claims I have taken the time to investigateturned out to be total bunk. But I can understand why those who have beenlet down by the medical establishment, or who face certain death from a diseaseon which their doctors simply put a doomsday clock are tempted by such alluringoffers. Our personal knowledge filters are simply not equipped to dealwith such complex medical claims. That's why we need more and better science.
PUTTING THE SCIENCE KNOWLEDGE FILTER TO THE TEST
The best knowledge filter ever invented is science. Flawed as it is at times, themethods developed over the past four centuries were specifically designed tohelp us avoid errors in our thinking. As an example of how the science knowledgefilter works in a very simple and straight-forward manner (as a demonstration,not as a controlled experiment), on Monday, November 9, 1998, JamesRandi and I tested a Chinese psychic healer named Dr. Kam Yuen from ShaolinWest International (in Canoga Park, California), an "Institute of Martial Artsand Natural Medicine." According to his card, Yuen is a doctor of "ChineseEnergetic Medicine, Chiropractic, Homeopathic Medicine," as well as a "NutritionalConsultant."
Dr. Yuen's organization contacted Randi in order to be tested for the million-dollarchallenge the James Ranch Educational Foundation offers. The test wasarranged through the NBC television show Extra!. Randi was the principalinvestigator in the experiment. Dr. Fleishman was the attending physician whowould monitor the patients for pain, while my role was to monitor Dr. Fleishmanand the other people involved to ensure that proper experimental controlswere employed.
The claim was that Dr. Yuen can heal people, in a matter of seconds, ofintense pain and illness of virtually any kind. He stands or sits in front of theperson, stares at them intensely, waves his hands and fingers around in a ersatz-KungFu style for a few seconds, and, chango presto, the healing is completed.Patients, we are told, suddenly feel better. How do you test such a claim?
With the help of a glitzy health club on Los Angeles' trendy west side, Extra!arranged to find, with the assistance of Dr. Fleishman, five people who hadnoticeable and constant pain of a kind that could be easily recognized if therewere any changes. Two alternates were requested. One was supplied and utilized.Each of the six subjects (five for the test and one alternate) were screenedbefore the test by Dr. Fleishman and myself, with Randi and cameras present.Each subject selected a number that they then attached to their clothing.
#1. Mary had lower back pain caused by scoliosis. She had pain to the touch that went down her right leg. On a scale of 1-10, she rated her pain as a 4 or 5.
#2. Gary had neuropathy-caused pain in his feet, especially the left foot, causing numbness in his toes and pain and a burning sensation in the ankle. He rated his pain as a 4.
#3. Nadine had carpel tunnel syndrome that causes a tingling sensation and numbness in the fingers after about five seconds of pressure applied to the wrist.
#4. Paula had an inflamed tendon and adjacent nerve that, when pressed, caused pain rated as a 7 to the touch.
#5. Don had severe pain in his right knee, which he rated as a 10 when Dr. Fleishman pressed on a particularly tender spot.
#6. (Alternate #1). Miranda had lower back and hip pain, tender to the touch, which she rated as a 5.
For the test, Dr. Yuen was brought in and introduced to the five subjectsseated in front of him. He sat in a chair about five feet away. Each of theminformed Dr. Yuen of their problem and pain. The subjects were seated veryclose to each other—only about an inch apart, but he claimed it would notmatter and that he could heal each person individually. The subjects were numbered1-5 from left to right. All five were blindfolded using a Randi-approvedblindfold called the "Mindfold Relaxation Mask," that prevented the subjectsfrom knowing which one Dr. Yuen would be healing.
Dr. Yuen then selected a number from an envelope to determine which subjecthe would heal for that trial. By chance alone he then would have a 20percent probability of a match between his healing attempt and a blindfoldedsubject's reporting that they felt better. Of course, this protocol was not astight as we would have liked it to be, since it was entirely possible that moreor less than one each time would report a change, and that the change couldbe better or worse. But Dr. Yuen made it quite clear that he could isolate asingle patient, cause a reduction in pain, and that he could do this five out offive times. So that was the test we were running as a preliminary to try for themillion dollars.
Trial One. Mary, #1, reported a reduction in her lower back pain, from a4/5 to a 2, and Nadine, #3, reported a dramatic improvement in the numbnessin her fingers, from five seconds to the onset of symptoms in the pre-exam, to30 seconds in this trial, and the numbness was significantly less. Dr. Yuen hadselected Paula, #4, to work on. She reported no change at all and her painremained the same at 7. This ended the formal test since Dr. Yuen claimed hecould get five out of five, and he failed the first trial.
Excerpted from THE BORDERLANDS OF SCIENCE by MICHAEL SHERMER. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Shermer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Introduction: Blurry Lines and Fuzzy Sets: The Boundary Detection Problem in the Borderlands of Science||1|
|Pt. I||Borderlands Theories|
|1||The Knowledge Filter: Reality Must Take Precedence in the Search for Truth||37|
|2||Theories of Everything: Nonsense in the Name of Science||50|
|3||Only God Can Do That?: Cloning Tests the Moral Borderlands of Science||66|
|4||Blood, Sweat, and Fears: Racial Differences and What They Really Mean||80|
|5||The Paradox of the Paradigm: Punctuated Equilibrium and the Nature of Revolutionary Science||97|
|Pt. II||Borderlands People|
|6||The Day the Earth Moved: Copernicus's Heresy and Sulloway's Theory||129|
|7||Heretic-Personality: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Nature of Borderlands Science||159|
|8||A Scientist Among the Spiritualists: Crossing the Boundary from Science to Pseudoscience||179|
|9||Pedestals and Statues: Freud, Darwin, and the Hero-Myth in Science||199|
|10||The Exquisite Balance: Carl Sagan and the Difference Between Orthodoxy and Heresy in Science||215|
|Pt. III||Borderlands History|
|11||The Beautiful People Myth: Why the Grass is Always Greener in the Other Century||241|
|12||The Amadeus Myth: Mozart and the Myth of the Miracle of Genius||262|
|13||A Gentlemanly Arrangement: Science at its Best in the Great Evolution Priority Dispute||283|
|14||The Great Bone Hoax: Piltdown and the Self-Correcting Nature of Science||301|
|About the Author||353|
Posted May 20, 2001
Human beings have unlimited imaginations. Connect two things in time, and some people are likely to assume a cause-and-effect relationship. As a result, many beliefs are based on nothing more than coincidence. Since science is a fairly new human activity, many beliefs that are now established in science started as beliefs built on associations or thought experiments. Michael Shermer, publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine shows us the importance of that transition and how it is made. The book lacks the examples to completely establish its thesis, but will definitely give you new things to think about in the examples it does consider. The book is divided into three parts: Borderlands Theories; Borderlands People; and Borderlands History. A borderland of science is the mental space where there is some factual evidence that is evolving to pin down how or why the phenomena occur. But the pinning down isn't very far along. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a good example. It is based on nothing more than a belief that there is intelligent life in the universe which wants to communicate with us. The approach to listening has been evolving with scientific discipline that will improve. Until we 'hear' something though, it is hard for this activity to become mainstream science. Hypnosis is another good example of where science can explain some of the behavior (the 'hidden observer' phenomenon in the mind), but not all. This places hypnosis in the borderlands area. I thought that the borderlands concept was a valuable one, and was glad that I learned it. The book goes on to give you ten tests you can use to help establish whether a theory has anything to it. This list will probably save you from rushing off to follow some ideas that you happen to watch on a television show. In fact, the book is very good at explaining why much of what you see on television about phenomena makes no attempt to establish the scientific fact of or disprove the claims about what is going on. Our thinking can become sloppy. There is an excellent section on the connection between race and success in sports that will make you rethink everything that you ever thought you knew in this subject. Why is it that no one claims that the Chinese have a genetic advantage in playing ping-pong? Did you know that it was once reported that Jewish people had a genetic advantage in playing basketball? Nature, nurture, opportunities and incentives are well explained in this section. In the people section, you see how the psychological profiles of the scientists play a big role in how they pursue their work. Those who are very open to new ideas can get drawn off into nonsense if they are not careful. You will also learn a little about how birth order affects our willingness to accept or challenge existing scientific ideas. With too little openness, the plain truth can be missed. There is a detailed example of how Darwin's approach to natural selection was more successful than the work of his closest counterpart, Alfred Russel Wallace. I found the example to be a trifle extended for my taste. You will also get a look at why Copernicus was so revolutionary, and engendered such a strong reaction. Carl Sagan is explored and explained in a nicely balanced way that added to my understanding of the man. In the history section, the eco-terrorism of destroying the trees on Easter Island to move the statues is told as a cautionary tale of how we can create problems for ourselves if we are not far-sighted enough. Mr. Shermer also makes a good argument for making scientific debate into an opportunity for a plus-sum game (where everyone benefits) rather than a zero-sum game where only one scientist can win. The book ends on a humorous note as the Piltdown man hoax originally fools people, but is eventually exposed. We need discipline in our science or it can be as foolish as not using the scientific method. Although Mr. ShermerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 1, 2001
Computers operate from a 'switch-on, switch-off' binary system--an alternating 'either/or' series of ones and zeros. Scientific theories, however, should not be divided into only two categories. For, in addition to (1) NORMAL SCIENCE (theories that are considered, by the consensus of most scientists, as being 'solid') and (2) NONSCIENCE (theories that are considered, by the consensus of most scientists, as being 'mushy' pseudoscience or nonsense), a third category should be added: (3) BORDERLANDS SCIENCE ('fuzzy' theories concerning which the jury is still out). In this work on the philosophy and history of science, Michael Shermer, the founding publisher and editor-in-chief of SKEPTIC magazine (www.skeptic.com) and the Director of The Skeptics Society, provides a helpful chart describing three sets of scientific theories: * NORMAL SCIENCE. Heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, big bang cosmology, plate tectonics, neurophysiology of brain functions; punctuated equilibrium, sociobiology/evolutionary psychology, chaos and complexity theory, and intelligence and intelligence testing. * NONSCIENCE. Creationism, holocaust revisionism, remote viewing, astrology, Bible code, alien abductions, Big Foot, UFOs, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, and recovered memories. * BORDERLANDS SCIENCE. Superstring theory, inflationary cosmology, theories of consciousness, grand theories of economics (objectivism, socialism, etc.), SETI, hypnosis, chiropractic, acupuncture, cryonics, and Omega Point theory. Shermer wrote his doctoral dissertation on the life of work of Alfred Russel Wallace, codiscoverer (with Charles Darwin) of the theory of evolution by [the mechanism of] natural selection ('the survival of the fittest'). It is no surprise, then, that three chapters of Shermer's book deal with Wallace, and provide a case study of 'the boundary problem' in science. In his excellent rehabilitation of a man overshadowed by Darwin, Shermer describes Wallace as a 'heretic-scientist' and 'heretic-personality,' a person who embraced not only solid science (the theory of evolution) but also mushy pseudoscience (spiritualism and numerous paranormal oddities). Shermer's chapter on Carl Sagan is disappointing and his use of 'fuzzy' social science theories, while interesting, are unconvincing. He deconstructs 'The Beautiful People Myth' (nostalgia for an alleged Golden Age) and 'The Amadeus Myth' (the claim that geniuses are qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, different from the rest of us). Other investigations deal with cloning, racial differences, punctuated equilibrium, Copernicus's 'heretical' heliocentric theory, and 'The Hero Myth' (Sigmund Freud). A concluding chapter chronicles 'The Great Bone Hoax: Piltdown and the Self-Correcting Nature of Science.' How should one categorize Shermer's book of essays? Not according to a binary system, but according to a continuum: solid, mushy, and fuzzy. Although the essays are uneven in quality (concerning some, the jury is still out), all in all, THE BORDERLANDS OF SCIENCE is fascinating, thought-provoking, and provocative.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 25, 2009
No text was provided for this review.