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SCIENCE UNDER SIEGEDEFENDING SCIENCE, EXPOSING PSEUDOSCIENCE
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2009 Kendrick Frazier
All right reserved.
IntroductionScience, reason, and rationality have, by nearly any recent measure, suffered serious diminishment in the public sphere. When asked, people say they like and admire science (and I think they do), but the evidence also shows that they don't know much about it and they poorly understand and appreciate the methods science uses to pursue the truth about nature. This dual conclusion has been repeatedly confirmed in the broad Science and Engineering Indicators surveys carried out biennially for the National Science Board / National Science Foundation, most recently in 2008. The same surveys, and others by private polling agencies, have consistently found that belief in paranormal phenomena, including extrasensory perception and alien visitations, is fairly widespread. Disbelief in evolution is notoriously widespread in America, so much so that among thirty-four nations of the world the United States ranks second from last (only to Turkey) in acceptance of evolution. And, worse, many findings of science are under attack from a wide variety of social, political, and cultural forces. These forces selectively dismiss, deny, denigrate, and distort legitimate results of scientific research they construe as unwelcome or uncomfortable.
Science engages in robust internaldebate about all new findings and is always open to new evidence. Discovering new evidence about nature is what science is all about. But debates in the public that concern science rarely involve the actual scientific content and frequently caricaturize and stereotype both scientists and the scientific process. In the public arena partisans increasingly misuse or misrepresent the science. This distorts the democratic process and leads to poorly informed decision making. And that is dangerous in our increasingly complex and challenging world.
Some of these problems are due to antiscience sentiments, some to strong ideological or cultural agendas that seemingly require ignoring or dismissing unwanted scientific results. Some appear more to be a troubling indifference to science. This is true even at the highest levels of leadership. Last year's exhausting presidential campaigns in the United States saw the candidates in endless debates and media appearances. Yet crucial issues involving science and technology were scarcely mentioned. When a debate on issues of science and technology was formally proposed to the candidates, they ignored the request, despite the fact that science and technology profoundly shape the future. And despite the fact that virtually all the nation's scientific leaders, including dozens of Nobel laureates and every major scientific society, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, had signed the requesting petition. Is this a troubling measure of how science has faded in the public consciousness? It is hard to think otherwise.
In his first several months in office, President Barack Obama clearly reversed some of these trends, at least at the top levels of government. His inaugural address promise to "restore science to its rightful place," his appointment of widely respected scientists to head science-related agencies, his repeal of the previous administration's restrictions on stem-cell research, and his vow to base decisions on the best scientific evidence rather than ideology have cheered scientists and rationalists. But unless and until these welcome attitudes trickle down and permeate through the general culture, which might happen only slowly at best, the problems remain.
And then there is pseudoscience, that perennial dark shadow of science, where scientific pretenders co-opt and apply science's reputation and goodwill to all manner of bizarre ideas, theories, and devices unsupported by any real scientific findings. Here scientific illiteracy again comes into play, both on the creating and consuming ends of the matter. Motivations may range all the way from (to be generous) an honest desire to break new scientific ground and make important advances (without understanding how to go about that) to achieving personal gain and wealth or political/cultural influence and power, and everything in between. It can be fairly innocuous or deeply pernicious. Pseudoscience is, to me, always disconcerting yet endlessly fascinating, in that it continually morphs into new disguises, popping up unexpectedly in new forms and new ways with new language, all seeking to confuse the public into thinking that this time, this one's the real deal.
Science Under Siege addresses a wide range of these issues. It is a timely new exploration of important public issues both within science and along its borderlands. I have selected the subjects for their significance, relevance, interest, and timeliness in today's scientific, political, social, and cultural debates. Some, I think you will find, are as timely as today's headlines. And many of them are darned good reading.
For more than thirty years the Skeptical Inquirer, which it has been my pleasure to edit, has steadfastly championed science and reason and been the leading voice for reliable scientific examination of all manner of questionable claims popularized by the media and mass culture. These articles originally appeared in its pages, most in the past five years, and many of them provoked widespread response and comment and controversy. A few have been slightly updated. Most stand fine on their own. All of them, it seems to me, have something important to say.
My hope is that this publication in book form will help bring these particular articles to an audience well beyond SI's loyal readers: scientists and scholars in all fields, educators and teachers, students and inquirers at all levels, and citizens who long for scientifically reliable information in what has regrettably become an age of misinformation. I think they will be of interest to everyone concerned about the place of science in society, the way science works in unraveling the best evidence about nature (and eventually discarding unsupported evidence), and the damage done by those who distort this process. They have much to say about the public perception (and misperception) of science and how its findings get misunderstood and misstated to fit different ends. I strongly feel that science and its unique, time-tested methods at getting at the truth are not just a part of the noble human quest to understand, but a crucial aspect of a democratic society. Good citizenship, it seems to me, requires some understanding and support of science and its methods.
The introductory section focuses on Science and Skeptical Inquiry and our culture's apparent recent turning away from science and reason. I begin it with Paul Kurtz's expansive review of thirty years of the Skeptical Inquirer. I hope readers will forgive any slight self-indulgence in this regard. The point here is not what SI has done but what the so-called skeptical movement has investigated and accomplished over those three decades. Valuable historical perspective comes from learning of, or recalling, the battles and investigations that have preceded most of those published in this anthology. Back in the mid-1970s the modern organized skeptical movement began, and our pages became the focus for publication of evidence-based skeptical investigation into, first, paranormal, fringe-scientific, and pseudoscientific claims, then, more broadly, any and all controversial or questionable claims having some scientific component. It is all rather extraordinary. Carl Sagan's final question-and-answer session on science and scientific inquiry, published here for the first time in book form, likewise discusses a wide range of such issues in the easy, clear-thinking style that made the late astronomer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author so popular. Ann Druyan adds her own poignant and stirring postscript, "The Great Turning Away." She then continues on with her beautifully expressed "Science, Religion, Wonder, and Awe," an ode to science and discovery, including a brief look at religion in the context of science. Chris Mooney portrays some aspects of the recent Bush administration's war on science. (We are nonpartisan. All governments try to some degree to bend science to their own ends, but it is well documented that the past administration's efforts were particularly egregious; we will be interested in applying similar analyses to the new administration, and future ones.) And questions such as "can the sciences help us make wise ethical decisions?" and "do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?" are explored. And a fallacy often committed by well-meaning skeptics, especially physical scientists, is enunciated- attempting to explain some proclaimed unusual phenomenon in natural terms before one knows there is a real phenomenon to explain.
The second section is on Critical Inquiry and Public Controversies. Here controversies abound-controversies about almost everything imaginable. Almost all still reverberate through the daily news and other currents of culture. Most in some way involve our best current understandings of science, opposed by intense-often very intense-advocates of other, contrary specific interests. The continuing assaults on evolution are the subject of the first five chapters. Creationists and intelligent design advocates attack this basic unifying principle of science from every quarter possible-but especially by well-funded propagandistic distortion tactics and getting supporters onto local school boards as well as local and regional governments. This, despite a landmark, decisive, and marvelously well-written 2005 federal court ruling by US District Judge John E. Jones III (included here) that ID is not science and that including it in the science classroom is unconstitutional. (Previous court decisions have said the same thing of creationism itself.) Philosopher Barbara Forrest recounts her experience testifying in that trial and exposing the IDers' now notorious "wedge" and "vise" strategies. Charles Sullivan and Cameron McPherson Smith describe four common myths about evolution (among ten in their subsequently published book) that creationists (and others merely misinformed) constantly spread. It seems clear that evolution has become the most willfully misunderstood and abused core explanatory scientific principle in all of modern science. In "Only a Theory?" David Morrison examines one of those myths of syntactical misperception, one that evolution's opponents gleefully exploit to frame the issue to their advantage.
Another controversy explored is global climate change and the denial of global warming. This article, although it was merely attempting to summarize what climate scientists had been saying for some time, surprisingly provoked an intense critical reaction from libertarian-leaning readers, prompting author and NASA scientist Stuart Jordan to add a thoughtful follow-up essay (also included here), "The Global Warming Debate: Science and Scientists in a Democracy." Other chapters explore AIDS denialism, the anti-vaccination movement, terrorism against animal researchers, and the memory wars, in which claims of repressed memories unleashed under suggestive hypnosis have resulted in false accusations of wrongdoing. The latter is by Martin Gardner, a national treasure. Gardner has been writing about science and pseudoscience for nearly sixty years, beginning with his classic (and still relevant and recommended) 1952 book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, and continuing through his years as a Scientific American and then Skeptical Inquirer columnist and now occasional SI contributor.
An especially provocative chapter by planetary scientists Clark Chapman and Alan Harris argues that Americans overreacted to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and that this misjudgment is rooted in our innate difficulty in rationally assessing risks. This article first appeared one year after 9/11 when nerves were still raw and fears of more attacks still strong. Many respondents felt the authors underplayed the real continuing risks and otherwise failed to give justice to understandable fears. But the authors now say they believe subsequent events only reinforce and strengthen their original conclusions. Even the noted MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who originally criticized the authors in our pages, here in a brief postscript for this volume, moderates his criticisms in the perspective of events over the ensuing seven years. Still another chapter, by investigator and SI managing editor Ben Radford, presents evidence that fears of sexual predators abducting our children are likewise highly exaggerated. And another, by energy recycling expert Thomas R. Casten shows-contrary to our intuition-why decentralized generation of electricity is far more efficient than our current centralized methods and could also save vast amounts of energy.
A third section-Understanding Pseudoscience, Investigating Claims-begins with a thoughtful exploration by philosopher of science and physicist Mario Bunge contrasting the philosophies behind science and pseudoscience. It may come as a surprise that pseudoscience has a philosophy. It does, Bunge notes; it is just "orthogonal" to that of science. I have led off this section with Bunge's chapter because I think it is powerfully explanatory. It provides a comprehensive, intellectual, philosophical, explanatory framework for virtually every issue we address in this volume and in the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer. Bunge notes that every intellectual endeavor, "whether authentic or bogus," has an underlying philosophy. Science has at least six philosophical underpinnings and four other distinguishing features. Pseudoscience has its own set. The philosophies of the two just happen to be perpendicular to each other. For example, the demanding ethics of science do not tolerate the self-deceptions and frauds that plague pseudoscience. Bunge also has some pungent takes on specific fields: psychoanalysis, computationist psychology, quantum theory, string theory, and "pockets of pseudoscience ensconced in the sciences." (These provoked much subsequent comment and controversy.)
Section three then goes on to present a series of scientific examinations of specific cases of bad science, fringe-science, or pseudoscience. The first of these is a highly questionable study, unfortunately published in a medical journal and widely reported in the news media, claiming to find effects of prayer on pregnancy. Physician/investigator Bruce Flamm became suspicious and honed in on this pray-for-pregnancy "miracle" study. He found and publicly revealed so many flaws and questions that the lead author, a department chairman at Columbia University, eventually renounced his connection to the study. Another author, the man who allegedly designed and conducted the study, was eventually convicted of fraud (on other matters) and went to prison. The most troubling aspect, apart from the fact that the journal that published the study never retracted it (and so it still stands in the scientific literature, open to citation in support of its supposed findings), was that the authors never provided Flamm (or anyone else, so far as is known) any of their original data for examination. This is a no-no in science, where data are supposed to be open to examination and testing by outside researchers. In fact, the authors never provided evidence to allay concerns that their much-ballyhooed international study was even actually carried out. It seems relevant to note that the author who pleaded guilty to fraud had earlier published a series of much-publicized studies making pro-paranormal claims about "therapeutic touch," human energy fields, miraculous cures, and so on. But the pray-for-pregnancy study was the first to have the imprimatur of establishment science, if only temporarily. Now all those other studies are likewise suspect.
Also included here is physician Harriet Hall's amused/bemused examination of psychology professor Gary Schwartz's claims of "energy healing." (This is just the latest of outlandish claims the good professor has advanced, never seeming to revise his claims in response to strong critiques they inevitably draw from fellow scientists.) We also include two up-to-date examinations of "anomalous cognition," the latest euphemism for psi powers. One is by a young cognitive neuroscientist, Amir Raz, the second by veteran constructive critic of parapsychology, psychologist Ray Hyman. They complement each other nicely.
Excerpted from SCIENCE UNDER SIEGE Copyright © 2009 by Kendrick Frazier. Excerpted by permission.
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