22 June 2007

Martin Gardner - Did Adam and Eve have navels?

Martin Gardner is a veteran American science writer - very veteran, as he's 93 this year, and this book was published only 7 years ago. He's notable for popularising mathematics, and also for 'debunking pseudoscience', which is the subtitle of this book. In addition he's published The Annotated Alice, so has a wide range of interests and competence.

This book also has a wide range, being articles written for Skeptical Enquirer, the magazine of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), co-founded by Gardner and the magician and fraud-buster James Randi, among others. Targets include Creationism, Intelligent Design, UFOs, Urine Therapy, Homeopathy and other pseudo-medicines, Freud and numerology. I say 'targets', but Gardner is actually remarkably soft, and makes few strikes.

His style is to list the attributes of each 'pseudoscience', the practitioners, and some history, to use a few quotes and then leave it, as if just presenting the facts on the page condemns them. Occasionally he'll say that a theory is preposterous, but he almost never says why. This is very frustrating, given so many of his subjects are open goals for a knowledgeable scientist who knows about empirical methods. I'd hoped that the book would be more like the excellent Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, but too often it disappointed. Perhaps Gardner was always like this, or perhaps, like Alistair Cooke, he's lost his bite in his dotage. Never mind, there are tips in here towards further reading, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who I've neglected until now (but then, I haven't even read any Dawkins yet)

Bad Science



woodscolt said...

Stephen Jay Gould is excellent - most of what I know about biology I know from him. There's a link on my blog to a very good archive of his work (including a lot of the Dawkins-Gould dispute about the nature of evolution and the importance of natural selection) but possibly the one I'd recommend most is The Mismeasure of Man which is about attempts to measure human intelligence - from skull size and phrenology onwards - and to what extent intelligence is a culturally detrrmined thing rather than a scientifically measurable quality. But all his books that I've read have been good - most of them are collections of his essays from Natural History and therefore very good for short commutes.

Phil said...

I only have Leonardo's Mountain of Clams, given to me for my birthday 7 years ago. Need to read the Selfish Gene first.