We think of scientists as sober, precise thinkers, but they can be wildly off the mark. Consider cold fusion, N-rays, or polywater--three "discoveries" that turned out to be complete nonsense. But serious scientists somehow convinced themselves that they were real.
In The Undergrowth of Science, Walter Gratzer recounts the blind alleys that honest, dedicated researchers have wandered down--and had to be dragged out of by more cool-headed colleagues. Self-deception runs through each of Gratzer's many examples, a distressing if sometimes hilarious theme. We meet the American researchers who convinced themselves that memories were captured in RNA molecules; if extracts from the brains of trained rats were injected into the untrained, they argued, the knowledge was passed along. Gratzer also describes the group of serious scientists took up the cause of Uri Geller and assorted 11-year-old children who claimed to have the power to bend spoons with their minds--but only if the observers wanted them to succeed. When less biased researchers saw the children slyly bending the cutlery with their feet, their scientific defenders voiced outrage at the unfairness of the test. Politics sometimes plays a role as well, as it did when the U.S. government spent millions looking into the strange and miraculous Soviet invention of polywater. It turned out to be normal water contaminated with silicates.
Gratzer guides us through the rogue's gallery of false discoveries, from mitogenic radiation to the recent (and infamous) cold fusion. Informative and entertaining, yet with a serious point to make, this book offers much insight into why good science sometimes goes bad.
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Unfortunately for debunkers like the Amazing Randi, the distinction between science and pseudoscience can get a bit fuzzy. Biophysicist Walter Gratzer pokes gently through the mulch of dead ideas in The Undergrowth of Science, a smart, witty collection of cautionary research tales. Some are widely familiar, like his long chapter on the Soviet politicization of genetics, while others have been examined less minutely--does anyone remember the horror of menstrual toxins? Gratzer treats his subjects warmly, for the most part, while reserving some venom for the foolishness and evil of Nazi eugenics and other racist and nationalist visions of the world.
The book asks its readers to adopt a sophisticated skepticism, one that won't accept polywater or memory transfer with zeal but also won't rigorously reject continental drift or other crazy-but-correct ideas. Of course, Gratzer acknowledges that it's easiest to be skeptical with perfect hindsight, but by building on Langmuir's rules for recognizing "pathological science," he hopes to establish a more thoughtful scientific readership. While some scientists would just as soon see any reference to travesties like cold fusion go down the memory hole, The Undergrowth of Science reminds us to learn from our mistakes. --Rob LightnerAbout the Author:
Walter Gratzer is a biophysicist at the Randall Institute, King's College London. He is known to a wide readership through his book reviews, which appear regularly in Nature. His books include the Longman Literary Companion to Science and The Bedside Nature.
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