THE BORDERLANDS OF SCIENCE: Where Sense Meets Nonsense
Superstring theory is one of the latest inhabitants of what Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things, etc.), editor of Skeptic magazine, calls the "borderlands" of science: that is, ideas that fall somewhere between established, likely explanations for reality (or some small part thereof) and pseudoscientific claims (e.g., remote viewing or alien abduction). A 10-point "boundary detection kit" helps readers determine the credibility of new scientific claims; for example, "Does this source often make similar claims?" (i.e., is he or she a publicity seeker or a crank) and "Has anyone... gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only confirmatory evidence been sought?" His treatment of Carl Sagan, fearless navigator of scientific borderlands, is stellar, as is his chapter on racial differences, where he debunks the prevalent notion that black people are better at sports than at managing. Other chapters are less successful. In attacking Freud's "blustering ego," Shermer disregards how Freud's theories in their heyday helped many people. And throughout, he portrays Darwin as the perfect scientist, succumbing to the heroizing syndrome that he criticizes in others. At times, Shermer seems like a determined gadfly buzzing at the clay feet of figures and ideas he wants to chisel down to size, but his wings end up looking pretty bruised. Still, in spite of occasional ultraviolet prose, the book provides grist for the mill of thought and debate. (July)
Forecast:Shermer's Skeptic reputation should help this outsell the similar Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction, by Charles M. Wynn and Arthur W. Wiggins (Forecasts, May 21).