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Science Friction:
Where the Known Meets the Unknown

by Michael Shermer

Times Books, 2005

283 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

This book comprises a collection of fourteen essays which examines the beliefs and biases of scientists and skeptics in their attempt to distinguish between fact and fiction. Shermer explains the importance of not knowing and acknowledging one's own ignorance. He understands how easily people get fooled. Instead of putting a superstitious explanation to the unknown, or assigning what one wishes (confirmation bias), Shermer suggests waiting for the evidence, and to find out what really does work for an explanation. He illustrates this best with his first-person accounting of a Psychic for a Day where he poses as an astrologer, tarot card reader, palm reader, and psychic medium talking to the dead. He easily convinced people that he had the "power." This appeared on one of Bill Nye's ("the science guy") television episodes.

Shermer also sketches the foundation of the skeptical movement from Paul Kurtz, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, James Randi, and of course, himself, which he modestly keeps at a minimum but which I consider perhaps the most influential of them all (considering his directorship of the Skeptics Society, the magazine Skeptic, and his numerous articles, books, and speaking engagements).

If you like to argue with creationists, you might want to ask him (or her) which kind of creationist they represent. Just like any belief system based on the supernatural with their varying sects and denominations, so do creationists fall into several 'sects'. Shermer outlines the evolution of creationism from old Biblical creationism , the New New Creationism, and to the rise of intelligent design theory. He lists 10 types of creationist arguments and briefly refutes them all. This list alone makes the book valuable for reference sake.

The essays cover a wide range of interests, too many to cover here, but some of the topics he covers include: a Star Trek episode, visual illusions, lots of evolution stuff, the "Bright" movement, Roger Bacon, Darwin, William Bligh and the mutiny on the Bounty, Laplace's Demon, history of the typewriter (QWERTY), chaos and self-organization, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and contingent-necessity.

If you like to think or to have your beliefs challenged, then you will find this book compelling.

A few quotes from the book:

"For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced." (Frances Bacon)

As an attorney for the prosecution it doesn't matter if silicone actually causes disease, it only matters if you can convince a jury that it does. Science, by contrast, attempts to answer questions about the way the world really works.

Evidence is mounting, however, in support of the fact that evolution is purposeless (and designless as well, at least from the top down-- evolution is a bottom-up designer)...

Perhaps the closest fit for skeptic is "a seeker after truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite convictions." Skepticism is not "seek and ye shall find"-- a classic case of what is called the confirmation bias in cognitive psychology-- but "seek and keep an open mind."

All revolutions in science stem from heretics and skeptics...

If you are going to claim the Bible as your primary (or only) code of ethics, and proclaim (say) that homosexuality is sinful and wrong because the Bible says so, then to be consistent you've got to kill rebellious youth and nonvirginal premarried women.

What we really need is a new set of morals and an ethical system designed for our time and place, not one scripted for a pastoral/agricultural people who lived four thousand years ago.

The Enlightenment, on one level, was a century-long skeptical movement, for there were no beliefs or institutions that did not come under the critical scrutiny of such thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Locke, Jefferson, and many others.

Instead of the rhetoric and disputation of theology, there were the logic of probabilities of science. What a difference this difference in thinking makes!

Herein lies an important lesson. There is little to no chance that we can convince True Believers of the errors of their thinking.

There are many reasons why people believe weird things, but certainly one of the most pervasive is that most people have never heard a good explanation for the weird things they hear or read about.

"[I]f there are any lessons to be learned from history, it is that we should be skeptical of all points of view, including those of the skeptics. No one is infallible, and no one can claim a monopoly on truth or virtue. It would be contradictory for skepticism to seek to translate itself into a new faith. One must view with caution the promises of any new secular priest who might emerge promising a brave new world-- if only his path to clarity and truth is followed. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to temper the intemperate and to tame the perverse temptation that lurks within." (Paul Kurtz, from The Transcendental Temptation)

As the Roman poet Lucretius mused, nothing yet from nothing ever came.

Indeed, anthropologists estimate that over the past ten thousand years humans have created roughly ten thousand different religions.

Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. So too is history. . . or at least it should be.

In any case, truth in science is not determined vox populi. It does not matter whether 99 percent or 1 percent of the public believes a scientific theory-- a scientific theory stands or falls on evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution.

Water is a emergent property of a particular arrangement of hydrogen and oxygen molecules, just as consciousness is a self-organized emergent property of billions of neurons. The entire evolution of life can be explained through these principles.


Introduction: Why Not Knowing
I / Science and the Virtues of Not Knowing
1. Psychic for a Day
2. The Big "Bright" Brouhaha
3. Heresies of Science
4. The Virtues of Skepticism
II / Science and the Meaning of Body, Mind, and Spirit
5. Spin-Doctoring Science
6. Psyched Up, Psyched Out
7. Shadowlands
III / Science and the (Re)Writing of History
8. Darwin on the Bounty
9. Exorcising Laplace's Demon
10. What If?
11. The New New Creationism
12. History's Heretics
IV / Science and the Cult of Visionaries
13. The Hero on the Edge of Forever
14. This View of Science

To obtain this book, click below:

Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown

Other books by Michael Shermer:

The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (hardback)

How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, 1999 (hardback) (cassette [abridged])

Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, 1997 (hardback), (cassette [abridged])

Teach Your Child Science : Making Science Fun for the Both of You, 1995 (paperback)