At the Fringes of Science

Michael W. Friedlander
Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995
196 pp., $21.95 hc

William W. Locke
Earth Sciences

Scarcely a week passes without some reference in the popular or professional media to what might be described as "fringe" science--ranging from real breakthroughs to dubious findings to outright fraud. In At the Fringes of Science, Michael Friedlander examines case studies of several variants of fringe science.

The organization of the text seems somewhat awkward. Fringe science could have been differentiated into two categories, science and pseudoscience, and those categories further subdivided into revolutions and breakthroughs (science) and mistakes, misinterpretation, bias, and fraud (pseudoscience). A logical progression would be to follow such a classification, with examples to show the transitions from and overlap between the classes. Instead, Friedlander has written this book as a series of anecdotes documenting a variety of activities around the margins of generally accepted science. For example, after a preface and an introduction, he describes in Chapter 2 two classic cases of pseudoscience (Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision and the AD-X2 battery additive) and in Chapter 3 two relatively recent cases of proposed scientific revolutions (continental drift and cold fusion), one an actual revolution and the other apparently the product of misinterpretation and bias. Chapter 4 is devoted to the scientific method and Chapter 5 to the mechanics of science, with emphasis on the dissemination, rather than generation, of information. Both chapters are useful, but could have been more effectively located.

Chapter 6 returns to case studies of breakthrough ideas in earth sciences (Cretaceous/Tertiary extinctions) and physics (relativity, the fifth force, cosmology, and quantum mechanics). Chapter 7 is in some ways the most interesting, as it discusses activities which fall on the border between science and pseudoscience (polymeric water--"poly-water" and the effectiveness of infinitely diluted solutions). Chapters 8 through 11 descend into clear pseudoscience, including what Friedlander terms "Tabloid Science" (Chapter 8--Astrology, the "Jupiter Effect" and the incorrectly predicted 1990 New Madrid, Missouri, earthquake, and UFO's); "Pscience" (Chapter 9--the paranormal); deliberate fraud (Chapter 10--Burt's work on intelligence, N-rays, several cases of documented medical fraud, and two unresolved cases, including that of O'Toole, Imanishi-Kari, and Baltimore); and politicized pseudoscience; (Chapter 11--Lysenkoism, Aryan physics, and creation "science"). In Chapter 10 a brief mention is made of massaging of data (Millikan and the charge on the electron)--a severe shortchanging of one of the most invidious forms of fringe science.

The book closes with a summary chapter and some advice in responding to fringe science (Chapters 12 and 13). The summaries in Chapter 12 (162-163) of six pathologies of science (from Irving Langmuir), seven symptoms of pseudoscience (from Mario Bunge) and five evidences of paranoid tendencies among pseudoscientists (from Martin Gardner) are especially interesting, and would have been useful in the reading of the book had they be presented at the beginning, rather than the end. The final chapter, on responding to fringe science, is clearly aimed at a scientific audience which the book in general is not. In it Friedlander speaks of attacks on, and remedies for, fringe science. He does not explicitly recognize that, for the media, fringe science is a form of marketing and entertainment in some ways akin to pornography--having no redeeming social importance but attracting attention regardless. Veracity is not an issue of primary importance to the media, thus it is not likely that a war against fringe science can ever be won.

Obvious errors in the text are few and my recognition of them conditioned on my own technical background. Friedlander describes one of the premier journals in the earth sciences as the Journal of Geological Research (53), when it is actually the Journal of Geo-physical Research. Coverage of geological controversies is spotty. The discussion of Cretaceous/Tertiary extinctions through meteorite impact includes mention and brief discussion of the dominant competing hypothesis, which invokes extensive volcanic activity as a cause for environmental change, thus extinction. In contrast, Wegener's hypothesis of continental drift (Chapters 3 and 12), which proposed that the continents had once been joined and had drifted apart on a stationary mantle and through a weak, deforming sea floor, is incorrectly described as a successful revolution. Wegener's proposed mechanism was soundly disproved in theory by Jeffreys and empirically by Hess, Vine, and others. The anomalies (cf. 41) of continental shape noted by Wegener and Bacon before him and of rock and fossil similarities across ocean basins compiled by Du Toil are explained in the current paradigm--"Plate Tectonics"--through an entirely different mechanism, that of sea-floor spreading. Thus the Plate Tectonics revolution evolved from the incorrect Continental Drift hypothesis. This example may be one of the best in the book is displaying how science really works!

The greatest weakness of this book may lie in a fuzzy definition of science. Although Friedlander uses this word and variants, both positive and negative (e.g., pseudoscience) over 80 times in the four-page preface alone, he does not clearly define it anywhere in the book. In Chapter 4, on science and its practice, he defines the scientific method in a cursory fashion (with no reference to T. C. Chamberlin or G. K. Gilbert). Although he deals well with the concept of negation or falsification, it is clear that Friedlander himself believes in positivism, or proof. He speaks of "the burden of proof" (46), and of "support" for ideas (169), and he emphasizes credibility (throughout, especially Chapter 5). It is true that some scientific theories result from compilation of supporting evidence to the point where a hypothesis is considered "proven." An example might be the astronomical theory of glaciation (the Milankovitch Hypothesis). The weight of evidence (continuous cores of ocean sediments showing changes in O18/O16 ratios, indicative of global ice volume, with periodicities statistically identical to those of the Earth's orbital parameters) effectively proves the hypothesis, for which no adequate test has yet been devised. However, science should usually be a process of constructive distrust, not selective trust. Generally, trust should arise from the temporary inability to test a hypothesis. When technology provides the means, trust should be replaced by skepticism.

The greatest strength of this book is in its wealth of examples of scientific controversy and its resolution, including not only the major ones listed above but minor ones as well. The book would serve as an excellent foundation for a seminar on science, especially if more detailed investigation of the examples was required (see the discussion above regarding continental drift). Those who purchase this book might want to tab or index those examples of unsuccessful science which arose from the limitations of available technology, from honest machine or human error, from defensible misinterpretation, from unrecognized assumptions, from biases (personal, religious, and/or political), and from deliberate fraud. On a clearly nit-picky note, I wish that the difference between real science and non-science had been emphasized in the text by the use of quotation marks to denote non-science (e.g., Creation "science", politicized "science"). Even allowing unwitting abuse of the term confuses the general public by equating science and non-science. For example: Creation "science" is not science--it is religion, pure and simple. It is based on faith, not distrust. [Note that creationism may be correct. We have no way to disprove the activities of a creator--that the Universe was created 20 billion years ago in the Big Bang, or 6000 years ago (or ten minutes ago, for that matter) complete with light from distant galaxies, fossil assemblages, and human memories. These hypotheses are simply untestable. The fact that physics, chemistry, biology, and geology agree on the general chronology of the universe, solar system, and Earth merely makes the logic on which those disciplines are based an attractive one to follow.]

Humans seem to be, in general, poorly suited for the practice of science (only Vulcans should apply!). We are better suited to sales, the most common human practice. Because of a human inability to articulate more than a single ("most-favored") working hypothesis, a tendency towards self-aggrandizement rather than self-abnegation, and a desire to gain fame and fortune rather than simply appear as a cog in the great machine of science, there will always be unwarranted assumptions, massaging of data, and outright fraud in all fields of science. Learning the lessons of these case studies, applying the principles of the scientific method, and debunking "scientific" charlatans using the keys from Chapter 12 will serve us well, both individually and collectively. However, perhaps the best lesson to learn from this compilation is that a sense of humor and perspective where science is concerned will serve us even better.

Contents | Home