|Yes, We Have No Neutrons: An Eye-Opening Tour through
the Twists and Turns of Bad Science|
Another Dave Langford review.
In accordance with its subtitle, Dewdney's lively book deals not with fraudulent science -- intended to deceive others -- but bad science, whose practitioners have managed to deceive themselves. His paradigm case is cold fusion; hence the title. Following a relentlessly jolly introduction, this and seven other examples are allotted a chapter apiece.
The first three are thuddingly familiar from sceptical texts. French physicist Prosper Blondlot's delusions about invisible N-rays have been frequently written up, although Dewdney has done his research and adds some novel (to me) bits from the original debunker Robert W. Wood's damning report to Nature.
Next comes a vigorous bash at IQ testing, as extensively covered in Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (duly credited). Again, new material appears. One test inflicted on US inner-city kids requested the missing word: "When a dove begins to associate with crows, its feathers remain _____, but its heart grows black." Think about that, but not too hard.
Chapter 3 attacks Freud's notorious lack of scientific rigour. Chapter 4 puts the boot into the admittedly rather silly Drake equation which is supposed to estimate the number of radio-emitting civilizations in our galaxy. By way of non-sequitur, Dewdney goes on to sneer at SETI in general ... a gamble which might still offer a more interesting payoff than the National Lottery.
The next topic is closer to our author's heart (he being a maths and computer-science man): the overselling of neural-net systems as a universal solvent for computational problems. Pausing only for a sideswipe at perceptrons, Dewdney gives an excellent condensed explanation of the issues and gleefully points out how far actual systems' performance falls short of the hype.
That well-worn cold fusion saga occupies Chapter 6: been there, done that, got several book-length accounts. Chapter 7 refreshingly exposes the scientific illiteracy of Biosphere 2 and its hopelessly inadequate provision for multiple ecologies ... 15-30% of included species died out, but cockroaches were doing fine. Chapter 8 -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- debunks J. Philippe Rushton's dodgy theories about inherent racial IQ differences, as rehashed in the notorious The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994).
Yes, We Have No Neutrons reads well and would make a fine entry-level book for anyone interested in pathological science. Sceptics familiar with existing literature should wait for the paperback.
|First published in The Skeptic vol 11 #2, 1997.|
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