Controversy and a large pinch of salt

At the Fringes of Science
September 15, 1995

Where does science end and science fiction begin? Most physicists will answer this question within fairly tight limits. Non-scientists tend to have a much wider "grey" area. The author of this book is a professor of physics at an American university who attempts to put the record straight for the non-scientist reader, on such controversial matters as cold fusion, homeopathy, extra-sensory perception, UFOs and similar topics.

Unfortunately he does not seem to be aware of a body of human beings called "engineers", for the word does not appear in the entire book. Faraday is never mentioned, nor, perhaps even more surprisingly, his fellow countryman, by adoption, Nikola Tesla, who dabbled at the fringes of science more than most. In his preface he admits: "As my own approach is distinctly skeptical I" My own conclusions are that it is a good deal more than that. In his opening chapter he suggests "the application of a healthy dose of skepticism when we are confronted with extraordinary claims". This theme continues throughout the book.

Of course, he never attempts to define "healthy", but he does pretend that he is going to clear the air by defining "the scientific method". But having done so, he qualifies it with: "Ask a scientist to define science and the scientific method, and you will probably get a description that is correct as far as it goes but most likely very incomplete."

I find this strange since he then confesses to having read Sir Peter Medawar's delightful book Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (1963), in which appears a similar sentence: "Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed; solemn because he feels he ought to declare an opinion, shifty-eyed, because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare."

Not only is this a better description of the state of play in science, it describes this author perfectly. He reminds me of a 1960s author who wrote: "No doubt a more careful study of the facts in this case will reveal that, to the relief of us all, basic science remains inviolate." And on the subject of ESP he quotes John Taylor as saying: "On the evidence presented in this book, science has won." You can almost hear Michael Friedlander whisper under his breath: "Thank God."

Yet one does not have to agree with an author's views to enjoy his book. This book is well written and easily readable, even by what he condescendingly refers to as "a gullible public". It is full of interesting case histories. Besides, is it not part of the pleasure of reading an expert's book to disagree with the expert?

In discussing the importance of peer reviews in reputable journals he cites the case of two Japanese physicists reported in Physical Review Letters who claimed a change in weight in a precessing gyroscope. He says: "If correct, this is the closest that we have yet come to a demonstration of anti-gravity. Their paper survived refereeing; there were no obvious flaws, although there were doubts." He goes on to justify the publication since it created wider interest and was finally shown to be in error. He concludes: "The scientific method worked well." What he missed was the fact that any average graduate in mechanical engineering could have seen that it was not worth the paper it was written on, after only a quick scan through it.

Nevertheless, At the Fringes of Science is a very good book, one to enjoy as well as to disagree with. The subject matter is of great interest to most of us.

Eric Laithwaite is emeritus professor of engineering, Imperial College, London, and visiting professor, University of Sussex.

At the Fringes of Science

Author - Michael W. Friedlander
ISBN - 0 8133 2200 6
Publisher - Westview
Price - £17.00
Pages - 196

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