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Quantum Leaps in the Wrong DirectionBook review

by Charles M. Wynn and Arthur W. Wiggins
(Cartoons by Sidney Harris)

There is an old cliché saying about the curate's egg – it was good in parts. This book is like that.

The first part of the book is very good, and gives a plain and easy-to-understand explanation of the scientific method and what it means to say that something is science based on reality or pseudoscience based on faith or magic. The problems arise when the authors start talking about specific examples of pseudoscience. They state that there are five major areas where false beliefs have been elevated to the status of science – UFOs and alien abductions, out-of-body experiences and astral travel, astrology, creationism, and paranormal phenomena such as telekenesis and ESP.

I don't particularly like their choice of issues (I think astral travel is a joke, whereas medical quackery is a pseudoscience which can do real harm) but it is always the prerogative of authors to write about what interests them. My real disappointment comes from the way the issues are addressed. Had each of these different areas been treated in a logical manner by first describing the beliefs and then offering evidence against them then the book would have been more useful in pointing out the consistent inconsistencies in these magical beliefs. Instead we get anecdotes and brief looks at other idiocies (palmistry and tarot are only tenuously related to astrology, for example) so that the point gets lost. That point is that statements of fact require evidence of fact.

The last part of the book is a collection of unrelated and disconnected references to various other forms of crazy beliefs, where what is really needed is a summary of what has gone before. In fact, the last part of the book looks like something that was added to get the number of words up. (This criticism is not unique to this book – two of the modern classics about rational thinking, Michael Shermer's "Why We Believe Weird Things" and Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World" have final chapters which look suspiciously like padding.) I have the feeling that the first two chapters were written as magazine articles and then someone said "Let's make a book out of this".

I may have been overly critical of this book because I read it immediately after finishing "Voodoo Science" by Robert Park. It is not a bad book, just not as good as it could be. I would still recommend it as an introduction to the scientific examination of unscientific ideas. The tools are there and the silly ideas to be examined are there. You just have to do a bit of work to bring them together.

Copyright © 1998- Peter Bowditch

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