Science under Siege

A new book, Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience addresses many of the issues near and dear to the hearts of SBM bloggers and readers. A compilation of some of the best writing from the last few years of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it’s not only good reading but can serve as a useful reference.

Skeptical Inquirer is the official magazine of what was formerly called The Committee for the Skeptical Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was formed in 1976 and in its early days it concentrated on things like Bigfoot, UFOs and psychics. It has morphed into the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the magazine is now described on its cover as “The Magazine for Science and Reason.” It has gone way beyond paranormal claims to address everything from intelligent design to AIDS denial. In the 3 decades of its existence it has performed an invaluable service by investigating alleged phenomena and testing claims scientifically, providing natural explanations for weird observations, refuting pseudoscientific arguments, and teaching people how science works and how to think critically.

We now have many skeptical magazines, including Michael Shermer’s Skeptic in the US and similarly named publications in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. But Skeptical Inquirerwas the first. It was the trailblazer and set the standard.

The word “skeptic” has negative connotations for some. But it is really a positive, inquisitive, reality-based approach to all aspects of life. A skeptic is a person who asks for evidence before accepting a belief and who asks if there could be another explanation other than the first one that is offered. Scientists are skeptics. Skeptics think scientifically.

As a longtime subscriber to the magazine, none of the articles in the book were new to me, but they were all well worth re-reading and I noticed things I had forgotten or missed the first time around. More importantly, the way the articles were selected and juxtaposed creates a whole that is greater than the parts.

Science is indeed under siege. Its value is questioned by postmodernists. Its findings are rejected by people who put belief and testimonials above the results of scientific studies. Jenny McCarthy tells women to ignore the scientific evidence on vaccinations and trust their Mommy instincts. Evolution is called “only a theory” as “Intelligent Design” tries to infiltrate our schools. Much of the public is scientifically illiterate, and incompetent reporting by the media is only making things worse. Even some scientists fail to truly understand the scientific method.

Science is respected by the public, but “the evidence shows they don’t know much about it and they poorly understand and appreciate the methods science uses to pursue the truth about nature.” As Carl Sagan says in this book, we need to “present science as it is, as something dazzling, as something tremendously exciting, as something eliciting feelings of reverence and awe, as something that our lives depend on.”

This book offers a spirited defense of the scientific approach and applies it to every kind of human endeavor. Science is flexible, self-correcting, a joint enterprise, and a discipline that works the same everywhere regardless of your religion, political beliefs, or culture of origin. It is the one field where people around the world can reach a consensus about reality. It doesn’t claim to offer absolute “truths” but it offers the best (the only) rational tool to asymptotically approach the best approximation of truths about the real world we share. Incidentally, a rare proofreading error misspelled “asymptotically” twice in Carl Sagan’s article as “asymptomatically.” I couldn’t find anything else in the book to criticize, so I thought I’d mention that.

It would be impossible to choose the best out of so many superb essays, but here are some of the highlights: Carl Sagan’s last Q & A on science and skeptical inquiry. A paean to the wonder and awe of real science by Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan. An article explaining Ray Hyman’s Categorical Directive: “before we try to explain something, we should make sure it actually happened.” John E. Jones, III’s eloquent decision in the Dover “Intelligent Design” case. An article on AIDS denialism by Nicoli Nattrass, who is director of an AIDS research unit in South Africa and can testify to the incalculable harm denialism has caused her compatriots. Common myths about evolution and how to refute them. The anti-vaccination movement (by our own Steven Novella). Ray Hyman investigates a girl who claims to have x-ray vision, Benjamin Radford finds natural explanations and succeeds in reassuring the frightened inhabitants of an allegedly haunted house, and Joe Nickel infiltrates Camp Chesterfield in disguise to show how so-called psychics deliberately lie and trick their customers. The patent office myth (that a director quit because there was nothing more to discover) is put to rest once and for all (but can be predicted to rise again). Philosopher Mario Bunge illuminates the philosophy behind pseudoscience, helping define what it is and helping us understand how to think about it. Bruce Flamm destroys what little is left of the fraudulent Columbia University study about prayer and in vitro fertilization. Other subjects include energy medicine, health claims for magnets, bogus oxygen therapies, and the now defunct PEAR study of psychic power over machines. Marvin Gardner covers vacuum energy. Other articles address global warming, a proposal to reduce the cost of energy, and thoughtful essays on how science can contribute to political decisions and even ethical discussions and is essential to the democratic process. There is even a skeptical look at the reaction to 9/11, – with a rebuttal by Steven Pinker and his later revised rebuttal after he changed his mind! Overblown fears (Halloween candy from a stranger never ever hurt a child), animal rights terrorism, and more. My favorite anecdote from the book is Massimo Polidoro’s account of accompanying magician James Randi on a live TV show as he tried to replicate a psychic’s magic trick of reproducing a drawing that was in a sealed envelope. They used controls that they had not applied to the psychic and that prevented the kind of tricks the psychic used. It looked like Randi had been backed into a corner with no way out, but he calmly improvised new methods of deception on the spot and proceeded to astound everyone. He fully deserves the name of The Amazing Randi as well as the MacArthur Genius Grant he was awarded in 1986.

This collection is a keeper. If you are a subscriber to Skeptical Inquirer, you will want to have this volume on your reference shelf where so many of your favorite gems will be right at your fingertips. If you are not a subscriber, you have a real treat in store.

Disclaimer: two of my own articles were selected for inclusion in this collection, but I am not receiving any royalties. My share of any profits will revert to the organization.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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