Pseudo-Science

One of my pet peeves is scientific illiteracy, and the degree to which anti-scientific drivel attempts to dress itself up as legitimate science.

Last updated 7/7/02


Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" by Philip C. Plait

Misconceptions creep into the science of astronomy perhaps more than any other science. Surveys have found that even college graduates carry persistent misconceptions or even wildly incorrect ideas about the phases of the moon or the cause of the seasons.

For the past several years, astronomer Phil Plait has been battling these misconceptions, as well as the flood of just plain bad astronomy (hence the name). Plait's web site has built a loyal following, and I have been a frequent visitor there almost since its inception. For people like me, the book "Bad Astronomy" is a logical extension of the web site. For newcomers, it will be a welcome addition to your libraries.

In addition to chapters on lunar phases and the cause of the seasons, Plait adds a detailed (and fairly technical) account of tides, the coriolis effect (as applied to toilet bowl water rotation), why the sky is blue, the moon size illusion, and many, many others.

Digging a little deeper into the "current issues" genre, Plait also tackles Velikovsky, UFOs, creationism and astrology. His writing is very clear and should be accessible to anybody interested in science and the battle against pseudoscientific nonsense.

Regular visitors to the web site will be familiar with Plait's crusade against those who persist in believing that the Apollo moon landings were faked. Plait's site led the charge against this nonsense, and he includes a treatment of the topic in his book as well.

Bad Astronomy is lightly illustrated with a mix of schematic drawings (to illustrate for example, tides or the moon size illusion) and black and white photographs. Some of the chapters could certainly have benefitted from more lavish illustrations, and perhaps even some color plates (the chapter on the Apollo "hoax," for example, needed some additional photos to help dispel the most common objections). However, the format of the book (paperback) and the expense (between $11 and $14) dictated the conservative approach, I'm sure.

The chapters are well balanced in size. With a topic per chapter, and 24 chapters totalling 257 pages, you won't find an indepth treatment of any of these topics, but enough to surely whet your appetite. He also provides recommendations for additional reading, both book and WWW, in an appendix.

In the larger context of "defense of science" writings, Plait joins other such notables as Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, Robert Park, Stephen Jay Gould, and Michael Shermer. Plait's contribution is a welcome one, and he is poised to take his place as a defender against bad science.

The Demon-Haunted World : Science As a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan -- a classic work by the most celebrated science writer of the 20th century. Sagan's collection of essays is a clear exposition of the value of scientific education in a world dominated by pseudoscience and quackery.

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural: James Randi's Decidedly Skeptical Definitions of Alternate Realities by James Randi and Arthur C. Clarke -- Randi focuses all of his skepticism and wit on the frauds and fakes in our society. A real take no prisoners, kick ass book.

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner

The Faith Healers by James Randi

Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James Randi, Isaac Asimov

The Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy: The Rise and Fall of Christian Science by Martin Gardner

The Hundredth Monkey : And Other Paradigms of the Paranormal by Kendrick Frazier (Editor)

The Mask of Nostradamus : The Prophecies of the World's Most Famous Seer by James Randi -- Superb! Randi completely debunks all the hype surrounding the Nostradamus nonsense.

The New Age : Notes of a Fringe-Watcher by Martin Gardner -- A typically entertaining collection of Gardner's essays. Most of these works first appeared in The Skeptical Inquirer, but Gardner here adds postscripts to most of the chapters, including reader feedback and Gardner's replies.

Return of the Straight Dope by Cecil Adams, Ed Zotti (editor)

Cecil Adams is a hoot. It's that simple. I'm the first to admit that his style may not be for everyone. If you don't enjoy the smart-assed humor of David Letterman, the irreverence of Saturday Night Live, and the take-no-prisoners approach of James Randi, than maybe the "Straight Dope" isn't for you.

For the uninitiated, The Straight Dope is a weekly newspaper column (appearing mostly in local "freebie" papers such as Madison's Isthmus) wherein Cecil (the smartest human alive) answers all manner of questions put to him by the "teeming millions." Do fish breathe? Do birds pee? Are there really 57 varieties of Heinz Ketchup? No question is too trivial for Cecil, and he applies a surprising degree of scholarship to all queries, mixing it all with a sharp-tongued wit and repartee with his correspondents that will leave you laughing out loud, guaranteed.

The books, numbering 5, collect the best of his columns into loosely organized chapters and include occasional updated information since the questions and answers were originally printed. A few examples from 3rd book (Return of the Straight Dope, 1994), which is the one I happen to have from the library right now:

p. 338: Why do stars twinkle? Cecil supplies the correct answer, embedded as always, firmly within his razor sharp wit: "Ben, you amateur, stars don't 'twinkle.' They exhibit 'stellar scintillation.' The Pentagon isn't going to fund a damn twinkle study."

p. 63-64: A straight-down-the-pipe debunking of Uri Geller, as only Cecil can do. James Randi (whom Cecil sites as a source) has nothing on Adams. This is also a good example of Cecil's "dialog" with his readers. A reader wrote in to tell of his first hand encounter with Geller years before, and why Geller couldn't possibly have faked the spoon bending (or whatever) because this reader never took his eyes off the spoon, yada yada. Adam's reply shows his appropriately skeptical approach to such situations, where he stresses how many supposed "experts" were completely bamboozled by Geller's slight of hand and misdirection.

p. 349: The inertia of air, as seen in the helium balloon in a car experiment; p. 146 if you toss a ball in the air while inside the cabin of a flying airplane, does the total weight of the craft decrease by the amount of the ball's weight? (no, and he does a great job handling the physics involved).

The "Straight Dope" collections are a skeptical reader's delight, and totally entertaining to boot. I highly recommend them for casual reading, but don't be surprised if you learn something along the way.
By the way, there's apparently some debate about whether Cecil's a real person or not. I don't have an answer (and my internet research didn't turn up any smoking guns) but it doesn't matter to me. The books are well written and right on target scientifically.

One more tidbit (this one from the straightdope.com web site), to a reader who asked what the deal is with Nostradamus, Cecil replied: "There are two schools of thought on Nostradamus: either (1) he had supernatural powers which enabled him to prophesy the future with uncanny accuracy, or (2) he did for bullshit what Stonehenge did for rocks. I incline to the latter view."

Cecil goes on to give a more detailed (and very accurate) response re: the whole Nostradamus thing, showing again his serious attempt to combat the epidemic of silly pseudoscience that so many of the "teeming millions" seem inclined to accept at face value.

And that really seems to be the bottom line for Cecil, and the best reason to read the column and the books.

Science : Good, Bad, and Bogus by Martin Gardner

Tower of Babel : The Evidence Against the New Creationism by Robert T. Pennock -- An expose' of scientific creationism that no one should miss. Pennock is painfully thorough in his dismantling of the modern phenomenon of creationism.

Truth About Uri Geller by James Randi -- A debunker's feast! Randi shines the spotlight of scientific skepticism on a talented magician, and reveals Geller to be nothing more than a charlatan for claiming supernatural powers.

Urantia : The Great Cult Mystery by Martin Gardner

Voodoo Science : The Road from Foolishness to Fraud by Robert L. Park

In a society increasingly dominated by technology and scientific advances, it's difficult for the average citizen to distinguish between developments that are genuine and those that cross the line into foolishness and fraud. Robert Park, a physicist, knows the difference. For over two decades, Park has been the head of the press office of the American Physical Society, and as such, he is often at the front lines of science's response to extraordinary claims and sensational press reports. Park's book beautifully embodies the late Carl Sagan's "art of baloney detection." Whether it's cold fusion, perpetual motion (unlimited energy) machines, Roswell UFOs or homeopathic medicines, Park is brutally direct and occasionally amusing as he directs the razor sharp scrutiny of a skeptical scientist on modern day nonsense. Any person with a modest interest in science should read this book.

Weird Water & Fuzzy Logic : More Notes of a Fringe Watcher by Martin Gardner

Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer -- A classic collection of essays on a diverse selection of timely topics in quack science and new age nonsense.

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