The Scientific Contrarian

By George Scialabba,
a frequent contributor to Book World, the Boston Globe and other publications
Thursday, June 2, 2005

Where the Known Meets the Unknown
By Michael Shermer
Times. 296 pp. $26 

 "Science," Michael Shermer writes, "is a great Baloney Detection Kit." Founder of the Skeptics Society, publisher of Skeptic magazine, columnist for Scientific American, editor of "The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience" and author of "Why People Believe Weird Things," Shermer is a veteran baloney detector. Fortunately, that is not all science is, or Shermer is. There is plenty of debunking in his new collection of essays, "Science Friction"  of "cold [i.e., psychic] reading," "sports science," recent scandals in anthropology and especially of "intelligent design" theory as a competitor to evolutionary adaptationism. But there are also meaty accounts of such interesting problems as counterfactuality and complexity in history and of recent controversies in evolutionary theory; entertaining discussions of the most famous episode of "Star Trek" and the causes of the mutiny on the Bounty, along with the author's personal accounts of caring for his dying mother (very affecting) and of his life as a professional skeptic (less so).

One of the most controversial episodes in recent scientific history was occasioned by journalist Patrick Tierney's book "Darkness in El Dorado," which accused eminent anthropologists of misrepresenting, and perhaps even disrupting, the culture of Amazonian aborigines. Some of contemporary anthropology's premier reputations were built on studies of the "fierce people," the Yanomamo of Amazonia. A second generation of researchers raised questions about these studies, and Tierney spent 11 years, mostly in the bush, probing the story. He emerged skeptical, but mainstream anthropologists strenuously defended their profession. Shermer not only ably lays out the dispute but also shows how differences in anthropological interpretation are possible, even inevitable, given that both researchers and subjects have personalities, not merely theories.

Shermer is less patiently evenhanded on the subject of intelligent design. It rouses the full-throated skeptic in him. His chapter called "The New New Creationism" aims to blow intelligent design theory out of the water, and, in this reviewer's opinion, it succeeds. With the exception of Pope John Paul II's 1996 encyclical "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth," conservative Christians' hostility to evolution has been unremitting. They have therefore championed (Shermer would say concocted) intelligent-design theory, according to which evolution's chief explanatory mechanism, natural selection, is unable in principle to account for irreducibly complex phenomena. (An irreducibly complex phenomenon, like the eye, is a system of interacting parts, every one of which is essential to successful functioning.) Very few scientists, Christian or non-Christian, have been persuaded by this argument. Shermer thoroughly explains why and offers a more tentative but still useful account of scientists' best current answer to the question of how life originated. "The answer can be found in the properties of self-organization and emergence that arise out of what are known as complex adaptive systems. . . . As a complex adaptive system the cosmos intelligently designs itself. It is one giant autocatalytic (self-driving) feedback loop that generates emergent properties, one of which is life." That may not be immediately intelligible, but non-scientists who want to understand the natural or social world had better get used to hearing about complex adaptive systems.

In previous books Shermer has advocated a newly popular style of argument called "fuzzy thinking," which recognizes that either/or thinking is sometimes misleading or inefficient. Sometimes the sky is neither blue nor not-blue. Shermer applies this probabilistic terminology to assessing a handful of "heresies"  challenges to prevailing scientific common sense.

"The universe is all there is"  we've all read and perhaps even repeated this sentence. But cosmology marches on. It now appears that there may be baby universes, bubble universes, parallel universes  at present only intriguing mathematical quirks, though with new instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories looking out for faint gravitational ripples in the ether, who knows? Shermer assigns the existence of alternate universes a "fuzzy factor," or probability, of 0.7. Here are some other heresies noted by Shermer, who weighs and allots a fuzzy factor to each: time travel is possible, human evolution is a fluke, oil is not a fossil fuel, cancer is an infectious disease, brain and spinal cord regeneration will someday succeed.

The intersection of science and history fascinates Shermer. There's a (perhaps unintentionally) amusing chapter tracing the mutiny on the Bounty to evolutionary causes: status competition between alpha males Christian and Bligh, added to oxytocin-mediated affective bonding between the mutineers and their Tahitian consorts, gets summed up in this resounding semi-banality: "Proximate causes of the mutiny on the Bounty may have been missing coconuts and lost tempers, but the ultimate cause was evolutionarily adaptive emotions expressed nonadaptively in the wrong place at the wrong time, with irreversible consequences."

More illuminating is "Exorcising Laplace's Demon," a chapter on the recent rapprochement of scientific and historical models of explanation. Contingency, path dependency and narrative form  all standard features of historical writing  are complicating the linear, "covering law" model that has up to now been standard in science. Shermer's familiarity with philosophy and intellectual history, abundantly evident in his earlier books, serves his readers well here.

Shermer is no Stephen Jay Gould  as he would be the first to admit, Gould being one of his heroes and the subject of a handsome appreciation in "Science Friction." Gould's literary flair, analytic panache and vast erudition are the gold standard for science writers. But even the lesser precious metals are well worth having.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company