Roger Bridgman reviews A. K. Dewdney's Yes, We Have No Neutrons
EVER since those unusual noises started coming from Victor Frankenstein's spare room, scientists be-having badly have been good for a laugh. But A. K. Dewdney, better known to long-term readers of Scientific American as a deviser of tricks and treats for home computers, isn't laughing. Like a stern head-master, he insists scientists who don't stick to the rules bring the whole school into disrepute. Sadly, these rules soon get Dewdney himself into trouble. The problem lies in his definition of bad science. It happens, he says, "when someone strays in a fatal way from the scientific method". Unlike bad behaviour, which is still behaviour however bad it gets, bad science, it seems, ceases to be science at all.
How then can we continue to call it bad science? If we were really as strict as this, scientists would be immune to censure: as soon as they broke the rules they would no longer be bound by them. This is an unhappy start to a book aiming to debunk sloppy thinking.
The problem stems from Dewdney's adherence to a view of science close to that promoted by the philosopher Karl Popper. In Popperian thinking, a falsifiable hypothesis is induced from observations and survives until someone comes up with a further observation it does not predict.
While later thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn and observers of scientists such as Harry Collins or Bruno Latour have shown that this is a considerable simplification of what happens in practice, Dewdney's concern seems to be to keep Popper pure in a world of sin.
Revealingly, he says that one of his motives for assembling this cautionary catalogue of backsliding boffins is that they make "those who would paint science as a purely social process with no meaningful truths behind it giggle with delight". Though they have never made so strong a claim, Dewdney, it appears, does not want to give people like Kuhn, Collins and the rest a micron for fear they take a millimetre.
Dewdney's absolutist definition of science throws together a strange miscellany of miscreants in these eight case studies. None are deliberate fraudsters. Some have got caught up in a movement, like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, that has blurred their judgment. Some, like Freud, whom Dewdney demolishes with lip-smacking relish, have started such movements and ensnared hundreds. And there are those, like Martin Fleishmann and Stanley Pons, whose cold-fusion circus gives the book its title, who have tried in vain to start something big.
Among the stories Dewdney investigates there are a few-like the tangle of notions surrounding that elusive, illusory entity, IQ - that would get a clear thumbs-down from anyone with a grain of scientific decency. But others evoke a whiff of injustice. Neural networks, for instance, are in the dock not only because they have been hyped to high heaven (what hasn't?) but also because you could create a successful net without understanding how it worked: the bunch of numbers that captures its behaviour would in all probability be "an opaque, unreadable table...valueless as a scientific resource".
In spite of his emphatic declaration that science is not technology,Dewdney seems here to pillory neural nets as bad science when most of those devising them are just trying to be good engineers. An unreadable table that a useful machine could read would still be well worth having.
But the book's real interest lies in the way it refutes its own central thesis. If ever you wanted evidence for the social construction of science, here it is in abundance. Surely all self-aware scientists will experience a twinge of "There but for the grace . . ." when they read these stories.
Scientific thought and motives are never pure, but social checks and balances,
Dewdney's among them, eventually grind out a view that survives for a while.
We need more of this, not less. If scientists could open up their world to
ordinary human criticism and stop pretending they
have an infallible route to the truth, bad scientists
would come unstuck more quickly and more often.
Roger Bridgman is curator of communications at London's Science Museum.
Yes we have no neutrons:An eye opening tour through the twists an turns of bad science by AK Dewdney,Wiley,$22.95 ISBN 0 471 10806 5.