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.

Talking about Evolution

James Sang on Robin Dunbar's Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language

AS a child one of my great pleasures was visiting a country saddler. He kept a monkey, Nancy. When he opened the shop, Nancy explored it, then settled until her master started work, whereupon she jumped on his shoulder to groom his luxuriant head of hair. I settled in the straw loft, watching what went on. Village elders would drift in to smoke a pipe and gossip about neighbours. This would set Nancy chattering, but she was copying the sounds she heard, not conversing.
My childhood memories parallel the theme of Robin Dunbar's book: that it was grooming that brought primates together in dependency groups and led to the development of language, which evolved to allow us to gossip. This is an offbeat thesis that demands a great deal of factual support. Dunbar's treatment tends to be tainted by anthropomorphism, neglecting Karl Popper's dictum that good scientists should try to disprove their hypotheses. Of course, the evolution of language is a difficult subject, devoid of records and open to speculation.
A Dawkins -style evolutionary trip across Africa reveals that primates are among the oldest lineages of mammals. The pre-primates must have had behaviour patterns quite different from anything we can imagine, but their physiological responses to grooming could have been the same as now: the production of our natural opiates, the mildly narcotising endorphins.
Opiate highs could be a mechanism strong enough to encourage animals to devote between 10 and 20 per cent of their time to digging through one another's fur. This investment could bind pairs, says Dunbar. But it seems unlikely to be enough to explain the tight bonding of groups that is the primates' solution to the risks of predation. Screeches, grunts and whistles are all vocal signals working within groups, sometimes producing specific reactions from grooming-mates. But Dunbar concludes, rightly in my view, that the great effort to teach chimpanzees to speak has produced a poor return, not very surprising since apes lack the vocal mechanisms for development of a true language. Humans are unique.
The relatively large size of the primate brain has led to many speculations about its relation to social organisation. Dunbar looks at the social consequences of the relative size of the neocortex. Unexpectedly, he finds a positive correlation between group size and relative neocortex size among anthropoids. The larger the group, the larger the neocortex relative to the rest of the brain. Because we never know in a correlation which element determines the other, so Dunbar tries predicting the optimal group size for humans from the size of our neocortex. The answer turns out to be 150, the size of a battalion.

Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language by Robin Dunbar,Faber & Faber,£15.99/$22.95,ISBN 0 571 17396 9.

We do not know when language originated or how long it took to become established. Sadly, Dunbar sidesteps this issue, and reviews two possibilities for its origins: from the vocalisations of apes, which he discards as unlikely, or from song ("Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off hunting and gathering we go!") but he cannot decide in favour of this, either. Surprisingly, he fails to note the Chinese theory that language was originally pictographic. If correct, it ruins his thesis. No doubt the clear writing and the amusing anecdotes will make this book a bestseller. But ask yourself, is it science or storytelling?
[New Scientist 18 May 1996]


Roger Bridgman is curator of communications at London's Science Museum.

Further Reading

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.





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