Fringe Binges

The largest bookcase I own covers half a wall in my study and makes a futile attempt to organize the sciences (as does the verse at the end of this).

It starts at the top with two shelves of the hard sciences – math, physics, relativity, basic quantum theory.

Then down through the softer sciences – astronomy, chemistry, biology, evolution, neuroscience, philosophy of science, sociology (psychology is clear across the room in another case).

Next come the grand-concept efforts to pull some of these disciplines together, including some theoretical physics and holistic biology too speculative to make the upper shelves (SETI, superstring theory, quantum gravity, bleeding edge cosmology, the Tao of Physics, theories of everything).

And finally, a shelf and a half of pseudoscience — my psychiatric ward — reserved for creationism, ancient astronauts, UFOs, pyramidology, the secret life of plants, pole shifts, cryptobiology (Yeti, Bigfoot, Nessie), and parapsychology. Fruitcakes every one of them, but even the zaniest authors will now and then surface with a stunning insight or conjecture.

Oh yes, and Worlds in Collision – remember Immanuel Velikovsky?

I had misplaced the book and forgotten about him until a new book came out by Michael Gordin – The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.

Velikovsky was a very big deal in the late 1960s and early 70s but his mischief, like Ayn Rand’s, still endures among those who have reason to distrust reality.

According to Velikovsky, about 3,500 years ago a piece of Jupiter nearly as massive as earth was blown away and turned loose in the solar system, closely approaching earth at least twice and causing all sorts of Old Testament fireworks – parting the Red Sea, crumbling Jericho’s walls, dropping manna from heaven. Finally, an explanation for why the sun stood still and why Ezekiel saw the wheel.

Eventually, Velikovsky’s rogue comet settled innocently into orbit, posing as the planet Venus.

Reviewing Gordin’s book in the London Review, Steven Shapin discusses the difficulties scientists have in teaching us common people the difference between real science and pseudoscience – or, as Shapin calls it, hyperscience, presumably with the accent on the hype.

Gordin goes into this battle in exhaustive detail, but at the end of his review, Shapin comes up with his own litmus test, which bears repeating:

“Beware of hyperscience. It can be a sign that something isn’t kosher.

“A rule of thumb for sound inference has always been that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

“But there’s a corollary: if it struts around the barnyard loudly protesting that it’s a duck, that it possesses the very essence of duckness, that it’s more authentically a duck than all those other orange-billed, web-footed, swimming fowl, then you’ve got a right to be suspicious: this duck may be a quack.”

Perfect portrait of creation “science.” It ducks like a quack.

The Sciences

Psychology is all neurology,
which is just biology
(which is destiny)
and biology is all chemistry,
a subset, really, of physics,
which is part of astronomy
since all those forces trace back
to the way the big bang banged
– either a tirade or a tantrum,
we’re not sure which,
but when we find out,
we’ll know the gender of god,
thus what to expect next
. . .which is psychology

Verse reprinted from Alan Van Dine’s book, If Instead of Apes We Had Come from Grapes, We Wouldn’t Just Yet Be Wine. (2006, Towers Maguire)

This entry was posted in Science by Al. Bookmark the permalink.

About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.