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Book Review

The Flight from Science and Reason. Edited by P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, and M. W. Lewis, 1996, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

By Edvard A. Hemmingsen

Spectacular advances have been made in science, technology and medicine in this century, strictly as a result of critical and rational thinking. The fruits of these efforts - improved quality of life and increased lifespan - have been accepted almost universally by the public, with more advances both expected and demanded. Yet, belief systems based on irrational concepts void of any factual foundations, and with strong antiscience overtones, flourish and are embraced by the majority of people.

Why this dichotomy? Are the majority of people inherently uncritical - even irrational - in their ways of thinking? Hardly; children are curious and inquisitive and tend to have a good logical sense. More often than not, these characteristics appear to diminish or even are abandoned later in life when beliefs in the supernatural and the paranormal are found to be more appealing. Emotional comfort, fear of the unknown, and indoctrination may all be important in this change, but certainly, avoiding to be informed and shying away from education are contributing causes.

While we recognize that our educational system, through the high school level, is deficient in many parts of the country and especially in the area of rational thinking, we are generally less aware of the forces of irrationality and antiscience that are fostered, for example, in many departments of colleges and universities. This is far more serious than another psychic on the TV, a longer astrology column in the newspaper, or reports of a new UFO sighting.

This troubling trend is among the subjects addressed in The Flight from Science and Reason, a collection of 42 essays written by a diverse and distinguished group of scholars, scientists and other experts. It has nearly 600 pages of densely printed text, grouped into 11 subject areas. Each essay can be read independently of the others. Most are fascinating enough to read in detail and pondered, a few are are less so. The quality of the writing varies a good deal. With a few exceptions, the essays are written in scholarly form with appropriate and useful references.

The first part of the book explains what science and the scientific method are, and what separates science from pseudoscience. The foundations of science and how they have evolved over historical time are illustrated by excellent examples. These are informative and educational for a general readership. I take exception to some of the statements made regarding the motivations and goals of science, and in one case the inclusion of medical practice as a scientific discipline. But this detracts little from the thrust of the message.

Other parts of the book deal with familiar subjects, such as the alternative medicine movement, the influence of religion and creationism on science education in schools, but with many fresh viewpoints and new insights.

The largest number of essays focus on very disturbing trends that are emerging in departments of humanities in academic institutions. Some of the data and information offered are startling and illustrate how irrationality and antiscience attitudes are growing; indeed, how rational reasoning often is totally abandoned.

Postmodernism philosophy, which now appears to be ingrained in the social sciences, is partly responsible for this turn away from logical thought and rational, objective inquiry. It teaches that because there are no objective, universal truths and certainties, there is no need for empirical confirmation. Evidence and rules of logic are regarded as social constructs only. Familiarity with the facts of science and its methodology is regarded as unnecessary, even detrimental.

This type of thinking has spawned many new movements with strong antiscience components in the last few decades, movements often fractured into various forms of extremisms. Such movements have become refuges for young people with anti-establishment views. We are likely to see some effects of this when these people enter mainstream positions in society.

I particularly regret seeing irrationality and extremism being pushed in women's studies and ethnicity studies. It will have no good consequences. Did you know, for example, that ecofeminism considers reason and technology to be male constructs that are depriving us of contact with nature, and that women's bodies, not their minds, will save the planet? Or that scientific, historical and anthropological facts can be rejected merely because they have been established by Western cultures, dominated by European males?

I was surprised to find out that that Aristotle went to the Great Library of Alexandria and stole all of his ideas from the Egyptians. Never mind that the library was not built until long after his death and that there is no evidence that he ever traveled to Egypt; these facts are deemed irrelevant!

Numerous other examples of irrationality are given throughout the book. They are well documented and seem to indicate a flight from reason in those places where this should not occur. Charged with the education of the young, such flights from reason in the academy could influence negatively the direction in which our society is evolving. However, I am not ready to accept the somewhat pessimistic views expressed by some of the authors. Irrationality will be challenged sooner or later, but it is important that we know where it surfaces and grows so that we can encourage the challenge. This book makes a fine contribution to our understanding of this problem. I recommend it highly. I thank John Valleau, a member of SDARI, for bringing this book to my attention.

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Edvard A. Hemmingsen is an Emeritus Physiologist at UCSD