Yes, We Have No Neutrons. An Eye-opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Bad Science. By A. K. Dewdney, 1997, John Wiley & Sons, New York.
In our present science- and technology-dependent society, the public is regularly subjected to claims of new discoveries, scientific breakthroughs, spectacular technological advances, and the like. Some are real, some are not. The public media usually are eager to publicize the claims uncritically, even exaggerating and sensationalizing them.
It is difficult for the public to make judgments on the issues raised, and sometimes for the experts as well. Misuse of the word science is one problem; it is often used or inferred in situations where it is totally inappropriate. A. K. Dewdney, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Western Ontario, has provided us with a book to help us sort out some of these issues and to give the public a better understanding of what science is, and how and why it sometimes goes astray.
The introductory section gives a clear outline of what the scientific method is, what inductive and deductive science is, and what criteria to use in evaluating the scientific validity of a claim. The book is written in clear prose for a general readership. However, the author does not emphasize the critical roles which properly designed control experiments and repetition of observations play in scientific studies. Lack of adequate controls may be the most common bane of many well-intended studies, both in the well known fiascoes included in this book and in many other less publicized cases.
Dewdney takes up eight examples of so-called bad science, each *discussed in its own chapter that can be read independently of each other. The examples he has chosen represent misguided rather than fraudulent science, with the possible exception of Sigmund Freud. All are from this century, with Freud's introduction of psychotherapy at the beginning to the "Biosphere 2" debacle of a few years ago.
The chapter from which the title of the book is derived concerns so-called cold fusion. In 1989, two established, reputable chemists at the University of Utah made the astonishing announcement that they had achieved sustainable nuclear fusion in a glass jar, at normal laboratory temperatures, no less. The claim was stunning. Had all of our energy problems been solved, or had the investigators concocted a tale? The event was to become a textbook case of bad science. Dewdney tells us why and how this extraordinary claim developed, and how a sincere belief in the beginning was spun into a deception in the end.
The story of cold fusion is intriguing, as is the one on the psychoanalytical theories of Freud. Most readers know that Freud's theories, though very controversial, have had a great impact since they were introduced. But I, for one, did not know that they lack scientific foundation, and there is evidence that at least some of the his cases of "successful" psychotherapy were fraudulent and certainly did not meet scientific standards. Dewdney states that Freud's theories were based on only six published case studies, half of which were incomplete and inconclusive. In the other three, the patients denied that Freud had helped them, or that events in their lives were misrepresented. It is interesting that some time later, in 1907, Freud burned all of his private papers.
In two other chapters which deal with matters that reach into psychology and sociology, the near complete lack of scientific basis of IQ-tests and the racial theories of J. Phillipe Rushton are discussed. Dewdney shows the flaws that have existed, and still exist, in commonly used IQ-tests, and how easy it is to reach wrong conclusions. He also amply shows that Rushton's theory of interracial IQ are without any scientific merit.
Of lesser importance is the chapter on "Biosphere 2" an event that took place in the Arizona desert about five years ago. (Biosphere 1 is Earth.) Although this event was well publicized as a scientific experiment, it was not; it hardly met any of the necessary criteria. Its inclusion in the book is not even justified as an example of bad science, although it would qualify as a example of bad technology and excellent showmanship. However, it is of interest to the public to learn that the event originated in a cult philosophy developed at the Synergia Ranch in Texas in the late 1960s. The author convincingly shows this.
In the remaining three chapters, only the "discovery" of N-rays by the respected scientist Rene Blondlet at the start of the century is an excellent illustration of bad science. The N-rays proved to be a product of imagination and subjective perceptions. When simple, objective tests were used, the N-rays disappeared. Dewdney may be correct in his opinion that research on the development of neural nets is extensively built on flawed and bad science, but he gives few specific examples. He also offers a very negative assessment of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence by radio astronomy. He believes it is a wasted, futile effort, and gives some good reasons for his opinion. I agree with him. But is SETI bad science, bad technology, or just bad policy? I lean to the latter. The main supporters of SETI, including the late Carl Sagan, never claimed that extraterrestrial radio signals had been detected. It is not justified to group their efforts with truly bad science.
The book is intended for the general public who can learn a great deal from it about why scientific methodology must be carefully applied to problems to avoid false conclusions. Experts may find the treatment of pet subjects to be too superficial. Others, like me, on occasions may find some muddled reasoning or argumentation, most notable in the chapter on neural nets. Overall, the 179-page book is well worth reading.
Edvard A. Hemmingsen, Emeritus Physiologist, UCSD