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The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception, and Human Frailty [Paperback]

Walter Gratzer
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Book Description

Sept. 1 2001 0198604351 978-0198604358
Walter Gratzer's themes in the stories he relates in this book are collective delusion and human folly. Science is generally seen as a process bound by rigorous rules, which its practitioners must not transgress. Deliberate fraud occasionally intrudes, but it is soon detected, the perpetrators cast out and the course of discovery barely disturbed. Far more interesting are the outbreaks of self-delusion that from time to time afflict upright and competent researchers, and then spread like an epidemic or mass-hysteria through a sober and respectable scientific community. When this happens the rules by which scientists normally govern their working lives are suddenly suspended. Sometimes these episodes are provoked by personal vanity, an unwillingness to acknowledge error or even contemplate the possibility that a hard-won success is a will o' the wisp; at other times they stem from loyalty to a respected and trusted guru, or even from patriotic pride; and, worst of all, they may be a consequence of a political ideology which imposes its own interpretation on scientists' observations of the natural world. Unreason and credulity supervene, illusory phenomena are described and measured, and theories are developed to explain them - until suddenly, often for no single reason, the bubble bursts, leaving behind it a residue of acrimony, recrimination, embarrassment, and ruined reputations. Here, then, are radiations, measured with high precision yet existing only in the minds of those who observed them; the Russian water, which some thought might congeal the oceans; phantom diseases that called for heroic surgery; monkey testis implants that restored the sexual powers of ageing roues and of tired sheep; truths about genetics and about the nature of matter, perceptible only to Aryan scientists in the Third Reich or Marxist ideologues in the Soviet Union; and much more. The Undergrowth of Science explores, in terms accessible to the lay reader, the history of such episodes, up to our own time, in all their absurdity, tragedy, and pathos.

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Unfortunately for debunkers like the Amazing Randi, the distinction between science and pseudoscience can get a bit fuzzy. Biophysicist Walter Gratzer pokes gently through the mulch of dead ideas in The Undergrowth of Science, a smart, witty collection of cautionary research tales. Some are widely familiar, like his long chapter on the Soviet politicisation of genetics, while others have been examined less minutely--does anyone remember the horror of menstrual toxins? Gratzer treats his subjects warmly for the most part, while reserving some venom for the foolishness and evil of Nazi eugenics and other racist and nationalist visions of the world.

The book asks its readers to adopt a sophisticated scepticism, one that won't accept polywater or memory transfer with zeal but also won't rigorously reject continental drift or other crazy-but-correct ideas. Of course, Gratzer acknowledges that it's easiest to be sceptical with perfect hindsight, but by building on Langmuir's rules for recognizing "pathological science," he hopes to establish a more thoughtful scientific readership. While some scientists would just as soon see any reference to travesties like cold fusion go down the memory hole, The Undergrowth of Science reminds us to learn from our mistakes. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

With its stunning successes in explaining everything from the muon to the Milky Way, science has acquired a mystique of infallibility. Gratzer punctures that mystique with a brutally frank look at episodes in which science has gone very much off the rails. Readers see, for instance, how two University of Utah chemists allowed an itch for fame to overwhelm their intellectual rigor as they startled the world with false claims for cold fusion. We see also how racism corrupted German anthropology, how Communism deformed Russian genetics, and how national chauvinism warped French physics. Gratzer aims not to discredit the scientific method (which he himself employs as a biophysicist) but rather to identify the influences that can push--or tempt--scientists into dangerous shortcuts. These shortcuts typically yield misleading results and thereby divert scarce research dollars into sterile projects, so Gratzer's analysis should foster a much-needed cautiousness in evaluating sensational scientific claims. A valuable demarcation of the line separating science from illusion. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Research off the rails... June 2 2001
Format:Hardcover
The topic of Gratzer's book is largely confined to what physicist Irving Langmuir properly called "pathological science." In such instances, a scientist supposedly quite capable of doing valid research produces an incredible farrago of nonsensical garbage, usually being seduced into total self-deception by arrogance, political or religious considerations, national pride, or other influences totally irrelevant and completely destructive to the search for truth.
With so many topics covered, I think the most useful review is just an outline of what is covered. Chapter 1 covers the most classic instance of pathological science, Blondlot's discovery of "N-Radiation." Chapter 2 discusses many crazy (and wrong) ideas from biology, including radiation emitted by cells, cannibal learning in flatworms, and the like. Chapter 3 covers the Davis-Barnes and Allison effects investigated and exploded by Langmuir. Chapter 4 tells the sad tale of polywater. Chapter 5 is a very unfocussed discussion largely dealing with pseudoscience rather than pathological science--- beginning with Mesmer it winds up with spoonbending children in the labs of British physicists Taylor and Hasted. Chapter 6 deals with cold fusion, Chapter 7 with various idiocies and surgical fads of medicine--- hardly pathological science, since science only began to penetrate medicine during and after WWII, but certainly pathological.
Chapter 8 deals mainly with the delusion that scientists in different countries do science differently--- one's own country, of course, is the only one that does it right. Chapter 9 covers the horrifying destruction, first of genetics and then of biology itself, in Stalinist Russia.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Science Mutated Feb. 2 2001
Format:Hardcover
We expect that science will uncover truths about nature, and that scientists will be well trained in observing, recording, and analyzing data with objectivity. Anyone who regards scientific progress over the centuries, and especially in the past century, will find that such expectations are generally met. And yet scientists are human, with all the weaknesses humans are prone to. _The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception, and Human Frailty_ (Oxford University Press) by Walter Gratzer demonstrates instances where scientists can be susceptible to wishful thinking, patriotic coercion, and self deception. Interestingly, the book does not dwell on cases of fraud; the scientists in the episodes described generally aren't trying to fool anyone, but manage to do so only after fooling themselves.
The guiding spirit of this book is Irving Langmuir, a scientist who won a Nobel for his work on surfaces, but who brashly (and offensively to some) pushed his way into the research areas of other scientists. When he wasn't in the lab, he liked to pursue what he called "pathological science." He never wrote about this hobby, and only a transcript of a lecture he gave in 1953 remains, but Langmuir's Rules for spotting pathological science show up all over this book. The rules specify, among other things, that in pathological science, experimental results are very close to the limit of detectability (hardly noticeable, or noticeable at a very low statistical significance); there are claims of great accuracy; explanations are fantastic and contrary to experience; and any criticism of the "science" is met with excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
What has happened to these scientists?
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Format:Hardcover
Gratzer tells a bunch of stories of "scientists gone wrong". I found the most interesting stories in the first half of the book. These stories of scientists who so strongly believe the theories that their experiments can't help but achieve the desired results. These misguided scientists explain away conflicting results with the apparently sincere explanation that unless you want to see the results you won't be able to. The second half of the book gets more into how politics can impact science, specifically looking at Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. The book can be a little slow in points, but a worthwhile read for all who are interested in science to remind us of the importance of skepticism.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science Mutated Feb. 2 2001
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
We expect that science will uncover truths about nature, and that scientists will be well trained in observing, recording, and analyzing data with objectivity. Anyone who regards scientific progress over the centuries, and especially in the past century, will find that such expectations are generally met. And yet scientists are human, with all the weaknesses humans are prone to. _The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception, and Human Frailty_ (Oxford University Press) by Walter Gratzer demonstrates instances where scientists can be susceptible to wishful thinking, patriotic coercion, and self deception. Interestingly, the book does not dwell on cases of fraud; the scientists in the episodes described generally aren't trying to fool anyone, but manage to do so only after fooling themselves.
The guiding spirit of this book is Irving Langmuir, a scientist who won a Nobel for his work on surfaces, but who brashly (and offensively to some) pushed his way into the research areas of other scientists. When he wasn't in the lab, he liked to pursue what he called "pathological science." He never wrote about this hobby, and only a transcript of a lecture he gave in 1953 remains, but Langmuir's Rules for spotting pathological science show up all over this book. The rules specify, among other things, that in pathological science, experimental results are very close to the limit of detectability (hardly noticeable, or noticeable at a very low statistical significance); there are claims of great accuracy; explanations are fantastic and contrary to experience; and any criticism of the "science" is met with excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
What has happened to these scientists? Gratzer explains: "The germ of a pathological episode is usually an innocent mistake or an experimental mirage; the perpetrator is persuaded that he has made a great discovery, which will bring him fame and advancement in his profession. Once committed it is difficult to go back and to allow the principles of caution and skepticism that training and experience normally inculcate to overcome the excitement and euphoria of a brilliant success." Among the stories Gratzer covers are N-Rays, polywater, Lysenkoism, the foolish Nazi science of superstition, cold fusion, and more. These stories have all been told before, but it is useful to have them collected here. Gratzer writes for _Nature_ and has a clear style even when the physics gets a little intimidating. The lessons from the collected events should increase our admiration for how well science usually works, but should also remind us that there will always be fringe scientists. It is impossible to tell when the next cold fusion embarrassment will occur, but I hope we will be able to count on mainstream science to counter claims that HIV does not cause AIDS, that the world is less than 10,000 years old, or that people are being regularly abducted by aliens.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Research off the rails... June 2 2001
By Rory Coker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The topic of Gratzer's book is largely confined to what physicist Irving Langmuir properly called "pathological science." In such instances, a scientist supposedly quite capable of doing valid research produces an incredible farrago of nonsensical garbage, usually being seduced into total self-deception by arrogance, political or religious considerations, national pride, or other influences totally irrelevant and completely destructive to the search for truth.
With so many topics covered, I think the most useful review is just an outline of what is covered. Chapter 1 covers the most classic instance of pathological science, Blondlot's discovery of "N-Radiation." Chapter 2 discusses many crazy (and wrong) ideas from biology, including radiation emitted by cells, cannibal learning in flatworms, and the like. Chapter 3 covers the Davis-Barnes and Allison effects investigated and exploded by Langmuir. Chapter 4 tells the sad tale of polywater. Chapter 5 is a very unfocussed discussion largely dealing with pseudoscience rather than pathological science--- beginning with Mesmer it winds up with spoonbending children in the labs of British physicists Taylor and Hasted. Chapter 6 deals with cold fusion, Chapter 7 with various idiocies and surgical fads of medicine--- hardly pathological science, since science only began to penetrate medicine during and after WWII, but certainly pathological.
Chapter 8 deals mainly with the delusion that scientists in different countries do science differently--- one's own country, of course, is the only one that does it right. Chapter 9 covers the horrifying destruction, first of genetics and then of biology itself, in Stalinist Russia. Chapter 10 is concerned with "race hygiene" and similar perversions of anthropology and human biology, before and during the reign of Hitler, including the Nazi adoption of a crackpot theory of cosmology, the Welteislehre. This long chapter then turns to the persecution of Jewish physicists and mathematicians, and specifically (non-Jewish) physicist Werner Heisenberg. The most frightening account in this chapter, for me, was a description of the way some established scientists who had cooperated fully and enthusiastically with such persecutions, were instantly readmitted to German scientific society immediately after the war, no matter how red their hands or how black their hearts. Chapter 11 deals with "eugenics" and various other fatally oversimplified proposals to breed superior humans.
One can see that the book covers a very mixed bag of examples, not many of which are pure instances of pathological science in the Langmuir sense. Homeopathy, for example, is really a kind of "healing religion," having no origins within or support from science, although it did generate some pathological science in the 1980s in France. I found few obvious mistakes, but mistakes are inevitable in a book covering such a wide range of topics. There are some real lulus on page 103--- Puthoff and Targ have not been at SRI nor have they generated characteristically fawed ESP claims for more than 2 decades, and Martin Gardner did not found THE SKEPTICAL INQUIRER.
I was familiar with almost everything discussed in the book, so I didn't learn a great deal that was new to me, but I did find it useful to have all these accounts in a single volume. It is one of the great strengths of science that episodes of pathology in the Langmuir sense are in almost every case extremely brief, and never affect the overall course of scientific research. But the public confusion that such episodes generate can do great damage to science. And where pathological science or pseudoscience is take up by a political system, as in Utah, or Nazi Germany or Russia, the results can essentially destroy a whole generation of scientists.
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile for those interested in history of science Dec 11 2002
By Ronald Brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Gratzer tells a bunch of stories of "scientists gone wrong". I found the most interesting stories in the first half of the book. These stories of scientists who so strongly believe the theories that their experiments can't help but achieve the desired results. These misguided scientists explain away conflicting results with the apparently sincere explanation that unless you want to see the results you won't be able to. The second half of the book gets more into how politics can impact science, specifically looking at Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. The book can be a little slow in points, but a worthwhile read for all who are interested in science to remind us of the importance of skepticism.
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