Friday, October 15, 2010

Reading: "Discarded Science" by John Grant

I've finally managed to read one of the books I picked up several years ago at a science fiction convention, John Grant's “Discarded Science: Ideas that seemed good at the Time...”

The book delves into a number of ideas that, for a time, were actually regarded as science.  While this is the emphasis, it does occasionally divert away from that theme into descriptions of many flavors of pseudo-sciences that were never part of accepted science.

There were a few pages (78-82) devoted to Velikovsky, whose ideas were never accepted science.  However, there was nothing on modern merging of Velikovsky's ideas with plasma cosmology, the  “Electric Universe“ crowd.  Eric Lerner's “The Big Bang Never Happened” is listed in the bibliography but plasma cosmology is not discussed in the text.  Plasma cosmology did enjoy some resurgence of interest before the COBE and WMAP results ruled it out (see Scott Rebuttal. II. The Peratt Galaxy Model vs. the Cosmic Microwave Background).

Creationism and Intelligent design received some pretty extensive treatment and mention of connections with other ideas throughout the book.  Some items I found of interest included pre-Darwinian ideas, quite ancient, which suggested the notion that species change over time has a very long history (pg 131).

Grant includes a discussion of panspermia (pg 189), which covered the more legitimate investigations of Fred Hoyle[1] and Chandra Wickramasinghe, as well as its variants that have been integrated into some religions.  Grant even mentions the somewhat irreverent treatment of the idea (pg 214), Allegro Non Troppo (wikipedia), where life evolves from the discarded trash of an extraterrestrial visitor. A segment of the movie is available on (YouTube),

On page 31, Grant reports that Martin Luther and St. Augustine insisted the Earth had to be flat which I cannot say I've heard before.  This brings me to one of my most serious complaints about the book, that citations for some of the topics in the text are weak to lacking.  This greatly inhibits its use as a more general reference. 

Another example is on pages 251-252, where Grant discusses N-rays, mentioning that when R.W. Wood exposed their subjective nature, N-rays were quickly rejected by the scientific community everywhere except France, the home country of the discoverer.  I've not found this cultural bias confirmed in other sources (Skeptic's Dictionary; Wikipedia).

While not relevant to the topics of this site, I did enjoy the sections on anthropology and medicine.  Some of the beliefs discussed were familiar from my youth as some of the more bizarre ideas mentioned were espoused by family and friends.  It was interesting to read about their origins.  The section on chromotherapy [pg 303-304] was particularly funny as I recall attending a Mensa meeting where one of the attendees would shine this little red light on her food before she ate it.  High I.Q.s do not make people immune to pseudo-science!

There are a number of additional topics of interest.  Puthoff's zero point energy (pg 254), is a popular source of claims for some creationists models such as Barry Setterfield's c-decay.  The section on the Pons & Fleishmann “Cold Fusion” scandal (pg 260) had one of the more entertaining quotes by the author:

“It's an obvious rule of thumb that only a scientific illiterate would attempt to use a lawsuit to influence a scientific debate.“

As already mentioned, my greatest disappointment for using this book as a more general reference is the limited annotations of the various ideas presented.  Hopefully the information is sufficient that I will be able to follow up on some ideas mentioned through other sources. 

Grant has two other books on similar topics, “Corrupted Science” which is waiting on my shelf, and “Bogus Science” which I will probably purchase in the near future.

[1] In graduate school, I had an opportunity to meet Fred Hoyle (Wikipedia) and had him autograph my copy of “Diseases From Space” by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe.

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