Myths & Reality: The Science Gap

Reviewed by David Bloomberg

[The Science Gap: Dispelling the Myths and Understanding the Reality of Science,
Milton A. Rothman, Prometheus Books, New York, 1992, 254 pages, hardcover, $24.95.]

The Science Gap is a book that should probably be required reading for all college students, whether in the sciences or not. In particular, it is my opinion that it should especially be studied by those who intend to go on to teach.

The reasons for these opinions stem from what I see as a basic lack of scientific and/or logical thinking among many in the general population, and a tendency for this to be reinforced when teachers emphasize rote memorization of facts and formulae rather than the scientific process.

With that said up front, I think that Milton Rothman, a former physics professor and research physicist, has done an excellent job of doing exactly what the subtitle describes, especially dispelling myths. I'm afraid that some small portions of the book may be a little too technical for those without any science background at all, and there may be better books for teaching a basic understanding of science. However, for anybody with even a smattering of knowledge about science, which I would hope includes teachers, the vast majority of the book is easy to understand and follow. The Science Gap is broken into 16 chapters, each taking on a different "myth", such as "Nothing is known for sure," "Nothing is impossible," "All theories are equal," and, of course, "Myths are just harmless fun and good for the soul." In his introduction, Rothman explains his reasons for debunking these and other myths: "We seldom change the minds of the believers, but we hope to educate those who are not quite convinced -- especially students." I find myself agreeing completely.

Throughout the book, Rothman makes many good points, both about science in general, and specific physical theories and laws. Out of the necessity of keeping this article shorter than the book, I can only touch on a few of these here.

He emphasizes that a valid scientific theory must work, pass experimental tests, and be falsifiable. Many paranormal "theories" fail to meet some or all of these necessities. Indeed, in many cases he notes that "the person with the fewest facts usually is the one most certain of the truth." He points out that good scientists are generally concerned with the how's and why's -- a theory should make specific predictions. Many "parapsychology enthusiasts," however, may try to demonstrate ESP, but have no way to explain how it may occur -- how information travels from one mind to another or from the future to the present. If information truly is traveling, what form of energy does it take? How does the brain convert a "thought" to this energy and hurl it through space so that it may be converted back by a receiving brain? Where does "future" information come from? What happened to the law of conservation of energy? Without some theory to explain this, there are no falsifiable predictions, and no science. Rothman also discusses other physical impossibilities, such as massive UFOs reported to hang motionless in the air with no means of support. The law of gravity says that this simply can't happen, and UFO reports seldom, if ever, mention huge helicopter rotors or massive rockets, so how do "they" do it? Rothman gives a detailed explanation about why "anti-gravity" is simply not a viable answer.

Of course, there are those who would respond with one of the following: "Whatever we think we know now is likely to be overturned in the future" or "Advanced civilizations of the future will have the use of forces unknown to us at present" or "Advanced civilizations on other planets possess great forces unavailable to us on earth." These are three more of the myths that Rothman covers in detail.

In particular, he answers the questions: "What is the probability that new forces exist which we have not yet discovered?" and "What is the probability that advanced civilizations in the future will find useful forces that we do not already have?" These answers are somewhat detailed, though understandable, and the final answer boils down to "we must make do with the forces that exist."

Besides these examinations of the paranormal, Rothman examines a matter of importance to all people -- that of population growth and the strain it places on resources. He analyzes the effects of current rates of population growth on future resources (renewable and non-renewable) and concludes that population growth must level off to zero if the human race is to survive on Earth for more than a few thousand more years, and we should not leave this up to future generations, or else there may not be any. Is Rothman trying to scare us into action? Probably. But maybe we need a good scare; I won't make that judgment. We do get a glimpse of Rothman's political leanings here and elsewhere, particularly in the last chapter, which seem to be somewhat against a certain U.S. party. It did disappoint me a bit to see these in an otherwise scientific, non- political text, but I feel that the limited nature of his political comments make it a minor negative in an otherwise extremely positive book.

The final chapter, "Myths are just harmless fun and good for the soul," is one that many of us have probably heard often. Usually it is stated along the lines of, "It can't hurt to let [insert your favorite pseudoscience practitioner here, such as: psychic detectives, faith healers, astrologers] try with their powers." It is left to the horrible evil skeptics to show that it can hurt. Rothman does just that. He begins by pointing out that, yes, there are some myths, fantasies, and fairy tales, such as heroic myths about knights slaying dragons, cautionary myths about living a good life, or mystery myths which teach observation, deduction, and logic, which have a function when learned by developing children. However, bad myths are those for which there is more harm than good produced. He notes that "a myth invariably disguises reality, and any myth that camouflages natural dangers leaves the believer unwary of the hazards existing in the world." Believers in faith healing, for example, may neglect to seek medical help when necessary, and cause great harm or even death to themselves (or others, in some cases) as a result. Obviously, this and similar myths are not "harmless fun," and his examples make an effective closing for the book.

Anybody with a smattering of science in their background should be able to understand The Science Gap, and I would recommend it highly to anybody who has ever had a frustrating discussion with a paranormalist or any other person who uses the myths Rothman discusses. I would especially encourage educators to read this book, and use it whenever possible.

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