ABC (Andrew’s Book Club) 3 – 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks

Don’t worry, this isn’t only the third new-to-me book I read this year – between the last of these posts and this one I also read five other books I’d not read before (as well as usual rereads, comics etc) but I’m planning on submitting some writing to the series that they are connected to (part of the reason for reading them) so don’t want to review them here. I’ve also just picked up a few more books (it’s payday) so over the next couple of days expect posts on Dead Romance by Lawrence Miles and The People’s Manifesto by Mark Thomas.

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brook is one of the most interesting – and recommendable – pop-science books I’ve read in a long time (and I read a lot of pop-science books).

One of the things that worries me about the New Atheism and the Rationalist movement is its attitude to what Charles Fort referred to as Damned Data. A lot (by no means all) of the media representatives of this movement seem to regard disagreement with the current scientific consensus as being heresy – which seems to me to be a fundamentally unscientific attitude. (Richard Dawkins, for example, has condemned a creationist documentary that interviewed him under false pretences and re-edited the footage in ways he disagreed with, but he did exactly the same to Rupert Sheldrake. I happen to think that Sheldrake is wrong, but one should still use intellectually honest arguments, even against those who *are* wrong…)

(Which is not to say the majority of such disagreements aren’t cranks and quackery – they are. But some are very far from that. I *MUST* at some point get round to blogging about orthomolecular medicine, for example…)

Brooks, a consultant to New Scientist, takes the opposite – and to me, more scientific – approach here, by looking at anomalous results – the places where our theories and the data don’t quite match up.

Opening with a quote from Isaac Asimov – “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘that’s funny…'” – Brooks takes us on a tour through most of the major scientific disciplines and looks at what we *don’t* know. He divides this into thirteen ‘things that don’t make sense’ as follows:

The Missing Universe – he looks at ‘dark matter’, ‘dark energy’, and various not-yet-accepted physical theories that do away with these concepts.

The Pioneer Anomaly – the Pioneer probes, sent out in the 1970s, are now thousands of miles away from where the theory of Relativity says they should be.

Varying Constants – the growing evidence that the ‘universal constants’ used to be different.

Cold Fusion – the growing body of evidence that suggests Pons and Fleischmann found *something* – maybe not cold fusion, but *something* – in their career-ending experiments.

Life – why have we not yet been able to synthesise life from elementary chemicals?

Viking – the Viking probe found evidence of life on Mars – one of the experiments that it ran gave *exactly* the result predicted if there were living organisms in the Martian soil. This has never been followed up on.

The WOW! Signal – a brief (sub-second) signal that looks very much like the work of intelligent life, but has never been repeated.

A Giant Virus – a virus found in Bradford that appears to be an evolutionary ‘missing link’ (sorry for the term) between bacteria and viruses.

Death – why *do* we die? Can it be stopped?

Sex – why all the current evolutionary explanations for sex fall down.

Free Will – scientific evidence that it doesn’t exist, and what this might mean for society.

The Placebo Effect – the evidence that it’s much stronger than thought when it comes to depression and pain, but has *no effect whatsoever* when it comes to physical problems, and what this means for the current medical orthodoxy of double-blind placebo-controlled trials.

And most controversially of all, Homeopathy – he shows that there is a *tiny* bit of evidence that a *small* proportion of homeopathic ‘medicines’ might actually work, and some suggested physical mechanisms for this, even while clearly showing that most of it is the nonsense we all accept it to be.

Looking through this list, some of it is probably explicable by experimental error or outright fraud (my guess is that the evidence for homeopathy falls into that category), but at least some of these things will radically rewrite parts of our understanding of the universe.

But the good thing about this book is that even when he’s talking about these things, Brooks is *NOT* doing it in a new-agey, ‘there are things that science will never understand, wisdom of the ancients’ kind of way. He is motivated by an excitement in discovery, and in the scientific method. For him, the idea that there are things we don’t know, or things we’ve got wrong, is not a threat, and it’s better to waste time on a wild goose chase occasionally in order to find something genuinely revolutionary than to dismiss out-of-hand any anomalous data or wild hypotheses.

My guess is that at least seven or eight of the things talked about in this book will turn out to be wild-goose chases of that nature, but that among the others is an account of someone who in a century will be spoken of in the way we now speak of Einstein, Darwin or Newton (or at least Crick or Watson or Curie or Pauling).

This has fired up my imagination far more than most books of its ilk, and as long as you accept (as Brooks clearly states) that the stuff talked about in it is the very opposite of ‘established fact’, I can guarantee it will be a fascinating read for anyone interested in science.

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16 Responses to ABC (Andrew’s Book Club) 3 – 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks

  1. I’ll be picking that one up, it sounds great. Exactly the kind of thing I find fascinating.

  2. pillock says:

    I think I’d take “The Sense Of Being Stared At” over this…oddly, this sounds more adventurous than that!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Is that one of Sheldrake’s? I read through about half of his first one – can’t remember the name, but the famous one – and there was absolutely no content, just waffle, so I gave up on him as a bad job…

  3. TAD says:

    Richard Dawkins has become a big name in the world of evolutionary study, but I think it’s mostly because of his personality. He’s made very little actual contribution in the field. He’s more of a lecturer than a scientist, if you ask me.

    I’m more of an Ernst Mayr fan, myself. I like Stephen Jay Gould too, although his “Structure of Evolutionary Theory” is unreadable.

    Everyone should be a Darwin fan, though. It’s amazing how much he got right, given how poor the fossil record was at the time, and that DNA hadn’t been discovered yet.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      To give Dawkins his due, his ‘selfish gene’ stuff has been *hugely* influential in the development of the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology. I personally think it’s simplistic, and his work is often not much above the level of Just So Stories, but he does seem to be respected.

      I have *very* little time for him myself, though…

      • TAD says:

        True, his selfish gene book certainly put him on the map. I know it’s been a very popular book since it was first published, and still has some relevance. I’d agree with you though, that he tends to oversimplify things. Maybe that’s one reason he’s become such a popular speaker….he’s geared toward the average person who understands little of the topic.

        Do you follow much of the current anthropology doings?

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I don’t know much about anthropology (though I do read a couple of blogs on the subject). My current scientific interests are mostly in bioinformatics and ‘pure’ computer science (algorithmic complexity and so on), and a little quantum physics. I’ve not been spending as much time on the more practical sciences like chemistry or paleontology or whatever…

          • TAD says:

            I’m just learning about quantum physics, actually. I’ve always heard that it’s not as difficult a subject as people think it is. I’m about halfway through a “beginner’s guide” by Alastair Rae. It’s been a challenging read for me though, because I haven’t read anything about physics in years and years….

            Anthropology is my main science interest, but these days it overlaps a lot with DNA research, geology, and other fields. The boundaries between traditional sciences is getting blurred these days.

            • pillock says:

              Try Feyman’s “QED” lectures.

              • pillock says:

                GAH. “Feynman”, obviously.

                • TAD says:

                  Thanks, I’ll definitely check them out. It looks like his famous lectures are available online for free, too!

                • pillock says:

                  You could also do a lot worse than check out a physics textbook…I find that looking at QM without any math actually makes it more confusing…

                  • TAD says:

                    I’m pretty good with math, so I haven’t gotten too lost yet. I’m about halfway through the quantum physics (for beginner’s) book that I’m reading. The book is aimed at people like me, who have a little background in the topic, but are trying to learn more, so I’m okay with it so far.

  4. pillock says:

    The selfish gene stuff is coming under some heavy fire these days…meanwhile I rub my hands together in glee, it is just so neo-materialist, so “digital insight”, it surprises me it stayed current as long as it did.

    Sheldrake I really like and admire, mostly for his eminently-reasonable radio interviews — I mean, I think he’s dead wrong, but so what? I think lots of people are dead wrong, but that doesn’t mean they’re just “nothing to see here!” Julian Jaynes is somebody else I have a special fondness for, and I think he’s as spectacularly wrong as anyone I’ve ever read, but he’s worth reading even so. Similarly, Sheldrake has a lot of things to say that are worth our time to listen to: he embeds a fine critique of scientific duckspeak in his wacky ideas, and he outdoes even Stephen Pinker for finding cheap experiments to do, surely a net benefit to humanity. So even if “The Sense Of Being Stared At” resembles nothing so much as “The Third Policeman”, well…it’s still a sin to kill a mockingbird, I think.

    Of course Dawkins would hate him! But then the selfish gene thing is wrong too, only difference is that Dawkins isn’t as comfortable as Sheldrake is with being thought a heretic at best, crazy loon at worst.

  5. Peter Kinnon says:

    You clearly have a healthy scepticism with regard to Michael Brooks’s book, Andrew, but are at the same time aware of the dangers of becoming paradigm bound.
    For very unorthodox takes on “Life, the universe and everything” that are rather more evidence-based you might like to see what you make of my recent book “Unusual Perspectives”
    The electronic edition can be downloaded free from the dedicated website

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