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The Science Gap: Dispelling the Myths and Understanding the Reality of Science.

Milton Rothman. Prometheus, $24.95. The thrust of The Science Gap is the rebuttal of an alluring fallacy: the assumption that, because the history of scientific progress has witnessed a constant overturning of previously inviolate knowledge, claims made by scientists today will, inevitably, be similarly rejected. What makes this belief so tempting is what also makes it so dangerous: It allows us to continue to assume that science will eventually cure the ills afflicting our planet and threatening its future. One reason we've failed to adequately address the greenhouse effect, toxic dumping, deforestation, destruction of biodiversity, acid rain, ozone depletion, and the like is that the technological triumphs of the past century have given us an idiotic sense of invincibility. Science is not without its limits, Rothman argues--and indeed, many of those limits will soon be reached.

Rothman, a former research physicist at Princeton, points out that vastly improved technology and methodology allow today's scientists to better prove, expand upon, and corroborate their findings, thus they are much more certain of the validity of their theories than scientists of previous centuries could ever be. Much of what we know now, we know with far more certainty than was ever before possible. Furthermore, Rothman asserts, the term "theory" is often misleading, because many of the concepts labeled theories are, instead, well-defined and exhaustively tested principles of nature--they will not be reversed, only refined.

The moral of Rothman's story should be that, because science will not solve all our current or future problems, we will have to rely on a combination of scientific study and smart planning to do the job, so let's get cracking. Instead, he presents a series of chapters, each aimed at debunking a specific contemporary "myth" about science. Unfortunately, most of the "myths" Rothman attacks are better described as "tiresome aphorisms," making the book little more than a long complaint about a bunch of trivial slogans that nobody really believes anyway. Chapter titles include "Nothing is Known for Sure," "All Scientists Are Objective," and "Advanced Civilizations on Other Planets Possess Great Forces Unavailable to Us on Earth." It turns out that Rothman is less irritated by those scientific beliefs that allow us to keep squandering resources and overrunning the globe than he is by our alleged preoccupation with psychic powers and UFOs. These do present, as he says, a wave of irrationality, but they are only distractions--symptoms of a much deeper foolishness.

Yet distractions dominate this book. For instance, Rothman provides a long discourse on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to prove that it's not true that "nothing is impossible." But who, honest to God, really believes that nothing is impossible? Rothman points to "teachers, coaches, cheer-leaders." But every kid in the history of the world who has tried to fly to Mars by flapping his arms and jumping off the top of the jungle gym knows that some things simply aren't possible. Many of the early chapters are spent reexplaining the principle of conservation of energy--indeed, the subject affords him one of the few attempts at levity in an otherwise humorless text. After mentioning for the fifth time that perpetual motion machines are impossible because energy simply can neither be created nor destroyed, and that the patent office rejects claims on such machines out of hand for just this reason, Rothman points out that some gullible souls are still willing to invest in perpetual motion schemes, because "There is no law of conservation of money or credulity."

Rothman also condemns animal rights activists for their belief in the myth "All problems can be solved with computer modeling," and instead argues that we will always need to run tests on animals. He opines, "The more extreme animal-rights activists are little more than the modern version of the old-time antivivisectionists"--as if this were a stinging indictment. He goes on to assert that such activists hope to create a "knee-jerk revulsion to the 'elitist' idea that some animals are higher on the scale of evolution than others." However, only the most dogmatic of PETA members would claim that humans aren't higher on the evolutionary chain. But many would argue that such a belief is largely irrelevant, because all life is intrinsically valuable. Secondly, most of the opposition to animal testing stems from the fact that animals are used to test frivolous stuff like new brands of mascara. The horror of this doesn't occur to Rothman. Few reasonable people would suggest giving up cancer research for the want of a few rats --just that we ought to curb our hubris in the matter.

Though he claims to live in a universe that consists of "elementary particles and the forces by which they interact, and nothing else" (his italics), it is clear that Rothman actually inhabits a world of loopy activists, insensible piano instructors, New Age gurus, astrologers, and bad science fiction writers, all of whom are conspiring to eradicate common sense from the face of the earth. But the question that looms in the mind of the reader is this: Who's listening to these people? No one, surely, who would bother to read past this book's introduction.

Less airy individuals who do read on are rewarded much later, when Rothman marshals some terrifying statistics on the nature of exponential growth and its relevance to the future of world economic and population growth. He also presents some thought-inducing information on the state of medical technology, which, he points out, is geared towards helping the population of our country get sick later in life. That isn't a terrible thing, except that we end up apportioning ever more of our medical resources to people who have already lived most of their lives. But these weighty topics--around which the entire text ought to have revolved--are buried.

John Allen Paulos wrote a bestseller a couple of years ago called Innumeracy, in which he showed how our country's widespread inability to deal with math hurts us in our daily lives. I hope Rothman in his next book chooses to focus his clear sight on the more important issues that are bound up in our nation's inability to grasp the true state of science today--call it Dissciency--and leave the lunatic fringe to The National Enquirer.
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Author:Beard, Elliott
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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