free debate

January 25, 2012

Book Review: Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science

Second Edition Published by
Dover Publications
If you have an interest in telling reality from nonsense, I have found history to be one of the most insightful guides. UFOs, Scientology, and end of the world theories did not show up yesterday. Each of these has a long chronicle of claims and critics. Understanding that history is a window into the world of frauds, cranks, and the misinformed.

Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science was written by Martin Gardner in 1952, with the second edition coming out in 1957. I have heard this book referred to as one of the first modern skeptical books. The book covers a wide rage of topics each in about 10 pages. As I read, I was surprised at how many of these ideas are still around today, only repackaged for a modern audience.

Personally, the most informative and frankly fun cases to read about were the UFOs. You have to keep in mind this book was written before the launch of Sputnik, so our understanding of the universe was very different. This was a time when most UFO were believed not to have come from other stars or galaxies but from Mars or Venus. The dropping of the first atomic weapons was still fresh in the public consciousness as well. This led a whole slew of explanations for why the aliens were visiting the Earth. Some were fairly straightforward, like the idea that the aliens wanted us not to destroy ourselves. Other explanations were outright bizarre, like the idea that beings the size of bees made from precious gems were piloting these UFOs because the atomic blasts were somehow disrupting the sun and threatening their home on Mars.

It is fun to look at these old ideas and see how ridiculous they are. But they also give us a very important cautionary tale. After all, Martin Gardner was not writing on these ideas simply to make fun of them. He wrote on these topics because these are things people believed. 60 years later, you could write basically the same book on a new set of weird beliefs that have cropped up. We need to be careful on what grounds we accept what we are told and carry on this legacy of informing those around us.