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Ten Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet) – Michael Hanlon *****

At first glance, a book of questions that science can’t answer is a pretty dull read. Questions alone aren’t enough – we need answers as well. Yet Michael Hanlon makes this topic a voyage of discovery into the unknown. Once you get started, it’s hard to put it down.
Each of the first eight topics (yes, I know there are ten – I’ll come back to this) is a surprising and engaging excursion into a subject that you may not have thought about before, but you certainly will be thinking about once you’ve read the book. It starts with the exploration of whether or not animals are conscious. Next up is the whole matter of time – a strange phenomenon, once you start to think about it. Then after a section on aging and whether we can live forever comes one of the big surprises – a fascinating discussion entitled “what are we going to do with the stupid.” Hanlon points out that where in past centuries we used to happily mock the disabled, or those of different race, now it’s only politically correct to mock those who are at the low end of normal intelligence. That, he argues, is the reason reality TV shows are so popular. And with the job market constantly changing, with less and less “brute force” and more “brain” jobs, there is a real issue of how to give everyone the best chances – a really thought provoking section.
From there he goes on to dark matter and dark energy, life in the universe, whether we remain the same person when every cell in our body changes, and the widespread nature of obesity and fatness, which proves under his scrutiny much less straightforward than you might think.
The only let down is the last two chapters. The ninth is entitled “can we really be sure the paranormal is bunkum”, which sounded very promising, but Hanlon changes from a rather laid back style to downright aggressive here, and it’s both a little unpleasant and confusing. The confusion arises out of a mixed message – in one breath he’s saying “everything paranormal (including organized religion) is rubbish” and in another “though it’s mostly rubbish, there are elements that could be worth investigating.” The unpleasantness comes from the vigour with which he puts down the supernatural. Despite statistics to the contrary, Hanlon suggests that most rational people consider all supernatural concerns (including religious beliefs) to be “gibberish”. Clearly this is historically untrue, and arguably is also untrue of the present day world. He even contradicts himself, saying later in the piece that a 1979 survey found that the majority of American professors surveyed were prepared to accept that ESP was a possibility worth studying.
He makes matters worse in his attack on “intercessory prayer.” Now I have to confess I don’t believe in that praying over someone results in a supernatural intervention to make them better, but I still have problems with his remark “It never seems to be the case, puzzlingly, that the volunteers are asked to pray for a worsening of the patients’ condition…” Setting aside whether or not intercession for harming might work, if you translate this question into a medical equivalent, it’s a bit like asking why conventional medical trials don’t attempt to give intentional overdoses to see how badly the patients are hurt. It just doesn’t quite make sense.
The tenth chapter, which is a brief exploration of how we can be sure anything is real hasn’t got the same problems, it’s just a touch flimsy. Despite my concerns about chapter nine, though, I still have no doubts in awarding this book five stars – it’s well worth it for those first eight, thought provoking and fascinating chapters.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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