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Nonscience Returns - Brian Ford ****

This is a book of two halves, or more accurately two interlaced parts. Biologist and science communicator Brian Ford published a book called Nonscience in 1971. What we have here is that original book, but with a new introduction, while every chapter has an extra section on the end of it written in 2020 including text that is up-to-date enough to include, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic. The four star rating of Nonscience Returns is entirely and only for the extra material. I'm afraid the old material has not aged well, but the book is still worth reading for the modern parts.

What we have here is a satirical look at the way that what used to be simple science has increasingly become a field where 'Experts' hold forth to the public and work primarily to forward their careers rather than carry out research that has any value. In the modern section, which we'll return to, Ford is great at bringing down pomposity and irrelevance. But let's get the original book out of the way first.

Back in the late 1940s and 1950s, the author Stephen Potter wrote a number of parodies of self-help books, notably including Gamesmanship, Lifemanship and One-Upmanship. Portrayed on the screen as School for Scoundrels in 1960, the underlying idea was that Potter ran a self-help correspondence school that helped people get on in the world by being devious and totally self-centred. Ford seems to have modelled the original Nonscience on this approach, portraying it as a guide to becoming an Expert. Unfortunately, it has a very dated feel and a style of humour that is better suited to the 1940s than the present: I found it hard going.

The modern sections are far better written and not trying so hard to be funny. This would have been so much better a book if Ford had simply based a new book on the old one, adopting his new style throughout. However, I do think it's worth reading, because underlying both old and new parts is a very real problem. There are plenty of people out there, often portrayed in the media as experts, who as Ford suggests practice not science but nonscience. They are engaged in pointless research, put out widely exaggerated press releases and are loved by the media as portraying expertise that is often not based on solid grounds.

Ford gives strong examples, including some from the response to the pandemic. I have a lot of sympathy with his assertion that we (and the media) need to move away from putting too much trust (and public money) in the direction of these self-proclaimed experts, focussing more on the real science.

There's more that Ford could have done. He makes no mention of what is surely the biggest example of nonscience (and dodgy experts), economics. And while there is plenty of negativity in criticising such people, there's no concrete suggestion of how academia could be reinvented to get it back to more of a true scientific approach. Even so, in an era of fake news, this is a timely reminder that science is not without its own flaws in this regard.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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