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On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty.

The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science.

Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a number of types (though these can overlap), an analysis that is very revealing. Some he describes as vestigial science - people clinging onto a theory after the scientific consensus has moved away from it. (Pointing out that occasionally the pendulum can swing back.) Others he describes as 'hyperpoliticized sciences' - the Nazi's 'German' science, for example, or the Soviet Union's suppression of genetics under Stalin. In other cases, the driver is 'fighting establishment science' - here the pseudoscience is supported by conventional means such as journals and conferences, but set up in opposition to what is seen as restrictive establishment view. (He also gives over a chapter to mental science, including ESP, though this seems the weakest content of the book, as it isn't really an equivalent category.)

What was also interesting was Gordin's relatively brief coverage of denial, which despite being brief handles the topic much better here than McIntyre's complete book on it, How to Talk to a Science Denier. Denial, as Gordin points out, is not what is involved with something like Flat Earth 'science' or 'creation science'. Supporters of these concepts believe they are presenting the scientific truth. It is rather when an anti-science viewpoint is deliberately pushed to support a different agenda - whether it's over the impact of cigarette smoking or climate change. The technique here is not an attempt to be scientific, but a deliberate move to cast doubt on the science, always suggesting there needs to be more evidence.

I appreciate this book is quite a niche interest, but for me it was fascinating. It might feel as if it's a bit of a cop-out that Gordin effectively says there aren't really solutions to this - the only way to get rid of pseudoscience (as opposed to denial) is to get rid of science, but I suspect he is right. Either way it's a very effective and readable analysis.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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