I was in the grocery checkout line a few weeks ago. I sometimes scan the magazine rack impulse grabs but never buy them. This week, the crop circle cover photo of a special edition of Popular Science caught my attention: Mistakes and Hoaxes – 100 Things Science Got Wrong
What did science get wrong about crop circles? “Science” (be wary of the tone of generality used in the title) never assumed there was anything worthwhile about crop circles. They were a man-made (and quite nifty) phenomenon. Thumbing through the issue, I saw pages about phrenology, cigarettes are good for you, bloodletting, humans evolved from apes, and so on – topics that may appear to have once had scientific backing. But several other standard hoaxes were cited in the list – spirit photography, alien autopsy, Loch Ness Monster, King Tut’s curse…
So, it was a mishmash of rejected thinking, errors, and hoaxes but not everything had to do with science. Lots of these “myths” were popular in the public or the media but gained zero traction as legitimate science. I bought it to see how these popular myths (if not popular “science”) were treated. It was a mixed bag.
The issue, considered a Time Inc. Book, priced at $13.99 is a snazzy coffee table edition. Each “myth” takes up one page or less. It’s well illustrated and a casual read for those who are not specialists in science. I would recommend it to those who find science stuff interesting but don’t have a formal background in it. As with typical “popular science”, specialists will find plenty of nits to pick in the text. But overall, it’s not flawed except in the egregiously wrong title. There was no introduction or editor’s note, the content started immediately with Myth #1: Neutrinos Are Faster Than Light – a legitimate story that described how an experiment went awry.
Continuing on, the title nagged at me. Science gets plenty wrong because it’s done by people who make lots of mistakes and because it’s insanely difficult to tease out the actual answer from messy data.
It’s not the most prudent thing to do for a pro-science publication to boldly suggest on the cover that science was wrong about crop circles (or time travel, the vaccine-autism link, or that humans and dinosaurs co-existed) because that’s deceptive and degrading to the scientific community who coalesced around a conservative consensus for those questions. There was NEVER solid support for such things. A few fringe scientists, but more often some pseudoscientific non-scientists, may have blown a lot of hot air about their pet ideas but that didn’t make them true and it didn’t make it “science”. I wished Popular Science would have picked up on that.
Science needs cheerleaders. Smart ones. We don’t need science porn like the “I Fucking Love Science” website or sciencey crap television like Ghost Hunters and Finding Bigfoot. We need to cultivate genuine science appreciation through showing why science is the best way of knowing nature that humans have devised. Nothing is totally reliable but science is self-correcting and continues to approximate what we might reasonably consider the “truth”. In a way, this issue gets there but the path has several pitfalls and cul de sacs.
Scientists did at one time give some credence to Piltdown Man, photographic memory, stress-causing ulcers, and spontaneous generation, then ditched them. There are many examples here of that sort of correction. Alchemy morphed into chemistry. Astrology begat astronomy. So perhaps the title could have been 100 Things Science Rejected. Or 100 Things Science Soundly Skewered. No, that probably wouldn’t have sold very well but it would have been more on point.
As with any list, we can quibble with what was included and not included. For example, War of the Worlds “mass panic” had nothing really to do with science but with the media so it shouldn’t have been in here. Neither should the bit on Dihydrogen Monoxide or Mrs. Toft repeatedly giving birth to various animal parts. They were interesting stories but not on theme.
I’m a bit annoyed that some non-scientific topics are in here at all because, just by being there, they get a small jolt of credibility – the moon landing hoax, pyramids on the moon, dowsing, chemtrails and the Atacama alien – even though they are discredited. This bullshit would be better off ignored here.
On the other hand, this is an opportunity to inject some skeptical thinking into the mainstream. I enjoyed looking for familiar names throughout. Some name-dropped skeptics included Dr. Darren Naish (Loch Ness Monster), Dr. Stuart Robbins and Dr. Phil Plait (Pyramids on the Moon), and yours truly (Bigfoot). (I did not know I was mentioned in it until I actually read that entry. SURPRISE!) The emphasis on uncovering hoaxes, calling out pseudoscience, and promoting sound evidence over bad shows me that the skeptical voice is greatly needed and appreciated in society even if it doesn’t always seem so. I’m encouraged by that. We are being heard, read, and referred to, not vilified!
In some entries, they highlighted fiction that enhanced the myth – Megalodon’s Discovery Channel fake documentary, the spaghetti tree April Fools Joke, the Jackalope creation, and the blunder of a fossil collector and National Geographic who didn’t listen to paleontologists who said archaeoraptor (“Piltdown chicken”) was a doctored fake. (D’OH!)
Indeed, many of the entries show how scientists doubted the initial claim and eventually ferreted out the truth – N-Rays, cold fusion, flying bumblebees and the planet Vulcan. Perhaps the title was a way of drawing in readers who are interested in this sort of thing who may actually learn something and consider science more valuable than before.
All in all, this publication is a fun, interesting read, flawed, but informative for the science-enthusiast average American. We need more good science stories for the public. And just like scientific endeavors, it won’t be perfect but it is worthwhile.