Mind the Gap

Milton K. Rothman. The Science Gap: Dispelling the Myths and Understanding the Reality of Science. Buffalo, New York, Prometheus Books, 1982.

This would be a good book if the author confined himself to physics, a subject on which he has many years of experience in research and teaching. The basic principles are explained with great clarity and there are useful discussions on the practical limitations of applied science. However, he also deals with the philosophy of science, Although he seems to have read fairly widely on this subject, his grasp of it seems superficial, Also, as a card-carrying sceptic, he takes a swipe or two at religion. Religion "occupies a world of discourse separate from the world of science', Of course it does, Then why discuss it in a book about science?

One of the most irritating things about sceptics is their tedious literal-mindedness, and this author is no exception, To him a myth is simply a mistaken belief or an unscientific theory, rather than a story with a hidden meaning.

Rothman is much exercised by the distinction between realism and idealism. In a scientific context, the idealist stresses the role of the observers and the ways in which they influence the phenomena they observe, whereas the realist stresses the objective existence of things 'out there' which may or may not be observed. In philosophy the distinctions between realism and idealism are rather subtle and' complex; it would need a rather long essay just to give a brief outline of the arguments. However, for Rothman it is all quite simple - realists are right and idealists are wrong.

He asks us: 'But what if we substituted a video camera and a computer memory for the human observer? Would it make any difference to the process of observation?' He doesn't seem to see the problem which bothers the philosophers: the human observer must intervene at some stage of the proceedings or we would never know the results of the experiment.

As this is an American book, there is the usual amount of space devoted to fulminating about creationism which in other countries might be used for a more profitable discussion on controversies concerning certain details of the theory of evolution. The Science Gap is well written and
entertaining, but the author has too much to say on subjects on which he is plainly not an expert, a tendency he criticises in others. -- John Harney, from Magonia 47, October 1993.


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