Reports of the National Center for Science Education
October 14, 2008
Review: Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction
Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends and Pseudoscience Begins
Charles M Wynn and Arthur W Wiggins (with cartoons by Sidney Harris)
Washington (DC): Joseph Henry Press, 2001. 226 pages (with glossary, additional reading list, and index).
Andrew J Petto, University of the Arts
Back in Madison, Wisconsin — home of the quadrennial "Psychic Faire" — it should have been no surprise to see the half-page ad for angel medium, and angel therapist, Dr Doreen Virtue. She claims that she can see, communicate, and give people access to the power of angels all around us. But how do we know that angels are responsible? Well, because Dr Virtue tells us they are. This may seem like a cover story from the Weekly World News, but it appeared in a regular daily newspaper, and Virtue's appearance drew a full house at a local theater.
Quantum Leaps is just the sort of book that should be read by anyone interested in psychics, mediums, astrologers, and others who make real-world claims about the effects of invisible powers accessible only to a select few. It gets to the heart of what constitutes science — not only the content and the theory, but also the process and reflection. Using historical and contemporary examples, the authors show us science at work — accepting, modifying, and often rejecting hypotheses, theories, and even very plausible explanations for what we observe in the world around us. The strength of the book is in the first 50 pages. Here the authors elucidate the modern scientific process with the aid of abundant diagrams, charts, and the delightful cartoons of Sidney Harris. I do not know of a clearer, more accurate, and more accessible explanation of what science is and how it proceeds than that in the first three chapters of this book.
The second part of the book looks at five major, persistent pseudoscientific ideas, recognizing that there are many more that could be added. The Wynn and Wiggins "Top Five" are UFOs and visits from extraterrestrials, astrology, out-of-body experiences and astral projections, creation "science", and parapsychology. These are important ideas that engage many of our citizens, and Wynn and Wiggins review the main claims and some of the history of these ideas.
Unfortunately, the book misses an opportunity in this section to take the reader through a consistent examination of these ideas based on the characteristics of scientific investigation laid out in the first part of the book. Their rejection of these pseudosciences is often didactic, even authoritarian, and does not shed as much light on why we should reject these ideas as the introductory chapters seem to promise. None of their statements about these pseudoscientific ideas is incorrect; it is just that they often do little more than tell us that the pseudoscientific idea is wrong — only occasionally exploring which aspects of good scientific practice are violated by the pseudoscience in question.
Still, the book is valuable overall and a good resource for those interested in (or faced with confronting) pseudoscientific ideas in the classroom, in civic life, or in politics. It provides the framework within which one could hold the Wynn and Wiggins "Top Five" up to the scrutiny of the practice of real science, as laid out in the introductory chapters. There is also a solid glossary followed by a good selection of further readings for those more interested in particular topics. During our recent struggle in Pennsylvania over science education standards, I considered buying a copy for each member of the State Assembly's two education committees. It would have been a worthwhile investment.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.