Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review: On Fact and Fraud

Usually books come from the library looking a lot bigger and proving a lot harder to read than I had hoped. On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science by David Goodstein is the exact opposite: it clocks in at just over 100 pages of widely spaced text but covers as much ground as books several times as large. This book is adapted from a course about scientific fraud, and the real value of it is the personal, working connection with the field that Goodstein brings as a physics prof at Caltech. The first section of the book is the expected epistemology, but clearly done pragmatically by a working scientist. One of Goodstein's main points is that Karl Popper's ideal of the disinterested scientist is in practice unachievable because some bias is inherent in the practice of doing science. After the intro chapter, Goodstein runs through several cases of fraud or not-fraud in science: he digs into science history of 100 years ago with Millikan's oil-drop experiment (not guilty); he details two cases of biological science fraud from a couple of decades ago (guilty), mentions cold fusion (guilty (of self-delusion), but with an added scientist whom he knows and respects who just might be seeing something), high-temp superconductivity (not guilty), and semiconductor research (guilty). The superconductivity discussion is especially helpful because it's a case of an unbelievable claim that turned out to be true. The only thing I wish it could have included is pictures of more data, such as the cold fusion "neutron" peak and other bits I've seen. There's a few cases of that but not enough; I think you need to see the fraud with your own eyes. But that's a quibble and probably a restriction of copyright or something. So, accurate, iconoclastic (at least in the case of Popper), efficient and interesting writing on a subject we talk about in class -- my only question is if I should make the students buy this book or if I should just tell them about it. It's a great find, and this is a topic that really gets the students interested and thinking.

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