What makes good science? What makes bad science? What makes something that sort of looks like science not really science at all? These are the kinds of questions David Helfand attempts to answer in this book. He talks about probability, statistics, correlation, estimation, data collection and representation…. All good stuff, but if the goal of this book is to explain to the general public why science is the best tool we have for acquiring knowledge, it has some flaws.
I have no issues over the things he’s saying, but the way he’s saying them is another matter. I never heard of Professor Helfand before reading this, although I’m sure he’s a wonderful man, but the tone of his book is often that of a curmudgeon. Yes, I know scientific literacy isn’t what is should be, and that distresses me too, but you can’t reach the people who need to be reached by deriding them about the mistakes they’ve been making, most of which are cultural flaws rather than personal ones (the American reluctance about using the metric system, for example). And if the aim is to inform the uninformed, it should be done in terms familiar to them. Formulas and tables are probably not the best method, nor is using data about quasars and PhD earners as examples. I’m sure other things, everyday things—weather forecasts, household budgets, claims made in advertising—could be used as examples to demonstrate points about probability, estimation, and correlation instead.
Still, the point of the book is valid. It is important to be wary of our assumptions, to maintain a healthy skepticism, and to question the claims and assertions we see reported in the media.