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Dirty, cheatin', lowdown science

A witty, informed look at why it is and why it has to be if scientists are going to root out truth.

The Secret Anarchy of Science

By Michael Brooks

Overlook. 320 pp. $26.95.

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Reviewed by John Timpane

Science reporting and writing suffer the same malady we've had for years with business writing, or writing about the Internet.

Almost everyone who writes about it is either a salesperson, pitching like heck for the home team; a current or former practitioner; or a cheerleader.

So you never get a straight deal. With science, it's hard not to cheerlead. Its successes, in technology, engineering, and medicine, are spectacular and world-transforming. Tales of science - what's discovered, how, and what it means - transfix, overwhelm.

Problem: Cheerleading is still cheerleading. Much of what we hear/read about science is either stylized or idealized. It's how we want people to think science works. Or the way we wish it did.

That's one of the many reasons I like Michael Brooks' Free Radicals. Brooks loves science but wants to tell it exactly as it is. He's a novelist, Ph.D. in physics, consultant at New Scientist, and columnist for the New Statesman, and also a former Templeton Fellow in journalism and religion. He loves science with all his mind. He's here to tell us, nevertheless, in witty, informed writing, just how dirty, cheatin', and lowdown science can be - and has to be, if science is going to get anywhere.

That's the sprig of mint in this intellectual mojito of a book: Not only are scientists big-time cheatfaces, self-promoters, and mud-wrestlers, but also they have to be, and the world has to let them be. If the boys want to fight, you better let 'em.

When Einstein did his famous experiments to confirm the electron-based theory of magnetism, he knew he needed a certain value for the ratio of magnetism to motion: 1.0. He got another number - but published the number that confirmed the theory. Turns out he was right - and also "cherry-picking," fitting preconceived notion to an appearance of science fact. Happens all the time.

Scientists fudge. They mold data to match what ought to be rather than what they really find in the lab. Our writer finds this amusing, and he sympathizes. Both a master ironist and a man with a big heart for the scientist, Brooks knows this state of things won't ever change. It's the way it works. Maculate and naughty, it's the way it always will, and always should.

Where does scientific inspiration originate? From rigorous benchwork, testing, retesting, retesting the retests? Sometimes. A lot of the time, however, it comes from almost anywhere.

The "Earthrise photo" from the moon didn't become popular until California alt-thinker Stewart Brand started the campaign - and, perhaps, birthed the modern environmentalist movement. Kary Mullis invented the crucial biochemical tool called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. (He won the chemistry Nobel in 1993.) What does he credit? His liking for LSD. In 1921, Otto Loewi had a dream, woke up, did a renowned experiment, and helped invent modern neuroscience. Enrico Fermi followed an intuition, nothing scientific, in the experiment that unlocked the secret of the nuclear chain reaction. Michael Faraday and Nicholas Copernicus relied on their religious faith.

Barry Marshall, who discovered what causes stomach ulcers, played fast, loose, and messy with his methods and data. He was right, and got the right answer, and now we know. Craig Venter, the self-promoting corporate cowboy who beat the world to the kind-of sequencing of the human genome, slashed and shoved his way to the prize. And clutched it.

Tales abound of how nasty the "Fight Club" of science can be, as competitors scrabble to be first. William Shockley knew he was in a race to find the transistor. He lost. So he mounted a P.R. assault (one of many such assaults in this book) to make the world think his team had won. And most people believe, still, that it did. The world already knows the catty, sweaty-browed tale of how James D. Watson and Francis Crick crossed the finish line first to the proper description of the workings of DNA. But Brooks is equally fascinating about the continuing clash over whether prions can cause disease, and the equivocal figure therein of Stanley Prusiner.

In light of the recent Higgs boson announcement, the mouth goes dry when one reads:

. . . five people are in line to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics should the discovery be made. And, since a Nobel can be shared between three scientists at most, blood will be spilt.

There will be blood!

Grant for a moment (even though I'm about to trash the idea) that science gets it right eventually. Does that truly justify the anarchy, what people do to get their results out, to be first, to be right, to be famous?

Brooks is a trifle cute on this point. Sometimes, he writes in full-blown anarchy fandom. At other times, he's more, "Hey, so what? As long as human knowledge and capability are advanced." I get that - and leave it to ethicists.

But let's look at what I'll call the stockbroker's argument. Just as stockbrokers say, "Stay in for the long haul. And for God's sake, buy more stock!", science advocates might say, "Science gets things right eventually. Always self-correcting. All wrongs eventually righted, had we world enough and time."

A despicable theory, universally held, incapable of proof. A logical fallacy standing in as a defense. It answers a question ("How shall we think of the state of science at this moment?") with a baited, switched distraction ("Oh, just think of the long term").

And should I quote John Maynard Keynes here, as in "In the long run, we're all dead"? His quip lances the stockbroker's argument but good. Long-term descriptions are at worst illusory, since we live and know in small terms. The stockbroker's argument works if you stretch market performance out over 30 to 50 years, and who has that to stretch? Worse, it fails to describe the state of the market/science at any one time. (Woe to you if you have to cash in during a downturn - what the market did for the last 20 years won't help you then.)

We can never know whether, in the long run, science is always right. Remember, much of what science does is to correct older science. To quote a beloved biophysical chemist friend, "What we think now we won't think in another 20 years." So we cannot, literally can never, know which part of what we think now will be amended later. As in proven wrong.

There is no end, and no always. Fallacious illusion - the best there is.

But what a fine book Free Radicals is, and what a lovely writer Michael Brooks is, especially in the lead sentences to his sections and chapters:

Good scientists are like TV detectives: Give them a few clues and they will chase down the truth. . . .

Scientists may be anarchists, but they can still have hearts of gold. . . .

It is a rarely acknowledged fact [impish Jane Austen reversal!] that among all society's leading figures - political, intellectual, social, and religious - scientists are the ones who really can take us into the promised land. . . .

This book would be worth reading just for its intelligence and wit, much aside from its truthful and worthy argument. My favorite bon mot, the capper to this book, as enjoyable to the reader as it clearly was to the writer:

Anything goes: Science does what it needs to do.

Well, yeah. And that truth shouldn't lessen our respect for science, or our fascinated thirst to know what it'll discover next.