Book Review: "What we Believe but Cannot Prove: Science in the Age of Certainty", Edited by John Brockman

August 22, 2008

What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty by John BrockmanDozens of short essays from prominent scientists about what they “know” but cannot, scientifically, “prove,” at least yet. What could have been an energizing look at possibilities by the sharpest minds in science more often comes off as individual posturing, pessimism and promotion of pet ideas, sadly.

There were patterns in the tones of the pieces:

One, the “I have to take some time to backpedal and wryly point out that, since I am a scientist, I believe nothing–NOTHING–it is all about hypothesis and vigorous scientific method.” OK, but that sure takes the magic right out of it, and I got tired of it by the third time I saw it.

Two, the “I am academic and I have a world-altering idea and I can’t seem to get my boneheaded colleagues to just agree that this unproved idea of mine is bloody genius so I’m going to use this opportunity as a soapbox.” Jared Diamond’s essay comes off like this, for one, with him sounding wounded and unheeded, whereas I would argue that Mr. Diamond’s conjectures get a lot of publicity.

Three, the “I didn’t really understand the assignment” scribbles that are kind of awkward to read.

Within the jumble are some gems, and some fascinating conflicting predicitions. My personal favorite is Rudy Rucker’s suggestion of a modified “Many Universes” theory. Only a page long, it packs in so much dense imagery and ideas that it took me half an hour to read. Also compelling: David Buss’ assertion of the scientific existence of true love, John H. McWhorter’s out-there-but-wow theory that some Indonesian languages were actually spoken cross-species (i.e. simultaneously by humans and another higher-order primate), and Bruce Sterling’s hair-raising five-word downer about climate change.

With some more hard-line editing and less cleverness, this collection could have been a stunner. The concept is adrenalizing and full of potential, but the self-consciousness of the scientists–granted, they are not, most of them, writers–got in the way.


LibraryThing Tags:

science, essays, opinion, non-fiction, read, readin2008, nonfiction

As always, see all of my reviews on LibraryThing.

Book #49 of 2008

One Comment

  1. autumn says:

    I read this collection and had much the same reaction. So I went ahead and used the title as a basis for a personal essay about belief and certainty that I found way more rewarding than the book.:)