Peter Doherty - The Knowledge Wars. Carlton, Melbourne University Press. 266 pp.
A handbook for evidence-based reasoning. Under that banner it attempts several tasks, perhaps too many.
The main purpose is to provide a description of science, both at it’s birth and now. Doherty starts from the earliest times, here traced to Nicolous Copernicus (1473-1543), Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) (the ancient Greeks don’t get a mention). Many more pages are devoted to modern scientific practise, using examples from medical and biochemical disciplines of both of how science works and how it can go wrong (fraud). This field is well known to Doherty and he presents plenty of examples although these accounts tend to dwell on the detail at the expense of a bigger picture and a more naturally-flowing narrative. Doherty’s view of science is strongly influenced by the central role of experiment in advancing medical knowledge. Fair enough, up to a point, but the result is that he presents science as advancing mostly by increments. There is a valuable account of the work done by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren who convinced a skeptical medical establishment that the bacterium Heliobacter pylori was responsible for stomach ulcers, but precious little else on the huge advances made in many fields of science by contributors from outside the field. A broader view of science would need to include examples such as meteorologist Alfred Wegener whose revolutionary views on continental drift were not accepted until decades after his death and physicist Thomas Gold whose revolutionary views on the physics of the inner ear were eventually recognised as correct by physiologists. Nor does Thomas Kuhn get a mention. Doherty’s view of science as being based on incremental advances at the expense of revolutionary change is incomplete and unfortunate.
There are other shorter chapters including one on citizen science (which seems a little out of place), a fairly limited treatment of skepticism which focuses (as an insider) on Peter Duesberg’s denial of the extensive evidence that HIV causes AIDS and then (as an outsider) on climate change skeptics. There is also a fairly wishy-washy treatment of The reality of faith (which would have benefited from some input from the late lamented Christopher Hitchens) and some discussion on what Doherty sees as an unhealthy and unjustified divide between left and right, especially in the context of reactions to the evidence for the role of humans in climate change.
The index is so poor that it is very difficult to find part-remembered passages.
Scientists who read this book will know of many better examples from their own disciplines that make the same points and will probably wish for a broader treatment. However scientists are not the target audience for this book, and a non-scientist reader who absorbs the main messages will surely be much better placed to interpret science as it is presented in the press. This is Doherty’s main aim.
Curious non-scientists will also find the Appendices useful: Checking out a scientist, Reading the science literature, Open access and the economics of publishing and Peer review.