Friday, 17 August 2001

John L. Casti: Paradigms Lost (1989)

Edition: Scribners, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 909

Areas on the cutting edge of scientific research tend to generate controversy for several reasons. Experiments have not yet definitively ruled out possibilities, so that people are free to theorise. The disagreements are really philosophical and political (since they often determine the allocation of funding for research) rather than scientific. Personalities become involved, and frequently toes are trodden on in other disciplines - which computer programmer, for example, would want to be told by a psychologist whether or not his work might ever produce a computer that can be called intelligent?

Casti chooses six example controversies, all of which have something to do with the uniqueness of human beings - the origin of life on earth, the "nature vs nurture" debate, the origin of the human capacity for language, artificial intelligence, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and the role of the observer in quantum mechanics. The selection is completed by an introductory chapter on scientific method (needed to help explain why some arguments are non-scientific later). Casti explains the issues involved and the arguments used for and against the main points of view reasonably clearly (the most difficult sections being some of the quantum mechanical descriptions) for the non-scientist. It is perhaps a bok aimed more at someone who has read some popular science before rather than someone completely new to the ideas, because it is about more philosophical issues than many books on these subjects. It also doesn't portray science as monolithic and complete, as there is a tendency to do.

Casti isn't afraid to speak his mind, and can be quite scathing, particularly about arguments which have nothing to do with science, such as some of the more obviously politically motivated attacks on the work of Noam Chomsky. At the end of each chapter, he says what his own views on the subject are, and why, and is unfailingly interesting. The book concludes with an excellent "Further Reading" section, the utility of which is only slightly diminished by the age of the book, which is just beginning to seem a little out of date in places. I must look out for Casti's more recent work!

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