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Under The Microscope

HOW DO YOU KNOW IT'S TRUE?, by Hy Ruchlis; Prometheus Books 1991; 112 pages; $13

How Do You Know It's True? is a book with a worthy aim -- helping young people understand the scientific approach to sorting out fact from fiction.

Ruchlis's approach is to emphasise a dichotomy between science, based on observed facts and logical reasoning, and superstition, which covers beliefs which are irrational or fail to fit in with observations. Although this is somewhat simplistic, it's probably necessary given his audience. He is careful, however, to note that things which are believed to be facts may themselves be proven wrong by new observations.

Topics covered include the nature of superstition and its dangers, the difficulties of experimental design, how science finds "facts" through observation and reason, probability and chance, and what science is good for.

Ruchlis is clearly trying to avoid being too dogmatic. He acknowledges that some superstitions may contain elements of truth and that scienceis not infallible. One valuable section, about explaining gravity and the rotation of the Earth to an ancient astronomer, illustrates the often overlooked point that pre-scientific beliefs generally seemed reasonable at the time, and that modern beliefs are often held uncritically.

My initial impression of the book was quite negative, as the authorhas an unfortunate tendency to sound a bit patronising, and hisfrequent use of italics to emphasise important terms grows somewhat irksome after a while. If you can overlook these flaws, and the American orientation, however, How Do You Know It's True? is an acceptable introduction to its topic.

Phil Anderson, NZSM