BOOK REVIEW: 'Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You': Science Demystified for Lay People

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You': Science Demystified for Lay People
The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. -- George Bernard Shaw,  preface to "Pygmalion"

Insert "scientific" in front of "language" in this quotation from the Irish playwright whose "Pygmalion" formed the basis for the hit musical "My Fair Lady," and you'll begin to understand why Philip A. Yaffe wrote "Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You" (Kindle eBook, Amazon Digital Services, ASIN: B005G0JH2G, 210kb,  $3.80). 
 
If you're looking for specific information on physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry or any other branch of science,  Yaffe's book is not for you. If you wonder why some people seem to be proud of their ignorance of science -- or just as bad, fear science -- it's a must read. 
UCLA mathematics graduate Yaffe writes that "science simply means trying to understand how the world we live in works...."  A theme throughout the book's essays is that words mean different things to scientists and nonscientists, especially the word "theory." To borrow another turn of phrase from Shaw. scientists and nonscientists are like people from America and England:  "two people separated by a common language." 


"Theory" to a scientist means something that has been determined to be a fact, a basis for building on. To many nonscientists, Yaffe writes, it means something that hasn't been proven, that is more or less one scientist's opinion. For instance,  to believers of "intelligent design"  Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution is one man's opinion. Or to a believer in traditional physics who says that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is not true. There are more of the former than of the latter, since Einstein has been vindicated time after time.


Yaffe writes that "we all live in a world which, if not dominated by science, is certainly strongly influenced by it. Yet most people seem have only a vague, and often erroneous, understanding of what science is all about. This is both sad and dangerous. If we depend on science but don’t really understand it, we are likely to make uninformed decisions with disastrous consequences."
That's one reason why Yaffe organized the book to be as readable and approachable as possible; if you make it palatable enough, even English majors (and the present reviewer is one) will be able to comprehend it!


The key chapter of the book, Yaffe told me,  is “Science in a Nutshell” at the end, which brings together all the fundamental principles of science and how science works in one place. Its headings include such apparently contradictory topics as “Science is faith” and “Science is lack of faith”; “Science is open-minded” and “Science is skeptical”; and “Science is precision” and “Science is probability.” It also examines topics such as “science is counter-intuitive,” “science is simplicity,” “science is cumulative,” “science is history,” and “science is human.”
 
“Readers who feel themselves already rather comfortable with science may wish to read this chapter first, then read the essays, quotes and jokes to see how these fundamental principles play out in practice. Readers who are somewhat queasy about science may wish to read the essays, quotes and jokes first, then read ‘Science in a Nutshell’ as a kind of summary,”  Yaffe explained. “However you choose to approach the book, when you finish you will surely have a better understanding of science and how it affects our daily lives than you did before you started,” he concludes.
 

Instead of chapters about specific sciences, "... everything you really need to know about physics, everything you really need to know about chemistry, everything you really need to know about astronomy, etc." Yaffe has fashioned the book in the form of easy-to-read essays, "some of which are based on speeches given to lay audiences, some of which have already been published elsewhere, and some of which are being published here for the first time. Each essay is self-contained, so they can be read. You don’t have to read the first essay first in order to understand the second one, and so on."
Here are some of Yaffe's essays: 

· “Science, reason, and robots” calls on short stories by the celebrated writers Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells to demonstrate the uses and abuses of scientific reasoning.

· “How to stop blowing scientific research out of proportion” uses a case history to show how once a false idea escapes from the laboratory, it is almost impossible to recapture it

· “Common misconceptions: things we know that just aren’t so” speaks for itself.

  At the very beginning of the book, Yaffe tells us about his three personal heroes. Most of us will recognize the first two, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Isaac Azimov (1920-1992) a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, who is much more famous as the author of "I, Robot" and the "Foundation Series."


His third hero is Joseph Kaplan (1902-1991) who taught physics at UCLA when Yaffe attended the school in the 1960s. As a top member of the department, Kaplan could easily have avoided teaching nonscience majors Physics 101, AKA "bonehead physics." Instead, Yaffe writes, Kaplan relished his opportunities to show how a scientist could be as passionate about his field as, say, an English major would be about a Shakespeare sonnet, or a history major about the French Revolution.


To be a scientist is to experience humility. As Isaac Newton wrote, "If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." This is only one of many quotations in "Science for the Concerned Citizen." In addition to the essays, Yaffe presents a wide variety of quotations about science from well-known scientists such as Einstein and Newton, lesser known scientists, as well as authors, philosophers, poets, etc. Like the essays, each quotation is self-contained and are not categorized into specific sub-headings. Where necessary, a quotation will be commented on to make certain that Is references and allusions can be easily understood.


And that brings up Yaffe's selection of science jokes. Believe it or not, some people find science to be fun; scientists like to laugh at themselves. His book concludes with several pages of jokes. Again, where necessary, a joke will be commented on to make certain that its references and allusions can be easily understood.


As I read Yaffe's book, I was reminded of one of my favorite writers, C.P. Snow (1905-1980). At one period in my reading life I devoured everything written by Charles Percy Snow,  an English physicist and novelist who also served in several important positions with the UK government. He is best known for his series of novels known collectively as "Strangers and Brothers", and for "The Two Cultures", a 1959 lecture in which he laments the gulf between scientists and "literary intellectuals" 

 In 1959, Snow delivered an influential Rede Lecture called "The Two Cultures", which provoked "widespread and heated debate".  Published as "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution", the lecture argued that the breakdown of communication between the "two cultures" of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. In particular, Snow argues that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. For example, many scientists have never read Charles Dickens, but artistic intellectuals are equally non-conversant with science. 
Snow wrote:

"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'

"I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had."


I think Yaffe's eBook will rekindle (no pun intended, I use an Android tablet) the interest in  "The Two Cultures" at a time when education -- including STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) seems to be at an historically low point. Like the farmers and the cowhands in the 1943 hit musical "Oklahoma!" humanities majors and scientists can be friends and learn from each other's passion.


I'll end this review by quoting Yaffe's recasting the famous opening lines of "Star Trek": 


These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Yaffe's version:
These are the voyages of the human spirit. Their never-ending mission, to explore strange new phenomena, to seek out new ideas and new insights, to boldly go where no human mind has gone before.

About the Author

Philip A. Yaffe was born in Boston in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles. In 1965 he graduated in mathematics from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), where he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, the daily student newspaper. 
 He is author of seven self-help books available in digital format. Yaffe has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and industrial marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. Email: phil.yaffe@gmail.com,phil.yaffe@yahoo.com, For my review of two recent eBooks by Yaffe, click on: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/4851. For my review of his book The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking, click on http://www.huntingtonnews.net/638

Reviewer's note: I found this in a Google search: "The main reason students find it difficult to understand science is because of all the hard to write, spell and read words. Actually, scientific vocabulary is a hodge podge of little words that are linked together to have different meanings. If you learn the meanings of the little words, you'll find scientific vocabulary much easier to understand. link: http://www.biologycorner.com/worksheets/language.html

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