During the Covid-19 pandemic we have watched science evolve almost daily with each headline and news report. We have listened to explanations of competing ideas about how the virus emerged, how it spreads, whether it can be caught from mail, whether face masks work, the efficacy of new treatments and the risks of new vaccines. As scientists debated, gaps in knowledge were revealed and theories contested. There were even allegations of pseudoscience. But according to Michael Gordin, this is how science works.

The label of pseudoscience has been applied to everything from ufology and eugenics to the pursuit of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster (or cryptozoology, to use its scientific name). What do we mean by pseudoscience and why in our techno-scientific age are such fringe ideas still so prevalent? These are the questions Gordin seeks to answer in this brief (some 128 pages) yet fascinating book.

Karl Popper attempted to distinguish science from non-science by the principle of falsifiability: if a theory could be proved wrong by an experiment, then it was science. But for Gordin, pseudoscience is a more complex phenomenon than this allows, one more closely intertwined with scientific endeavour. For instance, in the cold war fears of a “psi gap” with the Soviets prompted the CIA to pay physicists $50,000 to investigate Uri Geller’s spoon-bending skills and the potential for “ESPionage”. His approach is historical rather than philosophical, and is ultimately far more revealing about the nature of science itself. For Gordin’s book is not just an explanation of fringe ideas: it is also about how our knowledge of the world evolves.

Uri Geller holds a spoon he claims to have bent using supernatural powers.
Uri Geller holds a spoon he claims to have bent using supernatural powers. Photograph: David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

Gordin divides what he terms fringe doctrines into four main areas. There are those based on out-of-date science (“vestigial sciences”), including astrology and alchemy; those, such as Lysenkoism in Stalin’s Soviet Union, which are allied to state ideologies (“hyperpoliticised sciences”); and counterestablishment sciences, including phrenology in the 19th century and creationism today, “the exemplary pseudoscience in the west”. Finally, there are sciences that posit extraordinary powers of mind, from telepathy to clairvoyance.

Refreshingly, Gordin rejects the idea that you just need to bombard people with more science to make them see the error of their ways. Most followers of flat Earth theory learned about the shape of our planet at school: “pseudosciences do not develop because people have insufficient scientific information”.

Rather, he argues convincingly that fringe ideas are generated by the adversarial scientific process itself, “sloughed off from the consensus as it changes”. Science and pseudoscience are the yin and yang of our imperfect and constantly evolving attempts to comprehend the universe and our place within it. We will never eliminate pseudosciences entirely. Indeed if we did so, Gordin argues, we might destroy science too.

On the Fringe by Michael D Rosengarten is published by Oxford (£14.99). To support the Guardian, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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