Review: 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

Michael Brooks starts with a good theme in 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, but his execution comes off the rails for me.  His idea is to pick 13 places that scientific consensus is weak or non-existent and highlight them as areas in which breakthroughs could come with new thinking.  This is a sound idea.  Things we don’t understand are spots where people are looking and new ideas are necessary, which is a recipe for shaking things up.

The problem is that the actual phenomena he highlights are hit or miss.  While there really is significant confusion if not downright incredulity around dark matter and dark energy, saying that there is less confusion about cold fusion and homeopathy is a big understatement. There is consensus that homeopathy is snake oil and that cold fusion is an over-hyped anomaly. The distinction is between what experts in the field make sense of and what the general public makes sense of.  There isn’t much chance of a scientific breakthrough coming from studying how Penn and Teller catch bullets in their teeth, even though most people don’t know how it works.

Brooks’s choices are not uniformly bad.  I did enjoy and learn from parts of 13 Things.  Overall, though, I found the mixing of real conundrums and simple misunderstanding to be very distracting.

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