Book review: Nonscience Returns

Photo of the spine of Nonscience Returns by Brian J Ford

Brian J. Ford’s Nonscience, originally published in 1971, is a satire written in the style of a self-help book. To celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary, it has been republished as Nonscience Returns with updates covering artificial intelligence, chlorine-washed food and the coronavirus pandemic. 

With chapters titled ‘The Break into Print’ and ‘How to Impress Your Colleagues’, Ford invites the reader to become one of the ‘Experts’ – people who care only about their public image and getting large grants. Ford’s nebulous Experts are everywhere. They can be scientists, bankers, software developers or even city councillors. In a nod to Experts’ reliance on confusing language, Nonscience is reported to have the longest subtitle of any book.

The front cover of Nonscience Returns with it's ridiculously long subtitle

I haven’t read any popular science books that are as funny as Nonscience Returns. I laughed out loud when Ford referred to sped up videos of the aurora borealis as, “flickering and pulsating, like luminous ferrets fighting in a pair of tights.”

Ford laments the loss of science’s glory days; a time when scientists wore waistcoats, played chess and had no need to communicate with the public or the media. I’m not a nostalgic person so I can’t help but think that Ford sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. He describes Nonscience as:

“…typically obscure, unrealistic, pointless, harmful, incomprehensible, thoughtless, short-sighted and unrelentingly inhumane. Science was never like that.” 

This immediately caught my attention, perhaps because I’ve just read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Angela Saini’s Superior. Both books are packed with researchers’ unethical and inhumane treatment of Black and Indigenous People of Colour. Sadly, scientists abusing their power isn’t a new phenomenon.

One of the strangest views expressed by Ford is on physics research. Initially, his problem with NASA and CERN appears to be the high cost of projects. However, he implies that Experts from these organisations are deliberately misleading the public. He casts doubt over results from the Large Hadron Collider: 

“They host about 18,000 visiting physicists each year and there are 12,500 scientists of 110 nationalities from 74 countries ‘analysing the data’. They claimed to find the Higgs Boson, which everybody knows about, though hardly anybody understands, but they didn’t really. All they did was detect some activity that was compatible with the mysterious Boson, and the physicists rushed to publish hundreds of research papers, but it was just a weird effect and nothing to do with their strange particle.”

As someone who spends a lot of time analysing data, I find the inverted commas particularly grating. If Ford has any evidence to back up this claim, it isn’t included in the book. In case you share Ford’s scepticism, check out the original article reporting the observation (it’s open access). Ford also compares exoplanets to UFOs and the stuff of science fiction. Maybe it’s all part of the joke. But as the book is written as if Ford is letting us in on a secret, the result feels conspiratorial.

I think Ford’s definition of Experts is so broad that Nonscience Returns loses some of its punch. Despite this, I can see how some of Ford’s predictions are coming true and, thanks to the pandemic, it feels like I can see examples of Nonscience wherever I look. Nobody could have predicted the events of this year, but I could read a whole book just on coronavirus ‘Experts’. Ford would take them to task. However, someone without a science background could read this book and conclude that tens of thousands of scientists are lying to them. While I found Nonscience Returns entertaining, this book would appeal more to the conspiracy-minded.

Thank you to Curtis Press for sending me a copy of Nonscience Returns

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