scientists should do a certain amount of
debunking in their field. A lot of them are so busy
that they don’t want to bother. One of the few
exceptions was Carl Sagan, who wrote a couple
of books you can call debunking books.
DS: You are associated with groups that have
“skeptic” in their name. Can you clarify what
“skeptic” means to you, and what you would
define as “healthy skepticism”?
MG: As far as scientific matters are concerned,
the main reason for being a skeptic is that
you should not believe anything unless there’s
DS: Richard Feynman said that scientific method
consists of procedures we have learned to help
us avoid drawing wrong conclusions.
MG: That’s a good definition.
DS: You’ve written essays about perpetual
motion. The idea of making a machine that
puts out more energy than it takes in has been
persistent since the 11th century, and shows
no sign of abating.
Today some folks are pinning their hopes
on tapping the “zero point energy” and “dark
energy” that speculative theoretical physics are
talking about. They say that the laws of physics,
particularly the laws of thermodynamics, stifle
creativity, and delay the time when we will produce unlimited energy for next to nothing. How
would you respond to them?
MG: Well, the question of whether you can tap
zero point energy is a very technical question in
quantum mechanics. I’m not enough of an expert
to know exactly the reasons for not believing it.
So I have to base my opinion on that of the
experts. Most experts in quantum mechanics
believe that it’s impossible to get any usable
energy that way.
The leading exponent of zero point energy is
Harold Puthoff, who is one of the two scientists
who verified the psychic powers of Uri Geller.
I have little respect for Puthoff. He’s comparable
to a person searching for a perpetual motion
machine made of whirling wheels.
DS: Did you get a lot of correspondence from the
targets of your book?
MG: I got quite a bit of correspondence.
DS: You once told me of a clever strategy you
used with two folks who asked you for your opinion on their perpetual motion machine ideas.
MG: I mainly used that on angle trisectors. If I got
a letter from an angle trisector I would reply, “I’m
not competent to judge your construction, but
you should write to so-and-so, he’s an expert
on it.” I’d give him the name and address of
another angle trisector.
DS: I’ll bet you never heard from either of them
MG: That’s true.
DS: You have also been critical about some mainstream science, such as string theory. How does a
nonscientist make judgments when reading about
such things? How can one draw the line between
science and pseudoscience? Are there any useful
clues or characteristics that one can identify?
MG: It’s technically called the “demarcation
problem” — the problem of distinguishing good
science from bad science. There obviously
isn’t any sharp line. It’s very difficult to decide
sometimes whether a scientist is just a maverick
scientist who may hit on something new or whether
he’s a crank. String theory is a case in point.
I really have no business criticizing string theory
because I don’t understand it too well.
DS: Our mutual friend Bob Schadewald said that
pseudosciences were entertaining, and mostly
harmless, except for one. The one he thought
“dangerous” was creationism. Are any others