The Frontal Cortex

The Worst Science Books of All Time

Since we came up with a pretty good “Best Science Books of All Time” list, it’s only fair that we contemplate the worst science books, too. John Horgan has already gotten started. His list isn’t a bad beginning, although I would definitely remove The Tipping Point and The Elegant Universe. In their place I would substitute two canonical examples of bad evolutionary psychology: A Natural History of Rape and The Mating Mind. The Emperor’s New Mind, Roger Penrose’s awkward fusion of quantum physics with the neuroscience of consciousness, is another worthy nominee.

However, I heartily second Horgan’s criticisms of Listening to Prozac, The God Gene, The Tao of Physics, The Age of Spiritual Machines and Consilience.

It’s worth asking what makes a bad science book. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not enough to just be blatantly wrong. No, the worst science books are persuasively wrong: their erorrs are seductive and influential. With that criteria in mind, let’s keep this list going.

Comments

  1. #1 James
    November 22, 2006

    Could you elaborate on what’s so bad about The Age of Spiritual Machines?

  2. #2 Jonah
    November 22, 2006

    Kurzweil may simply be an acquired taste. In general, I’m not a fan of books that breathlessly promote the obsolescence of the human mind in favor of some futuristic machine. And I don’t think we’ll become “software” by 2020. Every few years, some AI guy likes to envision our dystopic-Matrix-like future. Alas, it never comes to pass. Computers haven’t become spiritual, and our cortex hasn’t gone digital. Plus, I couldn’t stand Kurzweil’s writing style. The book felt very disorganized, and I wasn’t a big fan of those dialogues. (They were cool for Galileo and “Godel, Escher, Bach” but they’ve havent’ been cool since.)

  3. #3 Alejandro
    November 22, 2006

    I agree that Penrose’s positive argument in The Emperor’s New Mind is wothless, but I actually like quite a lot the book despite that. The expositions of Turing machines, the Mandelbrot set, Godel’s theorem, quantum mechanics, the arrow of time and many other subjects are inspiring and largely accurate. And when Penrose’s opinion diverges from the mainstrea consensus he usually says it explicitly. So even if all his personal opinions are wrong (which I think is likely) the book is valuable as a popularization. At least, there are many much worse ones around.

  4. #4 J-Dog
    November 22, 2006

    Worst Science book ever? Easy – It was written by middle eastern goat-herders @ 3000 years ago. Last editing and upgraded versions @ 1900 and 1100 years ago. For some stupid reason, people are still trying to use it!

  5. #5 Gordon
    November 23, 2006

    I’m interested in why you chose Miller’s The Mating Mind. Thx.

  6. #6 Liz
    November 23, 2006

    agree with you on Elegant Universe, but why A Natural History of Rape??

  7. #7 csrster
    November 23, 2006

    Alejandro, I quite agree. In fact I even said much the same thing on Horgan’s blog. Deutsch’s “The Fabric of Reality” is another such book that presents a brilliant and mind-opening exposition of well-grounded science before going off the deep end in the later chapters.

  8. #8 Saul
    November 24, 2006

    Dianetics

  9. #9 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    November 25, 2006

    The Emperor’s New Mind, Roger Penrose’s awkward fusion of quantum physics with the neuroscience of consciousness, is another worthy nominee.

    I’ll second that, since a couple other people seem to be ambivalent. I thought it was terrible. I never even quite finished it, because it got so ridiculous I couldn’t continue.

  10. #10 Jeff MacIntyre
    November 26, 2006

    I’ll second Gordon’s comment–what’s your take on Miller’s The Mating Mind? I’m extraordinarily keen to hear your thoughts, and I’ve wondered (as an outsider) about his reputation in the academy and throughout evopsych.

  11. #11 Jonah
    November 27, 2006

    Thanks for all your comments and questions. Why don’t I like The Mating Mind? Well, I’ve never been a fan of that sort of evolutionary psychology, and Miller’s book is the grandaddy of “just so” stories. Miller’s main claim is that ”the human mind’s most distinctive features, such as our capacities for language, art, music, ideology, humor and creative intelligence,” are due more or less exclusively to mate choice and sexual selection. Needless to say, Pablo Picasso comes up again and again. (Of course, this thesis neglects the significant percentage of gay artists. For every Picasso, there’s an Oscar Wilde.) While Miller admits that his sexual selection theory is really just an idle theory – there is virtually no supporting evidence – he still wants to use the mantle of science to make his theory seem scientific. This annoys me. Miller is a working scientist, but this book is pure philosophy, a grossly oversimplified view of human nature and evolution. Ian Tattersall, reviewing the book in the NY Times, got it exactly right:
    Evolution is, thus, a complex multilayered process that is largely immune to the simplicities of the fine-tuning notion. “Exegeses like Miller’s are often fun to read; and despite its sometimes plodding prose, one can’t deny that this book is an impressive work of the imagination. But in the end we are looking here at a product of the storyteller’s art, not of science.”