Laelaps

Science loses out, once again

Note: I originally wrote this post in a bit of frustration, and so I’ve drawn a line through much of the latter half that has more to do with science education and not the list. I still find it a bit strange than not one science book made it to the list when there were, in my opinion, some “notable” science books out this year, but some of my reaction to this was more of a rant than anything else. I’m not saying that there should be X number of science books on the list, but it’s hard to believe that in a list of 50 books (being that half the list was fiction) not one science book was picked. Perhaps what makes a notable science book is different from what makes a good history book or a biography and that is what makes the difference, but I don’t agree that 2007 was simply a “bad year” for science books and there wasn’t anything worthy of the list. Also, the list of Top 10 Books for 2007 has been released and (as I expected), no science book made that list either.

I don’t often get the chance to read new books as they hit the shelves ($24 and up for a 200 page hardcover is out of my price range) and so I’m often a bit out of the loop when it comes to what new books are out, but I find it hard to believe that there was not one notable science book published in 2007. At least, that’s what the New York Times says.* As fellow Scibling Chad Orzel notes, I would have at least expected Natalie Angier’s The Canon, and I’ve heard good things about Bernd Heinrich’s The Snoring Bird and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, too. Even among books that are not directed at the most casual of readers, this year saw the publication of Prothero & Foss’ The Evolution of the Artiodactyls, Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu’s Evolution, and Cheny & Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics. (Two “new” Stephen Jay Gould books also came out this year, Punctuated Equilibrium and The Richness of Life, although both were compiled from material published previously.) Are we to believe that none of these books were “notable”?**

If science is missing from the non-fiction section of the list, what made the cut? I haven’t read any of the books on the list, but there is a lot of politics, history, medicine, religion, and biography, but the closest thing to a science book is Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure (hat-tip to the anonymous commenter). The New York Times cannot have missed all the science books released this year as it has reviewed a number of them, and even Amazon.com was able to pick out a list of good science books that were published this year (most notable among the Amazon list being The Last Human by Sawyer, et al. and Proust Was a Neuroscientist by fellow Scibling Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex). Still, even though science books at least make an appearance on the Amazon.com list of 100 editor’s picks they’re in a slim minority , and the absence of science books in general, I think, speaks to the poor understanding of science so prevalent in America.

Indeed, while science is often seen as useful in developing medicine or technology, most people just don’t care about science that cannot be so directly applied to making their lives “better”, even being resentful that their tax dollars are funding a study the mating habits of a particular insect (or so it was once put to me by someone who held such a view). Despite the vast library one could accumulate on any given scientific subject, most people simply are indifferent to science, and for some reason science books are often thought to be more boring than any other given work of non-fiction. Perhaps I represent the other end of the spectrum, only taking a break from popular and technical scientific books to read Terry Pratchett now and again***, but it is disheartening to see that so many people have opinions on scientific issues (i.e. evolution, anthropogenic global climate change) but don’t want to be bothered to educate themselves on those very subjects. As I’ve said before, this absence of any science books from the NYT is an illustration of the paradoxical image many people have of science in America and reflects the sad state of science comprehension in this country.

As yet another Scibling, Carl Zimmer of The Loom, notes in the comments, the top 10 list for 2007 has not come out yet and a science book may yet make the cut, so it would be dishonest to say that science has been overlooked altogether (I was not previously aware that a top 10 is published after 2007 is officially closed).

*The New York Times also managed to gain my scorn twice over the holiday weekend. See here and here.

**For some given value of “notable.” What makes a notable science book likely differs in a number of ways, especially since there are always some things in a science book that other authorities will disagree with, and perhaps it’s this fact that makes it difficult for scientists who review books to truly write raves. What makes a work of fiction, or even a biography, notable is going to differ substantially from what makes a science book notable, and I think this could be part of the reason why no science books made the list. Then again, I’ve got my own bias and maybe there really weren’t any notable science books this year, and if that’s the case then I guess I’ve got no reason to complain, but I don’t think that this is the case.

***As Carl Zimmer notes in the comments, my own reading stack is “woefully imbalanced” and I make no apologies for this. Just to be clear, however, I am not suggesting that everyone should only read science books and that the list should have at least X number of science books on it, but it is a bit disappointing to see that science is not represented at all on the notable list. Indeed, I mentioned my own reading habits if for no other reason to illuminate the other end of the spectrum, and what I read is mostly directed by what I’m interested in. If I wanted to learn about WWII, I would guarantee that my reading list would be dominated by history books as I would want to give myself a firm grounding in that subject. My “science overdose” doesn’t mean that I think that only science is worthy of study but because I am genuinely interested in the topic and there is a lot of information that I want to know, but I’m not suggesting that science books are the ONLY books. We all read based upon our interests, and I try to answer questions that I have about certain topics rather than seeking a balance between different varieties of nonfiction.

Comments

  1. #1 user
    November 27, 2007

    “The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS” by Helen Epstein was on both the Times non-fiction list and the Amazon top science books lists.

  2. #2 Carl Zimmer
    November 27, 2007

    Bear in mind that the Times also published annual list of the ten best books, which comes a couple weeks after the 100. The top ten for 2007 hasn’t come out yet, so you can’t say yet that they have left science completely out.

    I’d also be happy if more people read science books (including for some personal reasons, since I write science books). But it’s interesting that you admit to not reading little beyond science books. By your reasoning, wouldn’t you have to consider yourself as woefully imbalanced in your reading as people who don’t read about science?

    Full disclosure: I’ve written a few reviews for NYTBR over the years, and have been reviewed a few times.

  3. #3 Zwirko
    November 27, 2007

    Sadly, Brian I don’t think this solely an American problem. In the UK (where I am) we have the same undermining of the scientific process – a slow, but sure, erosion of respect and trust of science. Mostly I find that people with such opinions can’t even rationalise it, they just seemed to have sucked their views up from some kind of toxic ether without even thinking about it.

    Recently I was speaking with a woman at a bus stop in town. Near the end of our brief conversation about the weather she said to me, quite straight-faced and proudly, “If any of my kids go to university, I will disown them”. I was speechless at that. How can knowledge itself (never mind that of a scientific variety) become something to be so despised?

    I don’t know where it’s all leading and what the future holds for us if this continues, but sometimes I think that the more these issues are talked about the worse the problem seems to get.

  4. #4 Laelaps
    November 27, 2007

    Carl, thank you for the comment. I was not previously aware that there was a top 10 list that was put out after 2007 officially closes.

    And yes, I fully recognize that I’m narrowly focused and there are many people who would decry the fact that I haven’t read many of the “classics” required to be a cultured individual. That’s why I put that admission in there noting that I represented the opposite end of the spectrum; I don’t expect everyone to be like me by any stretch, but I figured I might as well be honest as to what I’m reading. I wouldn’t want the notable list to be all science books and I don’t expect everyone to read only books about natural history, so perhaps I’ll add a disclaimer to my post as I don’t expect everyone to suddenly drop everything and only read science books.

    I’ve read a number of your articles and reviews for the NYT as well, but I appreciate the note for readers who aren’t aware of that, too.

  5. #5 Zwirko
    November 27, 2007

    p.s.

    I see from your “currently reading” list that you have Valentine’s “On the of Phyla”. It’s expensive (and likely out of my depth), but it one I’ve been thinking of buying for sometime. Could you do a review of it one day, perhaps?

  6. #6 Laelaps
    November 27, 2007

    That is pretty scary, Zwirko. While a book I recently reviewed, Science Talk by Thurs, wasn’t the most enjoyable read it did make a good point about the current understanding/acceptance of science being paradoxical. I’ve heard that there are similar problems in Europe, but being that I’ve never been there I figured I shouldn’t say what is or is not going on there lest I make an ass of myself.

    As for Valentine’s book, I’m about halfway through it and will hopefully complete it in about 2 days. I don’t know if I’m qualified to write a fully review of it, but it is really an excellent book and I highly recommend it if you can afford a copy (the cheapest one on Amazon.com right now is about $28.00, and I got mine from the AMNH for $35, so you might have some luck). I don’t know how much background you have in paleo or studies of invertebrates, but even though the book is largely technical Valentine does an excellent job explaining the issues and providing background information. Some of the genetics passages, for instance, were over my head, but you’re not likely to go cross-eyed when you’re reading it either. I will try to put up a review of some kind when I’m finished, though, although I have to say I’m chomping at the bit to get my copy of The Evolution of the Artiodacyls (which will also be reviewed soon).

  7. #7 Melanie
    November 27, 2007

    For primate and hominid evolution there are:

    “The Evolution of Modern Humans in Africa” by Pamela R. Willoughby (also available in paperback!)

    and

    “Primate and Human Evolution” by Susan Cachel

    Both of these are written by profs of mine, but I’ve read them both and they are excellent, both for readers familiar with the field and those who don’t know anything about it.

  8. #8 Cameron
    November 27, 2007

    Yeah, most science books are out of my price range too. I either wait for them to end up in libraries or flip through them really fast in a bookstore and quickly jot down any information to look up later. Sigh…so much I need to read and so little time to do it.

    I’m curious if you know what that boar-like animal with four tusks is on the front cover of “The Evolution of Artiodactyls”…it looks remarkably similar to a gomphothere sans the trunk.

  9. #9 Carl Zimmer
    November 27, 2007

    Brian–I should clarify that I’m not saying you are “woefully imbalanced.” It’s just that I disagree with some of the implications of your post. No one is as well-rounded in their reading as they should be.

  10. #10 James
    November 27, 2007

    I honestly can’t say I’m particularly surprised at the NYT’s sidestepping of science. But I also think there’s a standard response that people who care about sciecne should do their best to avoid–that is, just bemoaning once again how poorly the average person understands science. Instead, I think it’s time to think seriously about what’s wrong with science popularization in the US (and Europe as well). Popularizers and scientists have been trying to educate the public for a long time, and it just doesn’t seem to work. That says to me there’s something deeply flawed with those efforts, and ultimately the ways in which with science gets talked about and presented.

    I also recently read Thurs’s Science Talk and though he doesn’t really say enough about how to fix this, I think he’s right about the ways in which how we set science up and portray it has a lot to do with why people seem to consistently ignore it. Not that there are no problems in Europe, but the polls I’ve seen have tended to suggest a lot higher level of scientific knowledge there than in the US. At the same time, there are some innovative popularization ideas coming out of Europe–things like science juries. I know there was a big push in Britian a few years ago to get the public engaged over biotech and nanotech (the Guardian Newspaper was involved I think) that involved the use of a citizen jury.

    The big problem is, it seems to me, that people have no incentive to learn about science. They aren’t involved, and once they leave shool, there’s no benefit in learning anything more. When the do come into contact with science in print or online, as Thurs points out, science gets talked about as something seperate from everything else. Science juries and the like at least promise to make knowing something about science worthwhile. They help to bring science to the non-scientist’s life in a way that actually matters, unlike an article in a newspaper or magazine.

    On the flip side, making science more accessible I think also means encouraging those of us who love science to be more humble–science has to enter a world with lots of other ideas and I think it has to go there without the intention of beating out every pontential rival. How you do that and still preserve a dedication to truth, I’m not sure. But I think it does involve some deep changes in the way a lot of people conceptualize what science is and is not.

  11. #11 Laelaps
    November 27, 2007

    Carl; I didn’t take it personally, and I didn’t use the phrase sarcastically (my reading choices are very narrow, it’s true). I’ve been mulling what I wrote over and I ranted a bit, but I didn’t meant to imply that “X number of science books should be on the list.” Rather, I think there were some good science books that came out this year and there might be some important differences between what makes a science book “notable” vs. a history book or biography, which could have contributed to the reasons why no science books made the cut. Still, admittedly, I went on a bit of a tangent about overall science communication, but I still find it a bit odd that not one science book made it in a list of 100.

  12. #12 Laelaps
    November 27, 2007

    James; Thanks for the comment. I wasn’t trying to say that “it’s all the fault of the public” but I try to avoid going too far the other way as well (i.e. “All scientists are bad communicators”). Even if we optimally communicated science, many people just aren’t interested, and a lot of this, I think, has to do with our education system. Science is pushed aside or viewed as generally unimportant, and students with actual questions/interests about science are often ignored or not encouraged. It’s a complex issue, to be sure, and I don’t think there’s any one solution to it, but the problems lie with the public as much as they might with those trying to popularize science.

  13. #13 Nathan Myers
    November 27, 2007

    Some of the disrespect for science must come from well-earned disrespect for scientists.

    Perhaps the most effective source of disrespect is press releases revealing that some foodstuff is good or bad for us, followed a year later by another insisting the opposite. Lower on the scale, we have medical doctors (who most people don’t distinguish from scientists) prescribing variously lethal drugs (e.g. Vioxx), denigrating traditional remedies whose only fault is unpatentability, or even (Barnard) endorsing a wrinkle cream!

    Then we have astronomers, perpetually astonished that every single datum ever obtained about comets contradicts their precious standard model of comet formation, and who cannot present any amazing Hubble picture without inserting something incoherent about “dark matter”. Let us not neglect string theorists, about whom I need say no more, never mind behaviorists and Freudians, or neuroscientists insisting for decades that adult nerve cells cannot ever reproduce or heal.

    It’s unfortunate, because most scientists work harder than almost anybody else to be careful about what they know and don’t know.

  14. #14 Skeptic4u
    November 28, 2007

    I love coming here to read your posts on evolution, creationism, and the position of science in the world today.

  15. #15 Meredith M. Clancy
    November 28, 2007

    I think the disrespect for scientists mentioned above sadly finds its origin in sensational science reporting. It’s the reporter–the local news crew–that sees an AP article (or the like) flash across their desktop about how three cups of coffee a day or fasting once a month can help your heart and decides to sensationalize it.
    And yet, scientists strive to make their toils–years in the lab working at one problem day in and day out–applicable and understandable by a layperson, so a small piece of information is extrapolated out to the nth degree. That’s what you read in the paper or see on the news. It’s not as if you can find a ready source of funding without making research applicable, after all.
    The very crux of the problem lies in the way we’re trying to fix it, a tricky one ideed. I don’t think, though, that all (or even most of) the blame belongs to the scientists themselves.
    Or maybe the average person fears that which they don’t understand, and there’s a lot to not understand in science, even for fellow scientists, it would seem!

    And for the record, I would say most doctors consider themselves scientists; we certainly take enough science courses and a large number conduct clinical research, most of which is what we see sensationalized over and over again.

  16. #16 Waterdog
    November 28, 2007

    This is something that I’ve become increasingly concerned with myself, as a new science and math teacher, and as someone who writes about science on occasion. Just the other day one of my colleagues, a semi-retired history teacher who spent most of his career working in junior high alternative programs (i.e., Aboriginals on or near reserves, inner-city, etc.), told me that math was a waste of time. I was actually double-teamed by him and my English-major vice-principal who said “math is stupid, useless, completely useless”.

    It’s incredibly frustrating. As to why science and mathematics are both valuable, it was a couple of the lawyers at the table who came to my defense, saying that it’s a question of the more general skills you gain, not specifically things like differentiation, or how to prepare a titration (I’m paraphrasing). I consider my reading materials quite balanced. I respect the importance of history and have a great appreciation for the English language. I’m such a voracious reader, I probably know more about the 19th century (a great century for science) than the history teacher, and have read much more English language classics than the English teacher and vice-principal combined.

    Although Brian admits to being a bit one-sided, most of the science people I know are much better-versed and appreciative of aspects of the humanities than self-professed arts people are willing to even try to become scientifically literate. Is it a question of educators (me) doing a bad job, is it a question of communicators of science in pop culture (I think we have more and better great communicators of science from the last 50 years than ever previously), or is it that some people just aren’t inclined to science, just aren’t interested in understanding how things work? Maybe even some scientists are like that, completely uninterested in sciences that aren’t related to their subject area, or intimidated by them? But I think the best scientists are curious about EVERYTHING.

  17. #17 Nathan Myers
    November 28, 2007

    The overwhelming majority of medical doctors are not scientists, although a few scientists are also medical doctors. Most medical doctors are technicians. Some are engineers.

    It’s traditional in European and American scientific culture to denigrate the work of engineers and technicians, but there can be no rational justification for it. This attitude has held back progress many times, typically when technicians’ observations are dismissed as “anecdotal” or even delusional, or engineers’ deliberate inventions are treated as accidental discoveries, not considered understood until a refereed paper is published by a scientist.

    Would people respect science and scientists more if scientists better respected others also doing difficult work? I’d like to find out.

  18. #18 Waterdog
    November 28, 2007

    To add on why I think science literacy is important, one only has to have a brief conversation about any topic whatsoever, science or not, with either of my current colleagues or admin, to see the broken logic they routinely employ, confirmation bias to protect their pre-conceptions, and unjustified generalizations from insignificant statistical samples, and conclude that some basic science training would make them a lot smarter.

    As for doctors, I think we should certainly distinguish physicians from medical research scientists, and even clinical research medical practitioners, who may not have PhDs in a science or medical science, but may be working at a level equivalent to a scientist just the same (or they might be more equivalent to a technician or grad assistant in other cases). Starling and Bayliss are a famous team of biologist and medical doctor that discovered hormones at the turn of the previous century, and both certainly deserve the moniker “scientist”, though only one had a PhD.

    But I don’t consider my GP a scientist, nor a practicing specialist, surgeon, pathologist, whatever. Some doctors don’t even have degrees in science, but go for a BA before med school, or something else, like a nursing degree, which also has no real science requirement. And this is beside the point anyway, as it’s not a question of taking a lot of science courses, it’s a question of whether you actually practice science. You can’t get your PhD in the first place without doing a doctorate thesis wherein you practice science.

  19. #19 Caledonian
    November 28, 2007

    Someone who practices science is a scientist.

    The vast majority of medical professionals are not scientists, and quite a lot of them aren’t even especially skilled at critical thinking.

    I suspect the root cause of the problems with scientific understanding are the same causes at the heart of our political and economic problems: we’re generally unable to distinguish between news and entertainment, and so most actual sources of news have been abolished.

  20. #20 Caledonian
    November 28, 2007

    Once again, The Onion reminds us, lest we forget, of what’s wrong with our media.