Bad books

Horgan lists the Ten worst science books. Here’s his criteria for a bad science book:

These books aren’t merely awful, of course, but harmful. Most have been bestsellers, or had some sort of significant impact, which often means–paradoxically–that they are rhetorical masterpieces.

I find myself agreeing with his choices, at least of the ones I’ve read.

Capra, Frifjof, The Tao of Physics. Helped inspire the tedious New Age obsession with quantum mechanics.

I remember having to read this in some liberal-artsy class in college, and deciding that this lump of silly crap had convinced me that physics wasn’t for me. Not that I’d even been tempted, but man, this was bad.

Edelman, Gerald, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. Oliver Sacks, inexplicably, reveres the pretentious, obscure neural theories of the egomaniacal Edelman. Why, Oliver, why?

Were Edelman’s books really that popular? I agree with the assessment, but I figured laymen would find it impenetrable, and those of us who knew something about neuroscience would all find it useless jabberwocky.

Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages. Gould at his pompous, verbose worst. He managed somehow both to pander and condescend to readers.

Some of us like Gould, but this is one book that I think most of us would agree is awfully poor stuff. I’ve encountered a few religious people who think it’s great, but they usually seem to have the impression he’s being generous to religion.

Hamer, Dean, The God Gene. Any book by Hamer, “discoverer” of the “gay gene” and “God gene,” would have sufficed. He is an embarrassment to genetics.

Amen, brother. The whole “gene for X” genre is the domain of people who think simplistically about genetics, and it feeds popular misconceptions.

Kurzweil, Ray, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Bible of the pseudo-scientific cult of cyber-evangelism.

And he keeps going and going and going, and his books get thicker and thicker! Kurzweil is a nut in more ways than one. I was just reading a review of his latest in Skeptic magazine—the man hopes to live forever on a regimen of 250 pills, chinese herbs, weekly IV supplements and chelation therapy, acupuncture, alkalinized water, and ionic filtered air, and avoids showers and sugar.

Murray, Charles, and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve. The worst of the worst, ethically, scientifically, intellectually.

It’s still cited and defended by racists and eugenicists and fans of wacky genetic elitism. This is probably the most actively evil book of the bunch.

Wilson, Edward, Consilience. Sorry, Ed, but even your writerly charm cannot mitigate this misguided manifesto for scientific imperialism. Stick with ants and biodiversity!

I’m not quite as down on this one as Horgan, although I do have misgivings—I think the difference is that I like scientific imperialism.

I’d add some others. I think Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box definitely deserves a place on the list, as an example of pseudoscientific dreck that has been enormously influential, giving new life and a veneer of respectability to creationism. That issue of the Skeptic also mentions altie con artist Andrew Weil, another New Age fraud who has made a fortune with a published line of quackery. Maybe there should be a special place for generic ‘health’ books.

I think it will sink without a trace soon enough so it probably doesn’t belong on such a list, but the absolute worst book on “science” I’ve read this year is Francis Collins’ Language of God. Unfortunately, I think it’s enduring influence will be that for years to come, Collins will be listed vaguely as a Great Scientist Who Believes In God.


  1. #1 recovered
    November 24, 2006

    It was heartening to see that there are some sane people posting here. I have no idea who Horgan is, but to include books by noted atheist materialists such as Kurzweil, Wilson, and Gould with the metaphysical tripe like the Tao of Physics as the worst science books of all time is ridiculous. Kurzweill certainly does not believe taking supplements will allow him to live forever. He does believe that a combination of bio- and nano-tech might. In any event, his books are about the possible future of science. They may be far-out, but the worst that can be said about them is that they are overly optimistic. On the good side, they might inspire young people steeped in sci-fi video games to study stem cell research, etc. for my own part, Kurzweil played a large role in weaning off my new age bottle. I doubt his timeline is valid, but he did convince me that the future of medicine was in science and technology, not chinese potions and chanting. Wilson is a great man and to see him trashed on this list is disturbing to say the least. He was writing about the materialistic evolution of religion a long time ago. If you like Dawkins, then there is no reason not to love Wilson. Consilience is not science. It is indeed philosophy. It is thought provoking and not even remotely dangerous. What is dangerous is to suggest that some books should not be read. No one reading Consilience will become a bible-thumping war-mongering wingnut. It doesn’t even make the top 10,000 bad books, IMO. Capra is another story altogether. His books has been cited as “proof” of the supernatural from a slew of followers for decades now with no end in sight. If that was not his intent, then he is to blame for not refuting his minions at any point. No, instead, he has traveled the new age circuit reaping huge speaking fees peddling his drivel. While some laypersons might buy his facile comparisons, no self-respecting physicist gives him the time of day.

  2. #2 Kapitano
    November 24, 2006

    Sociobiology is tripe, but I don’t think anyone’s mentioned it. Is that because it doesn’t count as science? Edward Wilson seems to think it does.

    Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” and “Our Posthuman Future” – more futurism masquerading as science. Though personally I find Fukuyama useful, simply because he’s one of the few futuregazers who aren’t obscurantist. It’s dumb stuff, but it’s clear.

    Then there’s meme theory. Gould had his Rock of Ages, Hawking had his parallel universe theory to get around information loss in black holes, and Dawkins had memes. Well, I suppose we’re all allowed one

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