Pharyngula

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.

Comments

  1. #1 lytefoot
    November 22, 2006

    twitch, whimper

    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.

    I grew up around newage (rhymes with sewage) fruits… by the time I was twelve, I understood enough quantum physics to refute most of their agruments, which (as far as I can tell) are based on their own misunderstaandings of stuff that was watered down by someone who read the executive summary of an article at one point and didn’t understand it.

    The really sat part is, when you understand it, quantum physics is amazing, and marvelous; the more you understand, the more this is so. (I hope to have time to study it in more depth at some point, alas.) But you never see the true marvel if you insist instead on sitting around going “wow, deep” after you hear the first hints.

  2. #2 Fastlane
    November 22, 2006

    I actually enjoyed the Tao of Physics, it inspired me to go read some real physics books. 🙂

    I’m surpised ‘Other Worlds’ by Paul Davies didn’t make the list.

    Cheers.

  3. #3 George
    November 22, 2006

    Don’t forget these wastes of good paper:

    The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Wells).

    The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (Bethell).

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    November 22, 2006

    Kurzweil’s original The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) had a considerable amount of good stuff, which in my judgment made up for the dreck one encountered here and there. Sadly, in Spiritual Machines, the dreck factor went up and the cogent science went away.

    “The Law of Accelerating Returns”. . . yeeech! Kurzweil’s view of cosmology is what you get if you take the simplified chronologies printed on the inside front cover of textbooks as your sole and complete source of data points. (I actually did the math once and figured out that you can get an “exponentially accelerating rate of change” simply by having the fossil traces of past events decay regularly over time.) It is interesting to speculate that software will exhibit more and more features akin to human intelligence, but using Moore’s Law to “predict” the year a machine will pass the Turing Test is nothing more than the futurist’s version of adding the ages in the Old Testament to deduce that the world began in 4004 BCE.

  5. #5 Cody
    November 22, 2006

    Or pretty much the entire Politically Incorrect Guide series.

  6. #6 Kristine
    November 22, 2006

    Someone hammers Nick Herbert. I enjoyed his Quantum Reality very much and while I would not cite it (hardly being a scholarly source), I did use it as a sort of compass while writing a paper on the EPR experiment (which was Rock of Ages ago). I haven’t read anything else by him, but is his Quantum Reality suspect?

  7. #7 PhysioProf
    November 22, 2006

    Here’s one vote for Julian Jaynes’s “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.

  8. #8 Daephex
    November 22, 2006

    I enjoyed Kurzweil’s book. He may be engaged in some fairly questionable nutrition activities (both from a standpoint of validity AND fun), but for people interested in sound-related tech, he’s a major “go-to” guy. Besides, how harmful is a book that could get people excited about where science, technology, and culture MIGHT go? Books like this are inspiring, in a good way.

  9. #9 AustinAtheist
    November 22, 2006

    A friend of mine recently read one of montrous Kurweil’s books, and is now reading Frifjof. I had never heard of either author before, and decided I was going to have to do some investigating before writing them off as a bunch of woo. This little list will help me get started. Thanks for bringing it to my attention so that I can now bring it to his!

  10. #10 Philip Downey
    November 22, 2006

    Roger Penrose: Shadows of the Mind. Took me years to shake off those bad ideas.

    Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything. Haven’t read it myself, but apparently there are numerous errors, which, because of his reputation, have been spread far and wide.

    I’m sure I’ll think of more that haven’t already been mentioned.

  11. #11 Brian
    November 22, 2006

    I just went to the link for the whole list. I was a bit surprised to see _The Elegant Universe_ on that list. Yes I found his, Greene’s, description of the two astronauts drifting away from each other hard to follow, but on the whole I didn’t think the book was abjectly horrible. OK, a confession, I only got through 80% of it or so. As far as “convincing people of things about as likely as lepracahuns” he does, for all of the strangeness that string theory has, have experimental data that is accurate to about one part in a billionth or better, on his side.

    Comments?

    Others reasons for despsing the book?

  12. #12 poke
    November 22, 2006

    I recall Horgan’s own book “The End of Science” being unmitigated dreck from start to finish. It’s not even that I disagree with the central thesis; science does seem substantially complete from a lay perspective. It was just poor. In that respect, I’m not in a position to judge string theory, and I doubt Horgan is either: so I’m sceptical about his inclusion of “The Elegant Universe.” I don’t agree with “Consilience” either.

  13. #13 Markus
    November 22, 2006

    I was a bit surprised about Brian Greene being on the list too. The whole reason why I ended up purchasing the book was because while browsing it in B&N I was able to become comfortable with all those relativity “examples” that you can find on the web. Plus I got a better impression what the string theorists are proposing, even if it didn’t actually make a case for it.

  14. #14 lytefoot
    November 22, 2006

    Or pretty much the entire Politically Incorrect Guide series.

    Oh. My. Randomly selected imaginary deity. I followed the link and was very frightened for a while (I completely believed the one on Math–I can totally see them doing that). I wasn’t sure it was fake until I came to this one:

    * Wormtongue, Grima. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Middle Earth. 2911 (or 1311 by Shire Reckoning). ISBN 1-12358-132-1
    Written at a level comprehensible to even the dimmest of orcs, this tell-all guide exposes the common myths believed by many to be true, but which are in fact false. Written partially as a response to the recent trilogy of blockbuster documentaries about life in Middle Earth, Grima Wormtongue even includes a section on myths which were presented in the films as fact and cleverly demolishes them one by one.

  15. #15 Daniel Morgan
    November 22, 2006

    I’m with Brian on The Elegant Universe. (Hey, it’s not you, Prof. Greene, is it???) 😉

    It was a little dry in some places, but not so much so as Fabric of the Cosmos, which is a sort of “primer” for TEU. However, to call it one of the ten worst science books ever is a little extreme.

    Greene freely admits that paraphrase, “we only have partial solutions to partial equations” because we don’t have the math to solve the models now, and the models themselves, it is known, will need much more refinement.

    Therefore, it is hardly fair to say that Greene is “hawking” string theory as an empirically sound idea. He’s exploring it, giving background and info on things like supersymmetry. He’s talking about what it would mean if it were true from philosophical points of view.

    I seriously object to this book being on the list. I see that you skipped it in your review. Perhaps you agree?

  16. #16 Blake Stacey
    November 22, 2006

    I wrote the following on Horgan’s blog about his including The Elegant Universe.

    From the original post:

    Greene, Brian, The Elegant Universe. Through this book and the spinoff TV series, Green has duped millions of innocent people into believing in things about as plausible as leprechauns.

    OK, at the risk of bringing the String Wars here, I have to call this a gross mischaracterization. Leprechauns were not invented by applying the concepts of quantum mechanics to the motion of wiggly objects defined to obey special relativity. Both quantum mechanics and special relativity are bodies of knowledge in which we have extremely high levels of confidence, assuming we discuss them within their range of applicability. No shrunken Celtic gods arose in the enchanted forest because someone combined two very good ideas to build a structure for generating more ideas.

    Leprechauns do not respect energy conservation or Lorentz invariance. Leprechauns do not reliably reproduce known features of the universe — gravity and electromagnetism both fall out of string theory, when one considers closed and open strings respectively — while tantalizing us with the difficulty of getting the rest of the details exactly right. Leprechauns never gave a physicist tools for understanding quark-gluon plasmas, never blessed a mathematician with a result in knot theory and never let students understand non-Abelian gauge theories in terms of overlapping Dirichlet branes.

    The AdS/CFT correspondence ain’t no lucky charms.

    To elaborate slightly, I think Horgan has become a casualty of the String Wars. Quoting Clifford Johnson, physics professor at the University of Southern California,

    The bulk of the discussion is media hype, ironically, knowingly (in my humble opinion) exploited by the authors. I think this is harmful for the whole field of theoretical physics in this area. Once you take out the short term financial gain on the part of the authors and publishers, it does not help anyone. I don’t see how adding hype to hype combats hype. I’d really like someone to explain that to me.

    The picture of research into string theory that they paint — and then attack — is an unfair caricature, my main criticism being that they’ve overblown the focus, and virtually totally ignored a lot of valuable work that is being pursued by a rather large portion of the field — it does not fit very well with the negative picture that they are trying to draw, you see, so best leave it out.

    As for Kurzweil and Spiritual Machines. . . .

    I think it can only do a little good, and possibly much harm, if you motivate people to think about a big topic without presenting accurate information on it. The emphasis of Spiritual Machines was horribly misplaced, giving prime of place to silly notions about a “Law of Accelerating Returns” which underlies all change from the elements forming just after the Big Bang to biological evolution and then Moore’s Law.

    The Age of Spiritual Machines is yet another book of technological predictions made back in TwenCen, a book which did not foresee blogs or wikis but instead digressed on “translating telephones”. If you just want to get impressions and speculations about where computers are taking our species, why not watch any of the Ghost in the Shell movies and TV shows instead?

  17. #17 Brian
    November 22, 2006

    Not sure how to quote other postings with that handy indentation and vertical lines but:

    “I’m with Brian on The Elegant Universe. (Hey, it’s not you, Prof. Greene, is it???) ;)”

    Nope! 😉 What tounge in cheek flattery!

    Just a computer progammer who’s interested in science, religon, and the conflicts between them. Oh, and I side with the science side and I think that calling this conflict, can, under certain wordings, give religion too much credit ie. implying that it is somehow on par with science as a way of finding out about the universe or anything else.

  18. #18 llewelly
    November 22, 2006

    I’ve always enjoyed Gould. I never found him pompous or condescending. I don’t find his NOM notion credible, but it was endlessly useful for forestalling arguments with religious colleagues. Just mention the idea, and they’ll either wander off into the weeds of some easily ignored topic, or they’ll neatly split and turn on each other.

    In addition, it seems to me that non-overlapping magesteria people are far more open-minded, and less influenced by their religion than other religious people. Once NOM is combined with the right of people to be free of religion, I have no trouble with other people keeping their religions. (Trouble is, most Abrahamic religions strongly imply that combination is counter to the will of their god. Using NOM as diplomatic tool backfires when hard core religious are involved.)

    Gould was also right to point at that wherever science shows evidence about specific attributes of a god (e.g., virgin birth not known to occur in mammals), freedom of religion is eliminated in that respect.

    But I never read all of _Rock Of Ages_ . I read about half of it in the library, and now and again I’d thumb through it in the bookstore, and then think, ‘well, there’s other Gould I’d rather read …’

    Noting that many of the books in the list try to be about both science and religion, my all time favorite book on both science and religion is still Asimov’s Guide to the Bible.

  19. #19 Cody
    November 22, 2006

    lytefoot, one of my favorite things to do is to present the following list of books and ask people to identify the one fictitious title:

    The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
    The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design
    The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South (and Why It Will Rise Again)
    The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature
    The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming (and Environmentalism)

    (The correct answer is, of course, that they are all actual installments in the series.)

  20. #20 jeffk
    November 22, 2006

    I’d like to agree that Elegant Universe probably doesn’t belong.

    So, PZ was scared away from physics by “The Tao of Physics”? I wasn’t scared away from biology by “Darwin’s Black Box” – I was scared away because it’s messy 😉

    It’s a shame, because quantum mechanics is quite beautiful, once you understand it – a shame anyone ever made money off of the “new age” interpretation.

  21. #21 Caledonian
    November 22, 2006

    In addition, it seems to me that non-overlapping magesteria people are far more open-minded, and less influenced by their religion than other religious people

    Mostly because they don’t have the integrity to admit that their religion makes actual claims about real things, and instead they embrace empty-headed but vague principles that don’t require them to actually make a stand on anything or construct/confront arguments.

  22. #22 Dan P
    November 22, 2006

    I agree with you on all except Kurzweil. This guy is a total rational scientist or rather inventor, you won’t find a trace of Chopra type mysticism in his being. That said he is a futurist and an optimistic one too boot. His predictions may seem and even may be ridicilous but it is based on totally materialistic science. Also I don’t think even he thinks he will live forever on supplements, I think he said he hopes too live long enough too take advantage of the “biotech revolution” whenever that may be.
    Kurzweil is in no sense “on the wrong side”.

  23. #23 DrSteve
    November 22, 2006

    How about Silent Spring?

    – For harping on an environmental threat which barely exists and being influential enough to frighten several generations.

  24. #24 llewelly
    November 22, 2006

    Kurzweil believes enough woo to take 250 supplements a day, we are told. I fear some quack will kill him long before the biotech revolution doubles anyone’s lifespan.

  25. #25 Stanton
    November 22, 2006

    Silent Spring has no place on this list, given as how a gigantic puddle of DDT/DDE off the Southern California coast prevents bald eagles from reinhabiting Southern California for the next 5 centuries.

    I nominate “Shattering the Myths of Darwinism” by Richard Milton. He’s a bonafide Christian dumbshit, and his moronic book is filled with Creationist lies and poopooing of his critics.
    And then there’s “Godless” by Ann Coulter.

  26. #26 Jonathan Badger
    November 22, 2006

    I’m not sure that John Horgan, the author of the awful “End of Science” which was so useful to the postmodernists in the 1990s Science Wars (basic message — science has already discovered everything significant that it can) has any business creating a list of bad books about science that doesn’t feature his own.

  27. #27 jeffw
    November 22, 2006

    Kurzweil is loopy, and his books are far out, but some of his ideas are interesting and stimulating. They’re “futurist” books – I wouldn’t even call them science.

  28. #28 mtraven
    November 22, 2006

    This is an interesting but ill-posed challenge, since it lumps all sorts of things together (bad science, pseudo-science, borderline science).

    Here’s one nobody has mentioned yet: Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. For sheer empty pretension, I don’t think this can be beat.

    Or as Cosma put it, “A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity”

  29. #29 Matthew
    November 22, 2006

    How about Mark McCutcheon’s book “The Final Theory” in that he claims to have unlocked The Theory of Everything.

  30. #30 Russell
    November 22, 2006

    Y’all are missing one of the worst science authors ever: Jeremy Rifkin. In Entropy, he manages to state three or four different definitions of entropy, all wrong. In Algeny, he follows the worst creationists in arguing against evolution. He has become a popular guru by bending science to his own purposes.

  31. #31 Leon
    November 22, 2006

    I can’t believe no one’s nominated Of Pandas and People!

    I don’t know about The Tao of Physics (though it sounds pretty out there), but I did read Capra’s The Turning Point and thought it made a good deal of sense. I don’t see it as an end-all and be-all, but the book did point out to me some of the limitations of reductionism in Western thought.

  32. #32 Blake Stacey
    November 22, 2006

    You can easily tell that The Age of Spiritual Machines is not a science book. For one thing, it doesn’t have error bars on its graphs. Instead, each graph has inspiring and appropriate (cough, cough) artwork motifs.

    Simply put, it’s science fiction without the benefits of plot, character or exploding spaceships.

  33. #33 Mary
    November 22, 2006

    I dont’ get the problem with the Tao of Physics.
    All Capra says is that there are some interesting similarities in how modern physics and eastern mysticism looks at the world. He doesn’t say they are the same thing, or that one proves the other.
    You might not find that interesting, but it isn’t bad science.

    New agers who came along later mixed up what he was saying and started this whole misuse of concepts like quantum mechanics. You can’t blame him for that.

  34. #34 Stephen
    November 22, 2006

    Certainly “Shattering the Myths of Darwinism” qualifies for the ‘awful’ category. I could only cope with a few pages at a time before needing to go and get some fresh air. Was it really harmful though? – I don’t see it quoted often.

    “Silent Spring” doesn’t remotely belong on the list. The pesticide threat was absolutely real – raptor populations suffered dreadfully.

    And I really can’t see why “A Short History of Nearly Everything” was suggested. I thought it was a very good attempt at getting people interested in science. Maybe a few errors here and there (which book has none?) but I can’t recall anything bad.

  35. #35 jeffw
    November 22, 2006

    ..also the drexler book: “Engines of Creation Bible of the pseudo-scientific cult of nanotechnology”. This isn’t a science book, it’s a technology futurist book. And I would hardly call it a cult when there’s a whole nanotech industry out there. Not on the scale that drexler envisioned (at least not yet), but it’s there.

  36. #36 Blake Stacey
    November 22, 2006

    Mary wrote:

    I dont’ get the problem with the Tao of Physics.
    All Capra says is that there are some interesting similarities in how modern physics and eastern mysticism looks at the world. He doesn’t say they are the same thing, or that one proves the other.
    You might not find that interesting, but it isn’t bad science.

    It is bad science if Capra has to distort or exaggerate the positions modern physics takes on the issues it has uncovered. By sufficiently vague reasoning, you can make any field of science — even straight-up classical Newtonian mechanics — resemble any brand of mysticism you prefer. This does not illuminate science; nor does it give insight into Zen, Taoism, the cult of Osiris or whichever other mystical system you wish to equate with modern science.

  37. #37 yagwara
    November 22, 2006

    Kristine:

    As far as I remember, Nick Herbert’s Quantum Reality was pretty accurate. Of course that was way back when I was a math/physics undergraduate, now that I am a working math/physics PhD, I might be looking at it with a more critical eye. But it certainly wasn’t obvious dreck like Capra.

    Question: Is a bad book redeemable if it gets people interested in good books? I liked Tao of Physics when I was 12, and it led me on to learn more, though now it is an embarassing part of my past like tight white jeans and big hair.

  38. #38 Cody
    November 22, 2006

    Russell, if Rifkin never wrote Algeny, then we would never have been blessed with Gould’s ass-kickingly awesome review of it, now would we?

    “I regard Algeny as a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don’t think I have ever read a shoddier work.”

  39. #39 Kseniya
    November 22, 2006

    I am curious about how people think The Tao of Physics (which I have not read) compares to The Dancing Wu Li Masters?

  40. #40 Troutnut
    November 22, 2006

    I’m surprised nobody has brought up Michael Crichton’s State of Fear.

  41. #41 Ray
    November 22, 2006

    Quote from Horgan’s post:

    “Books by Discover bloggers whose last names start with H are ineligible. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”

    I have to second or third the nomination that Horgan’s “The End of Science” should be on the list. From the quote above, Horgan may be aware that his book makes him an expert on bad science books.

    Most of the books on this list are similar to discussions we had as graduate students b-s-ing while drunk on the philosophy of science. Reading these books sober is like experiencing dt’s.

    There are a few good suggestions on his list, and this thread has listed many more good suggestions (except Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the ecological science in her book is top notch).

  42. #42 Rey Fox
    November 22, 2006

    Re: “Godless” and “State of Fear”: We’re talking science books. Not batshit loony political screeds or works of narrative fiction. Coulter’s feeble stabbings at science and Crichton’s charts and bibliography do not a science book make.

  43. #43 Troutnut
    November 22, 2006

    I guess it’s hard to know where to draw the line between “completely insane book about science” and “really really bad science book.”

  44. #44 George
    November 22, 2006

    What about Fred Alan Wolf? Where does he stand in the pantheon?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Alan_Wolf

  45. #45 Ros
    November 22, 2006

    Kary Mullis, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. The Nobel-winning discoverer of polymerase chain reaction expresses his belief in astral projection and astrology (amongst other things), denies an HIV -> AIDS link, denies global warming, and does it all with an unpleasant smug arrogance and an “I am a super-genuis, and smarter than you” condescension.

    Yes, it’s a science memoir rather than a science book proper, but given the number of Amazon reviews that include some phrase like “this is what a scientist should be like!” it looks like it’s already done damage.

  46. #46 Scott Hatfield
    November 22, 2006

    To that, I would add that ‘Consilience’ is not a science book, per se, but rather a philosophy of science book. The same thing could be said about ‘Rock of Ages’. They are both good reads, and thought-provoking, and they should be on any well-informed person’s reading list, IMHO.

    Similarly, ‘The Bell Curve’ is not really a science book, either, but it deserves ignominy due to the fact that it was sold as science to justify its endorsement of reactionary views. There are some tidbits of data buried in this mess that make it worth reading if you’re interested in that sort of thing and can stomach Murray’s political agenda.

    Kurzweil’s books are pretty hard to take. I’d like to give him a free pass, if only because of the fondness I have for the music technology his company developed. I think of his most recent offerings as being somewhat akin to the more nebulous writings of other futurists—Alvin Toffler comes to mind. Add the phrase ‘psychics predict’ to almost any paragraph and it gives you the flavor.

    Well, those are my thoughts on those already discussed. I’d like to nominate a book that claims to offer science but which has an astonishingly poor conceptual basis: Tipler’s ‘The Physics of Immortality’. It’s like one of Fred Hoyle’s misguided probability arguments shackled to some of Kurzweil’s notion of evolving machine intelligence.
    Enjoy!

    SH

  47. #47 Caledonian
    November 22, 2006

    Most ‘philosophy of science’ books belong on this list, primarily because they so badly represent the philosophy that’s actually in science.

  48. #48 Blake Stacey
    November 22, 2006

    I’d like to second mtraven’s comment above that although this question is interesting, it is not well posed. If we take Horgan’s original criterion —

    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.

    — then Crichton’s State of Fear must surely qualify. (Hell, everything he’s known for, with the possible exception of The Andromeda Strain, is a dreary expression of an anti-science Frankenstein complex.) The mass-market paperback currently ranks as number 4,447 on Amazon, compared to 9,586 for The Tao of Physics, 9,603 for The Age of Spiritual Machines, and 32,309 for The Bell Curve. This is admittedly a biased way of gauging a book, but if we’re talking about “bestsellers” with “significant impact”, we’ve already moved ourselves out of scholarship and into the realm of commerce whoredom.

    Happily, The Demon-Haunted World beats all of the above at 3,397. The Elegant Universe does even better at 1,258.

  49. #49 Dan P
    November 22, 2006

    Yes I agree Kurzweil books are not really science, he is a futurist and the thing about futurists is that 90% of the stuff they predict does not come true, instead the 90% is even cooler stuff which nobody thought about.
    I still think his books have a purpose though, when someone comes and says how science is cold, boring and hopeless, you can point him too Kurzweil’s optimistic visions of technotopia. He knows the computer industry quite well and is totally mainstream when it comes too science (just his vision of potential technologies is sometimes way out there).

    Also the 150 supplements is overkill, I think he says he only take stuff that has at least some research and peer review behind them, the problem is that natural stuff is only mildly effective. With a good lifestyle and some proven supplements you can probably easily reach your nineties, alot of people reach their eighties on current medical technology while living horrible lifestyles.
    Too radically extend life we will need some advanced directly intervening biotech and that is 20+ years at the most optimistic away.

  50. #50 Pierce R. Butler
    November 22, 2006

    Gee, nobody’s even mentioned the ouevre of Gregg Easterbrook, Steven Mosher, Julian Simon, or other pseudo/anti-environmentalists.

    Some sort of prize is also due to Robert Ardrey’s best-selling visions of bloodthirsty australopithecines rampaging across the savannah and into our gene pool.

  51. #51 john c. halasz
    November 22, 2006

    What? Edelman’s theories are merely pretentious and obscure and he really knows nothing about neuroscience? “Bright Air, Brilliant Fire” was really poorly written, but it was far from incomprehensible, nor implausible, and was merely a popularization of much weightier tomes, based on extensive laboratory research. “The Universe of Consciousness” was vastly better written, no doubt due to the discipline of working with his co-author Tonnoni, and offered significant advancements and specifications on his theoretical/empirical approach. But that a Nobel prize winning physiologist with refereed papers up the wazoo and a research budget to match knows nothing of neuroscience and what would constitute viable experimental approaches to questions of mental function that it raises, let alone its physiological developmental bases, would be a major scandal eminently worthy of investigation. Egomaniacal I don’t know from; never met the man.

  52. #52 Kristine
    November 22, 2006

    As far as I remember, Nick Herbert’s Quantum Reality was pretty accurate.

    Thanks, yagwara. I recently reread it and couldn’t find fault.

    Question: Is a bad book redeemable if it gets people interested in good books?

    Did the book (I’ve never read Tao of Physics ) have a recommended reading list or bib at the end? Then I would say yes; if not, no credit to the bad book.

  53. #53 Charles Janecka
    November 22, 2006

    I have not read The Tao of Physics, but I am reading The Hidden Connection by Fritjof Capra. I think to simply use the concept that The Tao of Physics “helped inspire the tedious New Age obsession with quantum mechanics” makes it a dangerous book is a dangerous concept. It is comparable to saying quantum mechanics inspired New Age feelings and is therefore dangerous. I may get into trouble for my fortitude because I have not read that one book but I am in the thick of his other. My point is that misinterpretations are the fault of the interpretor. Censorship will lead to ignorance which is the basis of misinterpretation. However, if I can see that the danger comes from the book’s subject itself and not the interpretations of it then my above argument will be moot.

    As for Kurzweil; he is an inventor with an affinity for predicting the future. He seems to be good at it. He has based his entire enterprise on introducing the correct product at the right time and has been very prolific as a result of it.

    I am a fan of Ray’s work and have read all of his books. The Singularity is Near is his latest futuristic book which is similiar to The Age of Spiritual Machines. I would be interested what the creator of the list has to say about this latest book as it is more pertinent to the present time.

  54. #54 Dr. Steve
    November 22, 2006

    Right there with you on Rifkin. I heard him speak once at college. Quite the loon.

  55. #55 Ritchie Annand
    November 22, 2006

    I personally really enjoyed Nick Herbert’s Quantum Reality. It’s got a much better explanation for Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle than Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell does (where the reason we can’t measure the position is because the measurement disturbs the position, which presumes an absolutely exact position to pinpoint), and he goes into a number of possible candidates for further research into quantum reality, which is to say, “is there anything actually underlying quantum physics?”, to try to get past the Copenhagen Interpretation as commonly given (which is to say basically quantum is quantum, big things are classical, “shut up and do the math” :), or the even worse variant popular with some that human consciousness is somehow required for quantum probabilities to collapse.

    It’s actually a really smartly-written book. It doesn’t go far off into flights of fancy, it tells you why normal “hidden variables” won’t work, but why they’re not impossible, and it made my ears bleed far less than Roger Penrose’s giant tome 🙂

    Roger Penrose’s Road To Reality is an exceptional book… if you’ve taken three or four years of university physics and pure math, and perhaps not even then. That said, I’m surprised that he’s a lot more of an iconoclast than I figured, giving mathematical reasons why string theory and in particular inflation theory won’t work as currently formulated, and the questions they still have yet to answer.

    If anyone is willing to write a book that translates everything Penrose says into almost layman’s English with a few more metaphors and diagrams, I would definitely jump to the head of the queue to buy it 🙂

  56. #56 Carl Buell (OGeorge)
    November 22, 2006

    The Bible…at least that’s where a number of people in my own family “get” their science.

  57. #57 Jonathan Arnold
    November 22, 2006

    I’m really surprised that von Däniken’s “Chariots Of the Gods” isn’t on that list. How could that one not possibly be on any list of worst science books? It sure had an impact on me when I was 13 or so, and I even read a couple more of his. But what a bunch of influential bullshit that was! Spawned a whole industry of alternate universe thinking, where the KISS principle wasn’t good enough and ancient savages couldn’t possibly have done anything interesting without extraterrestrial help.

  58. #58 Neil
    November 23, 2006

    Anything by Kevin Warwick.

  59. #59 Erekose
    November 23, 2006

    Ugg, Kurzweil. As much as I agree with his techno-progressive stance, everything he’s written after Age of Intelligent machines is dreck, especially anything with the law of accelerating returns. Even the few transhumanists i know have serious problems with his approach. One is better off reading a sci-fi novel, anything by Charles Stross will give you the same ideas and plausibility, and add an actual plotline too!

    I disagree with Drexlers position on the list though. I’m a nanotechnology student, so i know he is wildly over optimistic, but most of the base ideas are sound, if sensationalised. (and sensationalising is hardly a new thing for popular science books.)The timeline he and his most ardent followers are proposing may be a few decades off though.

  60. #60 Jeremy Cherfas
    November 23, 2006

    What, no Rupert Sheldrake?

  61. #61 windy
    November 23, 2006

    Bryan Sykes: Seven Daughters of Eve (although maybe not in the top ten?)

  62. #62 Tristram Shandy
    November 23, 2006

    The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature

    Perhaps it’s because as a scientist-in-training, I am experienced with people mangling science for political ends, but this title came as a bit more of a shock for me than the others.

    Consider the overriding theme that the author tortures out of Austen: “Jane Austen: Most men would be improved if they were more patriarchal than they actually are.”

    It’s fair to say that anyone who can say something like that in all seriousness has never understood, and perhaps never read, Austen.

  63. #63 Danniel Soares
    November 23, 2006

    Are there good books arguing in the opposite direction of “the bell curve”? I’ve only heard of Gould’s “mismeasure of man”, but I’ve heard that this one is also somewhat flawed and politically biased, even tough these sort of claims usually come from defenders of some sort of racism or eugenics, such as some site, neoeugenics or something like it, which haves a very very lenghty dissection of this specific book or Gould’s works in general. I haven’t read any of these books, neither this review I mentioned anyway (yet I would like to have some tips of good books on the subject).

  64. #64 James G
    November 23, 2006

    Nope Danniel, there aren’t. Criticisms of The Bell Curve are pretty much always either purely emotional “Its pure racist drivel!” or they point out some minor problem with the data “The NLYS sample was not representative, the average IQ was a bit too high.”

    What the average person doesn’t understand is, The Bell Curve is not about race, it is about the plight of the left half of the bell curve in our society, a plight that the vast majority of intellectuals are happy to ignore, since the less brilliant half of humanity is all but invisible to them. If any portions of the book raise serious objections, these are limited to chapters 13, 14, and 22. 13 and 14 are about race, and 22 strays outside of Herrnstein and Murray’s domain of expertise and offers a slew of policy recommendations.

    The point the book is trying to make is that as our society becomes more and more complex, it becomes more difficult for the less intelligent to perform even the simplest tasks, such as filling out tax forms or buying a house. They are worried about rising income inequality in the US, and the rise of a cold-hearted “protect us from the poor” form of conservatism which they oppose.

    The major opposing book is the revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man, which as you said is problematic. I am sure if you just picking up a copy of each book and read them yourself, you will see for yourself that the popular perception of The Bell Curve is far from accurate.

    Here are other major critiques and examinations of the book:
    Inequality by Design by the Berkeley sociology department.
    Intelligence, Genes, and Success: Scientists Respond to The Bell Curve
    http://www.reason.com/news/show/29636.html

    And some responses to these:
    http://www.debunker.com/texts/jensen.html

    An official statement on IQ from the APA:
    http://www.lrainc.com/swtaboo/taboos/apa_01.html
    Here is a clip from that:

    “The differential between the mean intelligence test scores of Blacks and Whites (about one standard deviation, although it may be diminishing) does not result from any obvious biases in test construction and administration, nor does it simply reflect differences in socio-economic status. Explanations based on factors of caste and culture may be appropriate, but so far have little direct empirical support. There is certainly no such support for a genetic interpretation. At present, no one knows what causes this differential.”

    Rather than conclude there must be a large genetic component, the APA choose to remain agnostic. However, mainstream psychology obviously backs the validity of IQ and the black-white score gap.

    And a statement issued by a large group of scientists that was published in the WSJ:
    http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/reprints/1994WSJmainstream.pdf

    Generally, the critics of IQ are very uninformed about it. There is a great deal to read on this topic, and generally the more one reads the more one beleives in the validity of IQ tests. For example, while working on his master’s thesis in the 50’s, Arthur Jensen was convinced that IQ tests were biased against minorities. After years of studying individual differences in learning, particularly the influences of culture, development, and genetics on intelligence and learning he eventually came to realize the tests were not biased, and 30 years later published Bias in Mental Testing, a massive defence of IQ tests against claims of cultural bias.

  65. #65 XPM
    November 23, 2006

    I never quite understood why such a media frenzy developed around _The Age of Spiritual Machines_ when ten years earlier Hans Moravec’s _Mind Children_ mooted essentially all of the same ideas and generated only a small ripple of interest.

  66. #66 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.

  67. #67 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

  68. #68 Nix
    November 24, 2006

    Allow me to nominate two of my favorite books (yes, as bad books even though I think they’re great stuff), one mentioned by the original article and one not.

    _Engines of Creation_ was fascinating, but, well, um, pure hypothesis from beginning to end is the least you can say about it. (People who say ‘oh, nanotech can’t work’ on the basis of fine detail in EoC are wrong, though: Drexler wasn’t being precise in there. You have to read his _Nanosystems_ to find the precision, although it’s still recognisably written as though you can treat nanosystems like mechanics, not biology, and so is not likely to yield terribly useful results, at least not results that work outside evacuated chambers.)

    Hans Moravec’s _Mind Children_, which is a *really strange* book. The first couple of chapters are almost sane, far-out robotics… and then his projections fall off a cliff and before you know it he’s passed the weirdness singularity and you’ve got a wall of mostly-undescribed thoughtstuff sweeping across the universe at lightspeed, converting everything into simulations of itself for no good reason.

    One thing: don’t go reading Charlie Stross’s stuff on the basis that he’s `the singularity guy’; he isn’t. A lot of his stuff is way-far-out, and *one* book intentionally tries to write a story set around the singularity to prove it’s possible, but he’s a singularity skeptic. (See e.g. http://www.accelerando.org/_static/toughguide.html for proof of this.)

    (Personally I’m fonder of _The Atrocity Archives_ and _The Jennifer Morgue_ than I am of his Accelerando universe, and that’s not likely to be mistaken for factual unless you believe that doing the right maths can summon Cthulhu.)

    And, oh yes, that Politically Incorrect Guide list, like everything on uncyclopedia, is guaranteed wrong. (That’s one of the requirements for inclusion in the uncyclopedia. Being gratuitously offensive to at least one social group, preferably a stuck-up one, isn’t a *requirement*, but a strong suggestion. That whole site is seriously NSFW.)

  69. #69 Keith Douglas
    November 24, 2006

    Science-related books that did a lot of (intellectual) harm have to include Thomas Kuhn’s _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ …

  70. #70 TTT
    November 25, 2006

    “The Skeptical Environmentalist” has got to be on there. In what other “science” book would you find the argument that the extinction of island bird species does not effect biodiversity because non-native species move in to replace them?

  71. #71 recovered
    November 26, 2006

    I stumbled across this link today. While it includes forecasts by some who have been bashed in this thread, it is hard to completely dismiss the writings of people like Kurzweil when a decent number of well-trained and award winning scholars are making equally “outrageous” predictions. While not defending all or even most of what Kurzweil has written, nor his timeline, his basic thesis seems sound–i.e., that we can expect major advances in biology and technology this century that will change life as we know it more than anything that has ever come before. Check out: http://www.newscientist.com/channel/opinion/science-forecasts.

  72. #72 Carlon
    December 10, 2006

    Okay, I’m not saying that I agree with Ray Kurzweil’s theories, (although most of The Law of Accelerating Returns actually does make sense). The most critical objection that I find is his rather under-examined Anthropocentrism.

    However, the above description stating, “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” is so completely inaccurate as to reveal nothing more than the fact that whomever wrote it obviously has not read Kurzweil’s theories.
    He does not plan to “live forever” based on this lifestyle, only to “stick around” until we have the technology available to upload his mind and replicate him via either cybernetic systems or virtual reality, etc.

  73. #73 Eisoj5
    January 22, 2007

    I read The God Gene last year and then had the unfortunate experience of seeing What the Bleep… and realized that they had some very similar, and unpleasant, characteristics.

    (I did find the part about the Cohens in The God Gene somewhat interesting, though.)

  74. #74 Danniel
    November 26, 2007

    Answering myself regarding a book with counter arguments to “the bell curve”, other than “mismeasure of man”, there is Intelligence, Genes, and Success, by many authors (the search in Amazon also gives another seemingly interesting results as related books). I haven’t read yet, but I think it was recomended on the “Three toed sloth” blog, or some other blog linked to it. In this blog there are a few interesting stuff related to this whole topic. There’s also an interesting post about something writen by Thomas Sowell, in another blog, “Grasping Reality with Both Hands”.

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