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.