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« Stevens Greatest Science Books: The Next Ten | Main | Worst Science Books, Continued »



Ten Worst Science Books

A journalist/friend who once excelled at hatchet jobs has recently bought the whole Buddhist bag, including the principle of “right speech,” which commands us not to speak ill of others. Right speech, like the other tenets of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, supposedly helps us cultivate the selflessness and compassion that are necessary precursors of enlightenment.

But I speak ill of other scientific opinion-shapers not to fulfill some petty selfish need but because of my deep and abiding concern for others. If a pundit promotes falsehoods, perhaps I can help him see what an idiot he is; if my reasoning fails to persuade him, I want to help others perceive his numbskullery. In this way, I humbly nudge all of humanity closer toward Ultimate Truth. This, you might say, is my Boddhissattva way.

It is in this spirit of modest munificence that I offer the following list of the Ten Worst Science Books. 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.

Feel free to nominate your own Worst Science Books. They may even be on the Stevens or Discover Greatest Science Books lists (because as Yoda or some other sage once said, the opposite of a deep truth is also true: e.g., money can’t buy you love). Books by Discover bloggers whose last names start with H are ineligible. Sorry, I don't make the rules. Now, the list:

Capra, Frifjof, The Tao of Physics. Helped inspire the tedious New Age obsession with quantum mechanics.
Drexler, Eric, Engines of Creation. Bible of the pseudo-scientific cult of nanotechnology.
Edelman, Gerald, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. Oliver Sacks, inexplicably, reveres the pretentious, obscure neural theories of the egomaniacal Edelman. Why, Oliver, why?
Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point. Chaos theory and social dynamics re-packaged into inspirational bromides. As an editor once wrote on an article I submitted, “A triumph of style over substance.”
Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages. Gould at his pompous, verbose worst. He managed somehow both to pander and condescend to readers.
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.
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.
Kramer, Peter, Listening to Prozac. Kramer helped Lilly make a buttload of money with his musings on a mythical drug that magically dispels depression.
Kurzweil, Ray, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Bible of the pseudo-scientific cult of cyber-evangelism.
Murray, Charles, and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve. The worst of the worst, ethically, scientifically, intellectually.
Wilson, Edward, Consilience. Sorry, Ed, but even your writerly charm cannot mitigate this misguided manifesto for scientific imperialism. Stick with ants and biodiversity!

Comments

David Heddle

Bravo to Blake and Daniel. (Daniel, we agree on a book review!) Greene's book certainly does not belong on a ten worst list. It does an admirable job of poularizing String Theory. And the reason you gave for its inclusion was a load of crap. You placed "The Elegant Universe" on your list (with no more than a snide comment) at the cost of your own credibility.

Mary

About the Buddha's teachings:

1.He said to never blindly accept what he or anyone else said, but to always think for yourself.
2.His basic guide to morality was to avoid doing harm and to do good.
3. When he said not to speak ill of others, I think he was refering to things like pointless gossip which can damage people.

I think that it is right and important to point it out when someone says or writes things that are false or misleading. Therefore you really are being morally buddhist in what you are doing.

As far as it getting you to enlightenment, I don't think so, but goodness is good for goodness own sake.

csrster

Daniel, without wishing to get involved in any flame-war type activity, I think Ambitwistor's assesment of nc's view of relativity is entirely accurate. I speak as a physicist myself.

Mike Cook

The problem with postulating that observer A and observer B can do anything in a simultaneous or even synchronized fashion when they are in significant relative motion to each other is how are they to be sure they have corrected or synchronized their clocks correctly? When they are comparing distant supernova the extreme case would be that one of the observers can't even see one of the supernova because it is space-like relative to him.

You would kinda think that since we know about a big bang that would give everyone a common starting point for calculating what time it is. Furthermore, since by convention the big bang had no starting point locus that we can identify, moving observers should not be in disagreement over the elapsed time since the beginning.

Ambitwistor

Mike:

Synchronization of clocks is indeed difficult. In flat spacetime there is a unique way of doing so, but in curved spacetime there is not; even a single observer has infinitely many choices for foiliating spacetime (splitting it up into spatial surfaces of simultaneity).

However, all observers can choose to use cosmological time to measure events (if they can come up with a way of inferring the cosmological time of distant events). It won't necessarily agree with their *own* measure of time, however a moving observer can experience an arbitrarily small amount of elapsed time since the Big Bang, for instance.

On the other hand, all the galaxies are roughly at rest with respect to the cosmological observers, so in practice this objection is not so severe.

Daniel Morgan

csrester,

Don't fear flaming from me :)

I think you missed the subtle sarcasm of my "PS". I am entirely aware that Brian Greene, and not Nigel Cook, is in the right on relativity, as Ambitwistor pointed out.

Ambitwistor and I had a pleasant email exchange following his comment, which I thanked him for.

Note the "bwa ha ha ha" -- a subtle but important indication of my facetious wit.

nc

"You can order them chronologically according to cosmological time, but that won't change the fact that there are other observers for which supernova A happened before supernova B, and still others for which supernova B happened before supernova A. Cosmological time has nothing to do with an observer's measure of simultaneity, unless they happen to be a cosmological observer." - Ambitwistor

If the observer can't see how much redshift and can't determine distance of the event, then yes.

But all observers will agree that the CBM occurred before any stars, for example.

All I've pointed out is that it is just limited approach. Newtonian gravity is false as a theory of gravity because it misses out massive effects like the finite speed (c) with which gravitational influences propagate, and makes errors.

It appears as a low-speed, weak field approximation in general relativity. Just because it is an approximation, doesn't mean it is correct. It isn't, because even in weak fields it neglects the time factor (if you took away the sun, it would be 8.3 minutes before the earth flew off on a tangent, which Newton doesn't allow for).

If you try to get people interested in Newtonian gravity by saying it is correct and general relativity is correct, you create confusion.

The same occurs for saying that both special and general relativity are correct. As Einstein writes:

‘... the law of the constancy of the velocity of light. But ... the general theory of relativity cannot retain this law. On the contrary, we arrived at the result according to this latter theory, the velocity of light must always depend on the coordinates when a gravitational field is present.’

- Albert Einstein, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, Henry Holt and Co., 1920, p111.

Brian Greene should not be contradicting Einstein on this matter, because Einstein is right here!

Ambitwistor

"But all observers will agree that the CBM occurred before any stars, for example."

The CMB is in the past light cone of star formation. Observers disagree on temporal ordering when the events are *spacelike* separated, not timelike.

"All I've pointed out is that it is just limited approach."

What, exactly, is a "limited approach"?

"The same occurs for saying that both special and general relativity are correct."

Special relativity is a special case of the more general theory, general relativity. That's why they're called "special" and "general".

"Brian Greene should not be contradicting Einstein on this matter, because Einstein is right here!"

Brian Greene didn't contradict Einstein, and you have given no such contradiction. All you said was that he claimed GR = SR + gravity, which is true.

Andrei Kirilyuk

Just to switch from strings and relativity, the last part of the last phrase of the above Mary's comment, "goodness is good for goodness own sake", sounds good, but it may hide a contradiction to her previous lost hope for John's real enlightenment and related "believer's hope" in general. This blog discussion, as well as many other ones, reveals the continuing, terrible domination of various intuitive, blind “beliefs” actually guiding people's judgements and actions, especially it seems there in America, despite its “brave new world” status. Today this tendency exceeds canonical, religious beliefs: growing masses of quite agnostic and well-educated citizens tend to blindly believe, ever more anxiously, in their disbelief, in relativity, in Einstein, in Darwin, in string theory, in “science” in general, in this or that politics or ideological “ism” (even now, after all!), etc. It looks as if all of them, even irrespective of their particular creed, badly need just another God, the new, truly powerful and unifying one... Therefore, I would like to ask you, why finally not to start understanding (and thus knowing), rather than believing, at least to try to start understanding? That will be your missing new God! I think that could be the actual challenge of Horgan's approach and his position in this discussion, to move to a well substantiated, consistent understanding that could include some subjective preference but extended to a critical, permanently progressing knowledge. Isn't it the only correct purpose that can uniquely replace all that current chaos of broken belief systems and related illusive hopes?

Returning to Buddha's teaching, isn't it somewhat disappointing that although “everybody should think for himself”, this teaching, as well as other, “competing” religions remains without major change for thousands of years now (and in addition, such “stability” is considered as a particularly good sign!)? Nobody wants to think for himself, apparently. [After which same people enter in a particularly hot discussion about IQ details, their political involvement, etc. Can't you see that the major problem is not in those superficial simulations, it is in the fact that your true faculty to (deeply) think does not progress at all, during thousands of years!] Everything good is good, and it's good to believe in good, and as it is the basis of Buddhism, everybody who is not too bad in his actions is an “effective Buddhist”. OK, but maybe we are cycling a bit here around an empty space called zero? Can't we see that all those practical contradictions we discuss here, in science and beyond, having “infinitely big” potential (and real!) consequences, are born and maintained typically as collisions between different versions, or even interpretations, of a priori similarly oriented notions of “good” and “goodness”? All those beliefs in strings, in Einstein, in “our science”, etc. produce really dangerous, harmful obstacles for further development (absolutely similar, but increasingly more important than those of canonical religious/ideological fanaticism), but their respective believers are mostly acting, of course, as sincere fighters for truth and goodness (I also cannot forget about a hundred years lost for communist “beliefs” in this part of the world...). It's like those Karma circles without escape, unless one makes a very special spiritual effort to jump to a Nirvana bliss, beyond any trivial, “easy” goodness, so to speak. So again, maybe the needed satori is a definite transition from ANYTHING fixed forever to a living, permanently developing kind of knowledge based on creative doubt and the search for genuine, ever growing consistency (= understanding), where previous “good” ideas of blind belief can find their natural place, but in their extended, rational, and now truly unlimited version?

In any case, attempts like Tao of Physics and other announced “novelties” as if transgressing boundaries between science and religion (and therefore so generously favoured by John Templeton Foundation) can only compromise the idea of a wider knowledge system: they do NOT bring about greater understanding of reality and related problem solution but demonstrate instead the modern decadent state of BOTH science and religion (that's where they are approaching each other, indeed!).

Back to earth, what did finally happen to that meditating Buddhist boy, apparently a new incarnation of the Teacher, who was seating recently below the tree without food and drink for many days? Did he understood something that made him leave all of us unenlightened or will he return, together with his new friends Jesus Christ, prophet Mohammed and Albert Einstein? That would be a happy end in a Hollywood style! But I suspect that it's a bit too easy for this case. Maybe we'd better try indeed to UNDERSTAND everything ourselves, according to Buddha's (and actually anyone else's) advice.

And finally, there is a subjectively estimated difference between “belief” and “understanding” that contributes essentially to their continuing opposition. Intrinsic believers (in anything, from dice to God not playing dice) relate their “religious” experience to great pleasures of a superior emotional level, various sorts of spiritual “orgasm”, catharsis, and other “narcotic” states of mind. They tend correspondingly to assume (often subconsciously) that something like “objective understanding” is rather deprived of that kind of internal bliss and therefore cannot compete with their favourite “belief”. It is important to know that it's not true and the real situation is close to the opposite relation: the subjective “feeling” of truly growing, more consistent understanding of reality (based on doubts!) - and thus growing level of consciousness itself - exceeds by far all artificially generated pleasures of a predetermined belief (usually in externally imposed ideas).

csrster

Daniel, sorry about that. I was a bit confused (the old sdwotn effect) especially as your own blog seems quite sane.

Terry

Steven Johnson's book "Everything Bad Is Good for You".
This book isn't strictly speaking a science book as there
is very little actual science in it. But it was treated
by the media as a science book, and given almost
universally positive coverage.

Here's my webpage dedicated to rebutting his argument
that TV is making us smarter.

www.tvsmarter.com

As for negative effects from this book, I do believe
that it has been very effective at encouraging a lot of
parents (even those who have only read *about* the book)
be even more lax about how much TV they let their
kids watch. The same goes for letting their kids
play violent video games.

TTT

"The Skeptical Environmentalist" was a disgrace to both science and books.

Lomborg is so clueless about ecology that he cannot tell the difference between supply and demand: observing that ocean catches are rising, he concludes that the sea must be producing more fish!

Similarly he proclaims that when island species are driven to extinction, global species levels are unaffected because invasive species have moved into the islands.

He is an uncredentialed flake, lame even by the standards of the other uncredentialed flakes who somehow publish absurd anti-science, anti-environmental doggerel.

The comments to this entry are closed.



   
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