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« Worst Science Books, Continued | Main | Beyond Belief »

More on Worst Science Books

After adding the note below in the comment section of my last post, I decided it deserved a more prominent presentation. Here it is, with an additional whack at Elegant Universe:

Ah, this is just what I'd hoped Worst Science Books would do, provoke howls of outrage and calumny from the books' defenders. Just a few points, which will surely be lost on these benighted souls:

Hiro, you say the APA "debunked" Steele's work on stereotype threat, and The Bell Curve "debunked" the Flynn effect. Wrong on both counts. Steele's findings have been corroborated by many other researchers studying women and other groups that suffer from discrimination, as an article in Scientific American in February 2005, "Performance Without Anxiety," points out. As for the Flynn effect--the upward creep in IQ scores discovered by the psychologist James Flynn in the 1980s--Murray and Herrnstein merely dismissed it as trivial without offering any reasons. In fact, the Flynn effect undercuts the whole premise of The Bell Curve, that IQ scores are largely fixed and cannot be budged through interventions such as Head Start. Flynn documented that IQ scores have risen around the world by 30 points over the last century and by as much as 15 points--the size of the gap between black and white IQ scores--in some regions in a single generation.

I don't claim that the work of Steele and Flynn entirely accounts for black-white performance differences. But these findings show that at the very least there are serious uncertainties and deficiencies in The Bell Curve analysis, which make it quite easy for me--politically correct, bleeding-heart liberal that I am--to dismiss its morally noxious policy prescriptions.

Bruce offers a view of Prozac/SSRIs much more subtle and less dramatic than that of Peter Kramer in Listening to Prozac. Kramer claimed that Prozac is initiating an era of "cosmetic psychopharmacology" in which we can become "better than well." That's bullshit, and that's why his book deserves condemnation.

Roger accuses me of inconsistency for attacking The Bell Curve because it's hurtful to blacks while criticizing Prozac in a way that could be hurtful to depressed people (I prefer to think of the hurt inflicted on Big Pharma). He might have added that I also criticize religious belief in a way that could be hurtful to the faithful. Here's the big difference: You don't have to take Prozac or pray to the Virgin Mary. You can take a homeopathic pill or consult a witch doctor instead. You have a choice. When it comes to your race or gender, you have no choice. That puts racism and sexism in a different moral category than attacks on religion or quasi-religions like psychopharmacology.

A few pluckers (my term for string-lovers) have risen to the defense of Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. I met Greene last spring. He's a nice man and a deft writer, especially, as readers have pointed out, when it comes to explaining quantum mechanics, relativity and other underpinnings of physics. But he's done a disservice to physics and science as a whole by popularizing strings, which represent a dead end, not a new beginning.

If you want a more detailed critique of string theory, see my $1000 bet on, my review of Peter Woit’s book Not Even Wrong, my review of of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics or my take on strings in End of Science, which holds up quite well, if I say so myself. No doubt my anti-string diatribes will hurt the feelings of some pluckers, but they are free to embrace other theories of everything, like Intelligent Design or Smolin’s loopy, I mean loop-space, model.  

Now, time for tofu turkey!


Mike Cook

I want to nominate any book that describes gravity, even implicitly, as a force of attraction. Gravity is a theory of motion describing the way objects possessing mass will move around each other. If all sources of gravity were point sources nothing would ever accrete together due to gravity.

In fact, Isaac Asimov once wrote a wonderful speculation on a surface satellite orbiting our moon at an altitude of a few meters above the highest prominence. Absent an atmosphere, that motion would continue for a long time, especially if the altitude were just sufficient that the extended gravity wells of Earth, the sun, and Jupiter did not significantly perturb it.

The prime example of mis-picturing gravity is our moon, which despite being "attracted" to Earth for billions of years is doomed to leave us and go on its way. The only means by which non-electrically charged matter gets glommed together is for strong tidal forces and incidental collisions to gradually compress matter into a contact zone between two or more objects where the tendency of the parts of the conglomeration to each move separately will diminish and the whole will conserve the momentum of its parts by starting to spin.

The main reason that this quibble is important is because after the big bang all matter consisted of hydrogen and helium molecules, which individually behave a lot like point sources of fantastically weak gravity.

Getting all this to glom together to form stars and then galaxies takes some explaining. It happened, and we know it happened, so initial variations in the density of the universe must have somehow been enough to do the trick. Still, once small particles get close enough to thermodynamically collide the tendency is for them to dissipate, which is how lighter planets lose their atmospheres.

Earth supposedly picked up a lot of matter through asteroid collisions, but that process also has to happen just so or much of the accumulation which is becoming Earth gets blasted away and becomes part of Mars instead, or goes back into the asteroid belt, or even is ejected from the solar system.

In fact, the "gravity" of planets when they initially form is so very weak that it is hard to see fast collisions as doing anything but scattering the mush ball in spectacular fashion.

So no wonder there are only eight or nine planets, an asteroid belt, and a far-out zone of debris. By straining the imagination you can kinda picture how that happens. Much harder is picturing a cloud of gas in the first million years after the big bang having sufficient density anywhere to form stars, particularly when you have to account for what "dark energy" and "dark matter" were also up to in those days. Why would the random fluctuations in the density of that kind of stuff be the same as the density fluctuations of ordinary matter? If they weren't the same, did that help or hinder star and eventually galaxy formation?



Dark matter is actually responsible for creating density perturbations sufficient to produce the structure we see; that's one of the main arguments in its favor.

Mike Cook

Dark matter is handy stuff. Wish I had thought of it.


Boy, after reading the "Worst Science Books" posts, it's hard not to think that JH is himself an "*ucker" of one stripe or another. His vitriol towards Brian Greene and his "benighted" supporters seems misplaced at best. As a layperson who has read and enjoyed both of Greene's most recent books, I didn't feel that Greene was out to "dupe" me into believing string theory. Instead, I felt that the portions of the books that dealt with string theory were presented with full intellectual honesty.

With so many more deserving candidates, it's hard to believe that the Greene book was included. Take, for example, the previously mentioned The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. This book was judged to have been "scientifically dishonest" by a Danish court - surely this is a greater offense against "Ultimate Truth"? And what of "intelligent design" - there was nothing here that warranted inclusion? If a goal is to help "a pundit promoting falsehoods see what an idiot he is", then surely Steven Milloy deserves a nod? And how could there not be something in the area of energy consumption (perhaps The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy by Huber & Mills or The Hydrogen Economy by Jeremy Rifkin). If you're looking to address areas of "significant impact", to society today, you can hardly pick a more important topic. String theory is WAY down the list.

Finally, if it's true that you're not writing to "fulfill some petty selfish need", then you should drop the snarkiness - it just makes you sound like a jerk.

Hiro Protagonist


1.) Your analysis of The Bell Curve isn't what irks me - it’s the fact that you referred to its authors as racists without providing any subsequent evidence. Murray is quite capable of marshaling his own response, but the late Dr. Richard Herrnstein of Harvard is no longer around to defend himself. I would very much appreciate it if you could provide some sort of evidence to buttress such a serious charge. And please don’t make an argument that looks like this:

"John Horgan publicly praised an HBES presentation on the religious origins of genocide that included source material from a vicious anti-Semite. Furthermore, 58% of the authors Horgan credits with having written the "Worst Science Books" have Jewish background - despite the fact that Jews only make up 0.2% of the world's population. Therefore, John Horgan is an anti-Semite and should be viewed with contempt, not admiration."

You see how easy it is to smear someone? Hopefully, you can make a better case.

2.) Claude Steele's experiments do not utilize complete IQ tests (which test verbal, math, and spatial intelligence), they use individual sections of the GRE (which Skeptic magazine has thoroughly debunked as useless for predicting academic success) and mini-golfing games that require participants to hit a golf ball a whopping distance of 4 meters in a closed office room. I stand by the quote I cited from the American Psychological Association. Steele overstated the significance of his results. If he could randomly select a large sample of a particular ethnic group and "trick" them into averaging a score one standard deviation higher than their group's average on an accredited IQ test, he would have done it by now; and if he did, it would be the single greatest feat in educational history (if consistently replicable).

3.) "The Flynn Effect (a term coined by Murray and Herrnstein themselves) has leveled off considerably in developed countries, and has been concentrated among the lowest stratosphere of each ethnic group: suggesting that better nutrition and living standards have contributed to a rise in IQ scores. Very few would claim that there doesn't exist a significant environmental component to the black-white gap, but Murray believes that an annual government income for all Americans will be more far more effective than Head Start in targeting the inequalities that he believes are the main cause of the environmental component (see his new book, "In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State"). However, as a non-scientist, I'm not qualified to offer a detailed critique.

4.) The book's thesis is not nearly as fringe as you make it sound. Via Wikipedia:

"A survey was conducted in 1987 of a broad sample of 1,020 scholars (65% replied) in specialties that would give them reason to be knowledgeable about IQ (but not necessarily about race). The survey was given to members of the American Education Research Association, National Council on Measurement in Education, American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association, Behavior Genetics Association, and Cognitive Science Society. 52.9% of respondents supported the "partly genetic" position, 1.2% of respondents supported the "entirely genetic" position, 17.7% supported the "entirely environmental" position, and 28.2% responded that there was insufficient data "to support any reasonable opinion". Respondents on average called themselves slightly left of center politically, but political and social opinions accounted for less than 10% of the variation in responses."

The same results are listed in The Bell Curve, which claims that both genes and environment play a role in the white-black IQ gap - putting them in agreement with a majority of academics polled in the study.

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