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Eleven Worst Greatest Science Books

I recently published a list of the “Ten Worst Science Books” to complement Discover’s “25 Greatest Science Books of All Time” as well as the “Stevens Greatest Science Books” list that I started compiling last summer. I’m surprised more readers didn’t whack me for innumeracy, since my “Worst” list actually contained 11 books. I said these books must be “not merely awful but harmful,” that is, successful in their dissemination of falsehoods, half-truths, exaggerations, distortions, etc. With that in mind--and since it's the season of lists--I’m publishing this list of the “Eleven Worst Greatest Science Books,” which are “Stevens Greatest Science Books” that, arguably, have done more harm than good. Some of these books are terrific, worth reading in spite (because?) of their flaws.

Bush, Vannevar, Science, The Endless Frontier, 1945. This book helped established as official U.S. ideology the notion that science is an infinite source of insight into and power over nature. For devastating counterargument, see Horgan, John: The End of Science, Addison Wesley, 1996.

Chagnon, Napoleon, Yanamomo: The Fierce People, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1968. This lurid, bestselling description of a violent Amazonian tribe replaced the myth of the peaceful noble savage—propagated by Margaret Mead in Coming of Age in Samoa, another Worst Greatest Book--with the myth of the bloodthirsty, horny savage.

Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976. The seminal (ejacular?) document of what Stephen Jay Gould denigrated as “ultra-Darwinism,” which depicts humans as mere vehicles for propagating genes. As a bonus, the book also unleashed “memes,” inspiring reams of bad social science.

Dennett, Daniel, Consciousness Explained, Little Brown, Boston, 1991. Consciousness Explained Away would have been a more apt title for this arch-reductionist treatise.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900 (in German). If only Freud’s gripping, gothic stories were true! But let’s face it, we’re all still Freudians, and those who insist otherwise are obviously in the throes of some anti-authority Oedipal denial.

Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, New York, 1988. This monster bestseller popularized the absurd notion that physics can solve the riddle of creation—or, as Hawking put it, help us “know the mind of God.”

Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1962. Kuhn himself sometimes regretted having written this profoundly confusing--and confused--assault on conventional notions of scientific truth. Can you find where Kuhn compares scientists to drug addicts?

Mandelbrot, Benoit, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, W.H. Freeman, New York, 1977. This bombastic, eccentric text inspired the over-hyped fields of chaos and complexity. (But it’s not as bombastic, eccentric and bad as Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science.)

Mead, Margaret, Coming of Age in Samoa, American Museum of Natural History, 1928. If we have lots and lots of guilt-free pre-marital sex, all our problems will vanish! A charming idea, that unfortunately wasn’t true in Samoa, in Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s or anywhere else.

Popper, Karl, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Springer 1934. Popper argued that scientists can never prove theories are true; they can only disprove, or falsify them. He was wrong, and I can prove it.

Wilson, Edward O., Sociobiology, Harvard University Press, 1975. Along with The Selfish Gene, this all-too-eloquent book helped inspire the modern cult of evolutionary psychology, which insists that Darwin can explain all that we are, do, can be and should be.

Comments

Andrei Kirilyuk

The End of Science Books

I would still exclude Kuhn's book from this list: whatever its weak sides may be, it belongs to a very limited number of books showing that real science practice is very different, often opposite to official dogmas about it. Among sufficiently known, “famous” books on science with that level of critical attitude I can only cite “The End of Science” by certain John Horgan, “Creative Evolution” by Henri Bergson (1907) and “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn. These books and authors may be very different among themselves and in their various accents, but they all demonstrate the necessary level of truly independent, critical attitude to science (that should dominate in a “knowledge-based society”!), whereas usual books, both “good” and “bad”, discuss rather details of the dominating system of knowledge, without the underlying doubt that, in principle, everything there may be wrong, everything!, and therefore everything should be permanently checked, virtually “rejected”, seriously and within the full accessible depth. Kuhn's later doubts about his own book provide rather an argument in its favour.

I would also insert Wiener's “Cybernetics” in place of Kuhn's “Revolutions” because the former is really a “classic” example of a false, imitative science revolution and very deceptive play with words, containing no real result but “infinitely many” misleading promises. [It actually enters a shorter list of “imitations of complexity”, with various versions of “systems theory”, as well as modern “Prigoginology” and “Santa-Fetics” being equally on the list.]

But beyond all those details, the question appears, where are we going like that, with those variously profound but increasingly emerging estimates of science books? Isn't it just that case where lovers start discussing their relations only when the latter start failing? In other words, maybe we are simply talking about (almost) the LAST great (good and bad) science books? Indeed, science becomes less popular and much more “post-modern” (=senseless), and that fact alone is sufficient to change the value and meaning of “science book” as such. Some people still need to “read something intellectual”, something about science, knowledge, progress, but what is the evolution of the real quality of actually proposed books on those subjects? Today one can write every nonsense, evident absurdity under the label of “science” (also professional!) and become popular (see e.g. the above John's list), irrespective of the meaning of content, but simply because the author and supporting entities of scientific/publishing industry are “well-known” and OFFICIALLY “credited”. Tricky word plays are quite appreciated either, but what may it have to do with a real, good science quest? The opposite is also true: without the subjectively “accepted”, artificially promoted position and “suitable relations” in the dominating official hierarchy of science, it will be very difficult to publish anything “successful” (if anything at all!). There may be exceptions, but they only prove the rule of falling real importance and related quality of science books (also indirectly confirmed by the growing number of their various “lists”).

On the other hand, we do have a strongly growing (and this time real!) popularity of interactive web exchange on science, in particular through blogs, and that provides a positive and maybe promising answer to all those negative tendencies of traditional science discussion. When INTERACTION around “intellectual” subjects of interest becomes so much more accessible, direct, and open, one may expect that various results of that interaction, such as books, may essentially change too, including their fundamental meaning and importance. As John correctly notes in a previous post (http://discovermagazine.typepad.com/horganism/2006/11/my_greatest_sci.html ), today nobody would actually read those “old” great books on science (by Newton, Darwin, etc.) although everybody knows and reads very much on their actual content. So maybe we are going towards an ultimate version of that tendency, where (almost) nobody actually reads even modern “great” (or any!) books on science, but everybody participates increasingly in real-time discussion of science/knowledge, i.e. the eventual book content, but... without books themselves. In that perspective, ordinary, hard-printed books (or even their web-accessible versions) may still remain, but rather in the form of relatively rare, usually more expensive (and correspondingly very “well-done”) gifts or aesthetic pleasures, whereas almost the entire “volume” of actual science discussion (and now its inseparably related creation!) is transferred into the form of a “living”, permanently changing network of web-located interactive patterns of activity (their particular realisations may also evolve strongly and unpredictably).

Everything needs yet to be specified in that new, “virtual” (but actually and already quite real!) universe of “world-wide knowledge”, including the details of its “economic” realisation and related “professional”/“amateur” status, but it seems that it's something more than a usual “futuristic fantasy”: it is apparently indeed emerging, while “conventional” science book status degrades, or at least changes essentially. This kind of transition is evidently more important just in the case of “intellectual”, non-fiction books, as compared to various fictional genres (will these ones at least survive, eventually?!). By a strange coincidence, traditionally more “rigorous” scientific prose obtains unusual artistic, “human”, quasi-fictional features, as it is demonstrated especially by John Horgan's writings (all forms). It would not be bad if we would be moving in that way to a “science with a human face”, but including also an ever deeper reality understanding and quest for a new knowledge, as opposed to traditional loose “popularisation” of usual science abstractions.

nc

Andrei,

Both Kuhn and Popper deserve their place in the list, according to Dr Imre Lakatos:

‘Scientists have thick skins. They do not abandon a theory merely because facts contradict it. ... History of science, of course, is full of accounts of how crucial experiments allegedly killed theories. But such accounts are fabricated long after the theory had been abandoned. ... What really count are dramatic, unexpected, stunning predictions: a few of them are enough to tilt the balance; where theory lags behind the facts, we are dealing with miserable degenerating research programmes. Now, how do scientific revolutions come about? If we have two rival research programmes, and one is progressing while the other is degenerating, scientists tend to join the progressive programme. This is the rationale of scientific revolutions. ... Criticism is not a Popperian quick kill, by refutation. Important criticism is always constructive: there is no refutation without a better theory. Kuhn is wrong in thinking that scientific revolutions are sudden, irrational changes in vision. The history of science refutes both Popper and Kuhn: on close inspection both Popperian crucial experiments and Kuhnian revolutions turn out to be myths: what normally happens is that progressive research programmes replace degenerating ones.’

– Imre Lakatos, Science and Pseudo-Science, pages 96-102 of Godfrey Vesey (editor), Philosophy in the Open, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1974.

I'll give credit to Popper for one thing in "The Logic of Scientific Discovery":

‘… the Heisenberg formulae can be most naturally interpreted as statistical scatter relations, as I proposed [in the 1934 book The Logic of Scientific Discovery]. … There is, therefore, no reason whatever to accept either Heisenberg’s or Bohr’s subjectivist interpretation ...’

– Sir Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge, Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 303.

The chaotic motions of electrons and light on small scales are due to interference, from Dirac sea (path integral) type scatter:

‘Light ... “smells” the neighboring paths around it, and uses a small core of nearby space. (In the same way, a mirror has to have enough size to reflect normally: if the mirror is too small for the core of nearby paths, the light scatters in many directions, no matter where you put the mirror.)’

- Feynman, QED, Penguin, 1990, page 54.

Feynman also explains:

‘... when the space through which a photon moves becomes too small (such as the tiny holes in the screen) ... we discover that ... there are interferences created by the two holes, and so on. The same situation exists with electrons: when seen on a large scale, they travel like particles, on definite paths. But on a small scale, such as inside an atom, the space is so small that ... interference becomes very important.’

‘... the ‘inexorable laws of physics’ ... were never really there ... Newton could not predict the behaviour of three balls ... In retrospect we can see that the determinism of pre-quantum physics kept itself from ideological bankruptcy only by keeping the three balls of the pawnbroker apart.’

– Dr Tim Poston and Dr Ian Stewart, ‘Rubber Sheet Physics’ (science article, not science fiction!) in Analog: Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. C1, No. 129, Davis Publications, New York, November 1981. No hocus pocus!

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