Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Worst Science Books

Over at Uncommon Descent, Denyse O'Leary, the world's worst journalist™, gives us a list of her favorite science books --- in her usual barely literate style. (Note to Denyse: the plural of "coo" is not "coo's".)

No surprise, three of them aren't written by scientists: Darwin on Trial, Signature in the Cell, and Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution. Of the other two, one was written by a very mediocre scientist who made basic mistakes in previous books, and the other by a man whose bogus claims were repudiated by his own department. In Denyse's topsy-turvy world, actual scientists can be dismissed as "mooches and tax burdens", or "British aristocrats".

The late Martin Gardner studied this kind of crankery and knew how to recognize it. A scientific crank, Gardner said, "has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories." It is not possible to reason with this kind of idiocy -- ridicule is the best response.

Actually, Denyse's list would be a good start on a list of the Worst Science Books. Do you have any more nominations? I'll start with Judith Hooper's Of Moths and Men, Arthur Koestler's The Case of the Midwife Toad, and anything by Jeremy Rifkin.


Tom said...

Everything by Graham Hancock or Robert Bauval.
Add to that anyone they ever published with (Jonathan West?).

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Yeah, Graham Hancock is pretty bad. That reminds me: anything by Richard Milton.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Here is a bad (or, to put it mildly, jejune) book that comes to mind:
Counterexamples in Probability and Real Analysis by Gary L. Wise and Eric B. Hall,

and I'm not saying this because the first author was an expert in Bible Studies, neither because he has written papers with a religious fundamentalist old-earth creationist professor Rober J. Marks II, nor because he is in jail.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

The Bible, especially Leviticus chapter 11.

fudo said...

Oh, I'm curious about the last one: could you explain (maybe in a new post, someday?) why do you dislike Rifkin's work so much?
I'm definitely not an expert on energy matters, and I have only read some newspaper articles (not his "science books"), but I did not get SUCH a bad impression... so I am genuinely asking for your point of view about this.

Matt Dick said...

I bought a used copy of "Of Pandas and People" and it's god-awful.

I also have in PDF form, Kent Hovind's PhD Thesis. I have not been able to read it all, as evidenced by the fact that I haven't pulled out my own fingernails to relieve the pain, but if that counts as a science book...

Matt Dick said...

I also wanted to talk about O'Leary. I'm so glad you brought up how bad a writer she is. I disagree with lots of people, and all of the creationists of her stripe, but most of them can write a reasonable paragraph that I can follow. Even Kent Hovind, mentioned above, can do this. His ideas are muddy, his thinking absurd and childish, but the structure of his language is clear.

At least a third of the articles O'Leary writes baffle me, in that there are entire paragraphs or groups of paragraphs where I can't figure out what she's saying. I've heard her speak and she's not nearly so incomprehensible in speech, so it seems to be a writing problem, which is amazing for a professional writer.

Mind you I'm not saying her thoughts are without flaw while speaking, it's just that I can understand most of what she's saying.

Norm Olsen said...

Although not technically a science book, David Berlinksi's "A Tour of the Calculus" ranks as #1 on my list of the worst books I've ever read*. Pompous, turgid, and self-congratulatory are just a few of the descriptors that come to mind.

Also up there is "I am a Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter.

* Confession: I only made it half way through.

Joshua said...

There are good science books written by non-scientists. Kuhn's "The Copernican Revolution" would be the most obvious example.

What I find most striking about O'Leary's list is how all of the books in question are ID related. She seems to have no ability to relate to any science book that isn't connected to her pet issue.

RBH said...

I have to go with Peter Medawar: de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man. A hundred years ago, when I was an anthro major, I really really tried to read it all the way through. Never made it.

Anonymous said...

No surprise, three of them aren't written by scientists

Then can they really be called science books, can they? A better classification would be "books claiming to contain science but instead infested with pseudo-scientific gobble-dee-goop".

In that case, we can add No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence by everyone's favourite ID creationist, Bill Dumbski.

Rifkin's The End of Work had an excellent analysis of the future of the labour market, but his proposed "solution" (job sharing) was inane, completely negating the rest of the book.

Ben said...

"Although not technically a science book, David Berlinksi's "A Tour of the Calculus" ranks as #1 on my list of the worst books I've ever read*. Pompous, turgid, and self-congratulatory are just a few of the descriptors that come to mind."

And what about the book?

William said...

Cosmic Voyage; Cosmic Explorers; Remote Viewing, all by Courtney Brown.

The Language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief, by Francis S. Collins.

Suppressed Inventions and Other Discoveries, by Jonathan Eisen.

The Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards.

Heaven and Earth: global warming, the missing science, by Ian Plimer.

Anything by Immanuel Velikovsky.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


For Rifkin, you can start with Steven Jay Gould,
"Integrity and Mr. Rifkin", one of the chapters in Gould's book, An Urchin in the Storm.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose. I never made it all the way to the end, but I got at least 3/4 of the way through.

Michael Caton said...

Note to progressives and greens: I got The Corporation documentary from Netflix. I'm a pretty unrepentant capitalist but I thought, okay, I'll give this a chance. I was paying attention and thinking about it until Jeremy Rifkin appeared on the scren. Instant credibility-killer. Sorry guys, I'm willing to listen to the arguments of people who have an opposing point of view as long as they have, you know, arguments.

Anonymous said...

Fitjof Capra's "The Tao of Physics" and Gary Zukav's "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" are terribly embarrassing, to this student of Indian Philosophy. Zukav isn't a scientist, but Capra used to be one, and what a fall! Any book written by scientists in their dotage are cringeworthy. E.O.Wilson's Consilience is yucky, with its cavalier treatment of ideas in other sciences - and its talk about how we are close to finding the deep interconnected substructure of the cosmos! Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions also earns my ire for doing for science what the heroic/God-inspired-people/traditional-values school of thought did for history for all of time until recently. Kuhn's book needs to be countered with something like a "People's History of the US" and the word paradigm excised from our vocabulary.


Curt Cameron said...

In O'Leary's article, what the hell was it with the anecdote at the end about her dad and a turkey-hen? Did that relate to anything at all?

Miranda said...

> "(Note to Denyse: the plural of "coo" is not "coo's".)

> "In Denyse's topsy-turvy world, actual scientsts can be dismissed as..."

(Note to Shallit: the plural of scientist is scientists, not scientsts.)

Second note: I was planning on saying, "Note to Shallit: there are two Is in scientists" but I wasn't positive that there shouldn't be an apostrophe in I's.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks, Miranda, for your typically profound insight.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...


A better way to phrase your observation would be:

"There were two instances of occurrence of the letter i in the word scientists."

This way you avoid the dilemma between Is and I's.

Be it as it may, thanks for posting. I look forward to being amused by your ever-relevant comments. I really do.

Matt Dick said...


That is exactly what I was talking about with being unable to follow O'Leary. Sometimes it's just a tortured sentence that I can't unpack, and sometimes it just seems to be a phrase or description (or anecdote) that seems to be from an entirely different article that she's plunked down for no reason.

I can see her trying to be the kind of clever writer who invents a new moniker for someone, or a new descriptive meme, or something along those lines. But instead it just seems like occasionally a context-free paragraph just issues forth from her keyboard.

Miranda said...

"There were two instances of occurrence of the letter i in the word scientists."

A little clunky, but workable. (But it's "are," not "were.")

Norm Olsen said...

"I can see her trying to be the kind of clever writer who invents a new moniker for someone"

Yes, like her repeated use of "Brit toff" to refer to Darwin. In fact if you Google "brit toff" the top two hits are from Denyse's posts at UD. Ah yes, very clever indeed (groan).

ChrisEB said...

Hmm the anti-science crowd bending the truth to support their argument. Also, the sky is still blue.

Anonymous said...

How about Earth in the Balance and An Inconvenient Truth, by failed presidential candidate, AGW alarmist and climate scientist wannabe Al Gore?

Argon said...

Add to the list: Anything by Rupert Sheldrake

WmPerry said...

Well, you've ruined myday. I'd no inkling that any person or people as willfully harebrained as those involved with Uncommon descent were operating out there, purposely reinforcing each others resistance to unwelcome information in the same manner as any wolrd denying cult.
Of course typing that out I have to tell myself "duh"
but still, it's disheartening to witness.
Particularily the assertion that climate change is an "athiest/materialist" delusion that in fact athiest/materialist's cannot understand anything at al because they lack "top-down, supernatural control/override authority" - which is, I guess, the voice of god, which they must have an earful of, right?