One of my Chimmz gifts this year was a wonderful gift card to Canada's largest book retailer, the Indigo Corporation. Before I discovered Amazon's amazing prices, Indigo and its subsidiary, Chapters, were one of my favorite haunts. I returned there today hoping to stock up on a few books for the upcoming frigid months.
My reading output certainly dropped in 2010; in fact it's been in a steady decline for a few years. I think that moving further into my career in science has necessitated more work-related reading, causing reading for pleasure to suffer. However, I've begun reading quite a bit again during the past few months, mostly because I've shifted back to my favorite genres - pretty much everything non-fiction1.
With this in mind I began perusing the 'science' section, looking for a few recent volumes. Is it just me or are many 'science' books insanely misleading? The way I see it, there are 2 travesties of the science section:
1. Pseudo-scientific garbage, much of which seeks to combine obscure biblical prophecies with complicated physics.
2. Questionably supported, almost entirely hypothesis based books with shockingly misleading titles/subtitles (Things like 'How the Brain Works' or 'How Adaptation Explains Everything').
Honestly, I don't know which ones are worse. Category #1 really doesn't even belong in the science section, and they're pretty easy to avoid if you know anything about the subjects you're browsing. Note that I place a harsh emphasis on that last part of the previous sentence - I don't know to what degree lay people are taken in by these books. Perhaps category #2 is more insidious because, on the surface, these books tend to appear more legitimate: they're often written by folk with credentials and they definitely sound interesting. I always have the same reaction when I see them too: "Wow, wish someone had told the scientific community that we know exactly how the brain works, or that fire, or music, or disease is THE reason behind human intelligence and behavior". Since these topics are obviously so well understood, we can probably stop pumping money into researching them.
I had an interesting conversation with a buddy some years back during which he asked why scientists don't form a representative body that 'vets' books. Not an organization that determines whether the view/hypotheses espoused in the books are correct, but rather one that would put some kind of seal on books that were actually based on science and peer-reviewed research. Logistical and financial issues aside, I'm not sure that an organization like that would work: disagreement really is a big part of science. It's difficult to get the field to see eye-to-eye on any number of current controversies, and some of us actually view entire fields as pseudo-science (you know, a lot of those category #2 books are from the field of evolutionary psychology...).
Oh well, what's a scientifically interested lay-person to do? I suppose that scientists can continue to write book reviews in the popular press trying to promote the good and discredit the bad. Any other ideas?
1When I was young, I read fiction exclusively, often struggling to read anything related to 'RL' (real life). Now it's the complete opposite. For me to read fiction, the book has to be something special, such as a classic, or related to some topic of interest (e.g., one of the books I picked up is Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land).