Things that turn me off about some science books

I am not only a blogger and aspiring writer. I am an avid bookworm as well. As you know very well, my favorite topics are science fiction and science, particularly science. There was a time in my life when I read practically everything that crossed my line of sight. Nowadays, for many different reasons, I have had to be more discriminating about what I read. This is especially true when I want to read about science.

In this particular post I will emphasize on science books. I will not touch upon magazine articles or other blogposts. As with everything in the writing world, in those forms of written expression I have seen the great, the good, the so-so, the really bad and the just and unmistakably painful. I am sure that you know what I mean and I may write something about that specific aspect of science writing sometime.

however, again, in the present post, I will share some aspects of popular science book writing that depending on my frame of mind at any particular moment, either annoy me or amuse me (full disclosure, today I am in an annoyed mood; it has been a really bad couple of weeks) about the books themselves or about the authors. Here’s a sample of my thoughts.

1. I get really disappointed at a book with errors…

I do not mean typos or anything like that. I am talking about factual mistakes that give the reader the wrong information. Please realize that I am talking about science books. Sci-Fi book are an altogether different matter. Anyway, in science books there are various degrees of severity in this aspect. Here are two examples.

I once reviewed a book for Amazon several years ago. I was written by an astronomer of some renown with several other books under his belt. The specific book that I am talking about was mainly about astrobiology (a subject that I actually teach about) and went over several aspects of evolutionary theory. As an introduction to the topic of evolution,  he mentioned Charles Darwin and stated that Charles Lyell, a contemporary of Darwin and scientific hero of his was also his father in law.

No. Just no.

I am not an evolutionary biologist, but I am an avid “Darwinophile”. I have read extensively about him and his scientific times. Quite fascinating! Because of that I know for a fact that Lyell was not Darwin’s father in law, but rather, one of Darwin’s scientific heroes. This may seem a picky point and maybe it is, but the thing is that if I am reading a book and I catch such an egregious mistake in a topic that I know well it casts doubts on the whole thing to me, because I do not know if there are such mistakes in the topics of the books that I do not know that well or even at all.  Does this makes sense?  The end result of this was that I did not even finish reading this specific book. What made this example even worse is that the error in the book was never corrected in subsequent editions. I am certain that my review was seen by the author himself of by someone of his acquaintance, so they should have been able to do something about it. I have written about this example before. It bothers me that much.

From then on, I have become very careful with the books I buy. The second example of this is that recently I saw a book that got my interest, but thankfully I decided to take a look at an ebook sample first. In this one, in the very introduction the author, a science journalist, described what happens when you get a paper cut. The author briefly described the pain pathways, how “pain is perceived by the brain and how the brain then sends a signal that makes you withdraw your finger”.

No. Just no.

It does not happen like that. Even before your brain has the conscious awareness of pain or even received the signal for that matter a reflex makes you take your finger always from the source of the pain. You may want to look it up; quite interesting!

I did not buy the book.

2. If your book was based on your blogposts, it would have been nice to know about it before buying the book…

This is kind of self-explanatory. This fact should be stated in the introduction or in any place prominently featured. It is simple honesty.

3. When an author gets testy or even rude with potential buyers…

I recently bought a book from a young yet pretty good scientific writer. His book was about a topic that I absolutely love and solely because of that I bought the book. Through a website I contacted him to see if he was coming to my area in his book tour. He was very polite in his response to me, but apparently one fan too many asked him the same question, as some time later in the comment trail I saw what he described himself as a kind of rant basically asking people in a subtly brusque manner to stop inquiring about where his book tour would take him, because this was organized by the publisher and he had no control over it. This young man should have stated his comments in a more considerate way. After all, these were his potential book buyers in a right after publication “honeymoon” period when many people were excited for the release of his book. They did not HAVE to buy the book, there are always many options available. It is always a good idea to respect and be grateful to your readership.

4. When a science author goes “Angry Atheist“…

I am an active scientist and a pretty good one if you pardon my pretense, but I do not think that science has anything significant to say about anything belief-related one way or the other. Moreover, I deeply dislike the angry atheists (or angry theists for that matter) attitude; these people are simply bullies. There is only one of them that I still read, and only when he writes about scientific matters, Richard Dawkins. I keep reading his science books because he usually knows what he is taking about and writes superbly. Also, to be perfectly candid, he is to me a little like the proverbial grumpy uncle who used to be really nice but even now from time to time regale us with precious kernels of truth, so I tolerate his lack of manners. In more practical terms, in a somewhat separate topic, while researching this post I found out that Dawkins’ actual non-book scientific productivity seems to be rather modest. I may be mistaken and now I am curious about it. I will look into that because this was rather surprising to me, but this is a topic for another time.

Anyway, Dawkins can get away with his angry atheist attitude because he is an established writer and a gifted one at that. On the other hand, a relatively young author with one or two books, will not likely get away with the angry atheist attitude. In the current book market reality, there are plenty of pretty good books to choose from, and a dismissive attitude from a relatively new kid on the block is less likely to be tolerated. Most importantly, I think that very few authors write as well as Dawkins; odds are that you are not as good as he is…

Can you think of more examples of things that annoy you about science books? I have written a little bit about the responsibilities of a science writer here and here

I would also like to ask you dear reader, for a favor. If I ever write a book (;-)… and you see something like this coming from me, PLEASE call me on that; please do let me know. To me, writing about science is a privilege, an almost sacred mission, and this wonderful universe deserves being talked about with respect. I’d rather hear about any mistakes I may commit from a fellow science enthusiast than from someone who dos not share my love for science.

**If you feel like sharing this post in you favorite social media outlet I would appreciate it; thanks!

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks for your comment! Of the “Old Guard”, Asimov and Sagan are my two favorites. S.J. Gould wrote beautifully and knew his stuff, but he was a tad pretentious at times. More recently, I love anything by E.O. Wilson and Nick Lane. They also know what they are talking about and are very entertaining writers.

    I recently read a couple of really, really great books warts and all. One of them was David Toomey’s “Weird Life”. I reviewed here: https://baldscientist.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/book-review-weird-life/

    The other one is a short but great book by Wendy Williams, “Kraken”; well worth the read! I reviewed it here:
    https://baldscientist.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/book-review-kraken-the-curious-exciting-and-slightly-disturbing-science-of-squid/

    I hope this helps and thanks for reading my blog!

    1. Thanks for your timely response.
      Since I am now retired I can get a little eccentric!
      I have been reading two books by Dorion Sagan..one with Eric Schneider called ‘Into the Cool’ and the other’Cosmic Apprentice’
      I found both quite exciting reading.
      Also ‘The User Illusion’ by Tor Norretranders ,quite an old book by today’s standards to do with information theory and the nature of perception and the path thru the brain to self conscious awareness.
      also,believe it or not been reading Darwin.
      Don’t intend to take up too much of your time—-just always on the lookout to find ways to knock my preconceptions askew.
      Thanks for your response and suggestions. I went to school for a short time with Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis!
      CB

      1. You are most welcome! Always a pleasure chatting with a fellow bookworm… You went to school with Sagan and Margulis? Wow!!!
        I wanted to share something with you. I am not “telling the world” yet but my first book will likely be published in early 2014 (:-)… It is a popular science book and it will be titled “The First Brain”. It is essentially about neurobiology and pharmacology told from the perspective of planarian flatworms. A few days ago I handed everything to the published (Oxford Univ Press) and I am waiting for their OK to announce it.

        Let’s keep in touch!

        1. Congratulations. I will look out for it.
          What is with the report that beheaded(!)) planarian regrowing a head retains memories from before the beheading. Maybe the memories were never inthe head.

          1. That is a replication of some controversial experiments form the 1950-60s that described that phenomenon. Pretty interesting work! I am waiting to see the final version of the paper and read it carefully…. (:-)

            1. A quick Google search and a couple of abstracts later and I am completely fascinated by the possible implications.
              So, I will try to keep up with what follows-Do you know where that paper will be published?

  2. So, please tell us what books you like and value?
    I read a lot of ‘science’ books also and certainly agree with what you have said…..however……. I am always on the prowl for more and would welcome suggestions or even a list!
    CB

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