16 May, 2009

A Skeptic in the Science Section

Going to the bookstore is becoming a painful experience. I have unreasonable expectations. When I browse the science section, I expect to find science. Barnes and Noble, however, insists on including pseudoscience. Gah. After seeing Denyse O'Leary's atrocity shelved with the biology books, I almost fled.

Here's a condensed version of the experience:

Crap. Crap. Eh. Whothefuckisthis? Crap. Read it. Read it. Do people really read this shit? Crap. Why are there so many books on God over here? Crap. Read it. Enough with God already! Crap. Where the fuck are they hiding the science?

In that ridiculous all-day training class I suffered through last Tuesday, our supervisor showed a video about MIT's Media Lab where they'd developed some doodad that would display Amazon reviews of the book you were looking at. I need a doodad that'll display reviews from ScienceBlogs bloggers. Because the main problem in sorting the wheat from the chaff is not knowing who's chaff and who's wheat. I know a few reliable science writers, but I don't know them all. The frauds don't always advertise as DIsco fellows - that may hurt their sales. And Amazon's reviews, while useful, aren't exactly 100% reliable. It's not a pure population of scientists writing the things, ye know.

Publishers are no help. They print the endorsements from newspapers and magazines, as if that's a good indicator of the reliability of the science. What I'd rather see is a crap ton of blurbs from actual scientists. No such luck. And they apparently don't send advance copies off to peer-reviewed journals. Bastards.

This left me in an agony of indecision. I initially took the safe route and chose Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow, which I've meant to read for ages. But I also wanted somebody new. Somebody fun. Somebody informative. I stumbled on Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. Foreward by Oliver Sacks. He probably wouldn't write a foreward if the book was crap, right? And I could always return the damned thing if I got home and found it widely panned on ScienceBlogs.

It's not.

And, scanning the Recommended Reading list in the back, I see a reassuring number of books by Dawkins, Dennett, Gleick, Gould, Luria, Pinker, and Sacks - science writers I trust. No trace of Behe, Dembski, or O'Leary. This tells me we're likely safe on solid scientific ground.

Things weren't always this way. There was a time I'd have picked up O'Leary's The Spiritual Brain simply because it talked about neuroscience and souls, something on my mind quite a bit considering I have to invent some sort of semi-plausible science for such things for my fiction writing (no, we can't get rid of the souls - they're too integral to the plot, alas). I wouldn't have known any better. I'd never really learned that when it comes to the science section, you still have to consider the source. It's the damned science section. You'd think bookstores would care enough for their customers to keep the pseudoscience out.

They don't.

They're trying to sell books. And there's plenty of people who'll snap up any bullshit written by someone with M.D. after their name. Like, y'know, Dr. Michael Egnor. Not that he's written a book yet, but when he does, you can be sure it'll be prominently shelved in the science section, because he's ostensibly a neurosurgeon, and that somehow magically transforms pseudoscientific bullshit into something sciencey enough to be shelved alongside the likes of Dawkins.

I feel sorry for the innocent people who want to learn more about science, but haven't learned enough about it to know when someone's perpetrating pseudoscience on them. They have no defense. It's like the most recent version of swine flu, which our immune systems weren't equipped to recognize as evil shit that would really fuck us up, and therefore allowed in, only later to go "Oops. Oshit."

The only good thing is, sometimes pseudoscience leads you to good science. Probably not often enough, but in my case, it did. I'm not arrogant enough to think I'm the only one who's ever experienced this. My road to complete skepticism was paved with Intelligent Design. Seriously. I discovered Pharyngula and from there the rest of the excellent ScienceBlogs stable because one night, half-dead from the flu (non-swine variety) and incapable of creative thought, I started browsing the intertoobz for some science. Figured I might as well find some useful stuff for research. I stumbled across Barbara Forrest's Creationism's Trojan Horse. I'd known since The Demon-Haunted World and various dust-ups in the news that religious people had a problem with evolution, but I'd never realized just how sneaky they could be in trying to attack it. It intrigued me. So I started seeking out more information. I discovered Pharyngula and a treasure-trove of other sites for science and skepticism, and I was totally hooked.

Seeing scientists deconstruct pseudoscience has taught me more about science than I've ever learned from pure science books. I learned how to think more critically. I became a better skeptic. I learned how to evaluate claims. I found out that a medical degree isn't a shield against ignorance. And I fell totally in love with biology, a subject that until then had failed to fascinate me. It's much more interesting when biologists are using their formidable knowledge to beat the ever-living shit out of some poor IDiot. I consider those sessions my gateway drug to evolution, which I can now enjoy without the Creationism-bashing chaser.

Granted, all this has made visiting the bookstore a far more painful experience than previously. It really, really hurts to see so much woo, misinformation, and outright lying hackery shelved alongside legitimate science, as if the two were somehow equal. They had Dembski's latest crime against science shelved face-out, for fuck's sake. It makes one weep for a paper shredder and immunity from prosecution. But the pain's good. It means I won't get suckered in by some absolute IDiot. I'm not an expert in sorting the wheat from the chaff at a glance, but I've now got a plethora of scientists, skeptics and other wise folk assisting, just a Google away.

I've got skepticism, damn it. And I'm not afraid to use it.

Now all I need is someone to run interference with the staff while I reshelve O'Leary, Dembski, and Behe's drivel in the New Age section, where it belongs....


Bonus Video - See, even scientists and skeptics get to enjoy a sixth sense!

6 comments:

Betsy said...

What I did at first was to buy all the books recommended in Skeptic Magazine. Luckily I had found that and subscribed to it first. After that of course I could follow various good trails. This was long before I found out about blogs which are now a great help as you have mentioned.

coturnix said...

Some of the book reviews by scienceblogs.com bloggers are collected here: http://scienceblogs.com/bookclub/

Maleficent said...

I got in trouble at Barnes & Noble recently for moving two Ervin Laszlo books from Science to New Age. But I've not yet been caught moving the Sylvia Browne books to Fiction. Sadly, I have to do this every single time!

My "eureka" book was Sagan's Candle In The Dark, before I knew of the intertoobs. Then, on to Skeptic Magazine, and the sky was the limit!

Maleficent said...

@Maleficent - Candle in the Dark = Demon Haunted World. Late. Got the stupid.

Cujo359 said...

I knew what you meant, Maleficent. Another great book is Michael Shermer's The Borderlands Of Science. It helps to explain the difference between science and pseudo science quite clearly.

marie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.