New Scientist: Religious books masquerading as science

Hooray for the mighty Wikileaks, preserving for us the New Scientist article “How to spot a hidden religious agenda” that the magazine itself has taken off its web site for legal reasons.

The piece is important and deserves a wider discussion. The “science” shelves of a high street bookshop put outright pseudo-science right alongside popularisations of genuine science. Why Us? by James le Fanu appears to me to be just such a book: misrepresenting the results of biology and psychology to make the reader think some bunk about immaterial essences has now been accepted by serious research. The proper science books mostly have quotes and recommendations from scientific authorities on the cover, which Why Us? conspicuously lacks, quoting instead a Daily Mail columnist.

To someone curious but lacking much of a scientific education, it must be hard to tell which is which. The scientific books and the fakes look the same (Why Us resembles the many new books celebrating Charles Darwin), and the publishers and booksellers are not going to make it any easier for them because they profit no matter which book you buy. If a book explores the origin of the human species or the workings of the brain, but from a pseudo-scientific point of view and using superficially scientific language, the reader might never realise that it’s been made up. Those of us who take an interest in the crackpot literature learn to spot warning signs, and that is what Amanda Gefter was writing about in her New Scientist piece.

To disagree with the article, I don’t just think these pseudoscience books are just a religious phenomenon. Crackpots can be motivated by pure egotism, affronted that some people (i.e. every qualified researcher) should dare to disagree with they feel they know. No wonder that they seek to persuade other people of their beliefs as validation. Many of the big results of science “dethrone” us in some way. They tell us we do not live in the center of the universe, were not created specially from the rest of the natural world, and have deeply unreliable perception, memory and even introspection. What’s more, lots of people seem to have trouble with the idea that they are made of meat. It is no wonder then that there is an economic demand for people who will tell us that science does not say these things.

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