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Review: The Best American Science and Nature Writing

I read, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2003. Mostly, it sucks.

One of the good parts is variety. There's a lot of short chapters. You get to read about lots of different things.

A bunch of them are unreadable though. But usually the next chapter is completely different, so that helps. One of or two or three is readable. A few were pretty good, and there was one that stood out as not having a blatant huge flaws.

Why are some of them unreadable? Well, a fair amount of them are politics. There was one promoting leftwing anti-American views about 9/11. There was one (by a famous physicist, Steven Weinberg) giving very stupid leftwing political arguments against missile defense technology (yes, it was kinda anti-technology in this science book, from a scientist. though it was more about politics). And there were a bunch of environmentalist articles, including one by Bill McKibben (one of the worst people in the environmentalist movement, and that's saying a lot!).

So I skipped over a bunch of leftwing politics and environmentalism. It was as dumb as always. Sometimes I tried to look through it. The article trashing DDT – because leftwingers don't care if black people die over in Africa – I actually looked through page by page, the whole way. I was curious if it would have any science or scientific argument. It did not.

Most articles had shamefully bad arguments. Or lack of arguments. Even if they were actually about science, the quality of argument was still terrible. I don't really want to type in a bunch of examples, that doesn't sound like fun.

The article I liked the most was about elephants. It was saying how they communicate over long distances. They can make sounds that travel for miles which are at a frequency humans can't hear. And then, at the same time, they can stomp their feet and send vibrations in the ground. The ground vibrations go slower and further. And then the elephant getting the message can tell where the other elephant is, because the vibrations in the air and sound go at different speeds, the time between them tells the distance. So that was pretty cool and that article didn't have any huge mistakes that stood out on one reading. I wasn't really looking for mistakes while reading, they just kept jumping out in every single other article.

Some other parts were pretty cool. Like it talked about drilling ice cores from glaciers on Greenland. And they can learn about old weather because it just kept building up a year of snow at a time, so they can get year-by-year data. Ice preserves stuff well, even little air bubbles.

The style of the book is terrible. It's always trying to humanize and personalize stuff. Instead of telling me about science, it'd tell me about how some guy with a beard felt on a particular day when a breakthrough happened. Or the history of a person dealing with some scientific issue. Or how the article author went and visited a scientist, saw where he works, and talked with him.

All the articles have the same style. It's not like some people do it and others don't. It's consistent throughout. The article were gathered after being initially published at a variety of places. But they all read the same way. It's awful.

They're full of prestige too. They'll always say what awards some guy won. Or they'll quote a famous guy. But they don't follow up. They just say something, then quote a famous guy saying something similar. They never analyze the quote, or quote the argument or reasoning. They just quote his conclusion and move on. It's really unintellectual. And they use fancy words and sentence structures to try to impress people. They're always trying to set a tone of fancy important prestige stuff, instead of just telling you the science and letting you judge it.

The worst thing is there's rarely many details. It's so much overview. It's all talking down to you, and kinda summarizing vaguely. They could just write these short articles saying how something works. The elephants one was the best about this. It was a little vague but it suggested that was because they don't know everything about elephants yet. Most of them are intentionally not trying to really explain much.

Instead of scientific details they're always throwing in prestige and irrelevant human details. So it's not exactly a science book, or an intellectual book. Not really. It's pretty sad. As much as I'd like to blame the editor, Richard Dawkins (since he's a horrible leftwing anti-human fool), there's tons of other people who are also at fault here. He may have made it worse than usual though.

Elliot Temple on August 16, 2014

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