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The Top 10 Science Books of 2010

by Michael Shermer, Dec 28 2010

In the tradition of making end-of-the-year lists of the “Top 10 X” I present my personal picks for the Top 10 Science Books of 2010. Most of these books are available in audio format as well as the old-school ink-on-bound-paper format, and I highly recommend as the go-to source for easy listening to these selections while driving or riding your bike from your MP3 player or iPhone/iPod (use one ear bud instead of two so you can hear on-coming traffic, ambulances, etc.).

In reverse order I give you my Top 10 Science Books of 2010:

10Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Oreskes and Conway tell an important story about the misuse of science to mislead the public on matters ranging from the risks of smoking to the reality of global warming. The people the authors accuse are themselves scientists—mostly physicists, former cold warriors who now serve a conservative agenda, and vested interests like the tobacco industry. And they name names, documenting their involvement in such issues as acid rain, the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, global warming, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the banning of DDT. These scientists aimed to sow seeds of public doubt on matters of settled science by casting aspersions on the science and the scientists who produce it. Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at U.C. San Diego and science writer Conway also emphasize how journalists and Internet bloggers uncritically repeat these charges.

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9 The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of the highly acclaimed Predictably Irrational, expands on his first book to offer a more positive and personal take on the human capacity for irrationality in life, business, and public policy. Ariely bravely discusses his youthful accident that left him badly scarred and facing grueling physical therapy, using his experiences in treatment to discuss the nature of physical and psychological pain, and how this led him to study human thought and behavior, and how and why we consistently fail to act in our own best interest. Ariely is an experimentalist and he takes readers through experiments that reveal such idiosyncrasies as the IKEA effect (if you build something, pride and sentimental attachment are likely to give you an inflated sense of its quality) and the Baby Jessica effect (why we respond to one person’s suffering but not to the suffering of many). Ariely includes prescriptions for how to make personal and societal changes of behavior, and what patterns we must identify to improve how we love, live, work, innovate, manage, and govern.

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8 Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

This is one fun book to read. Roach’s wry humor and unconstrained descriptions of the very earthy side of the human condition (sex, death, the afterlife) makes her one of today’s most popular science writers. In her latest book Roach takes us behind the scenes of what it takes to live in space, and she asks the most interesting questions: Why is it impolite for astronauts to float upside down during conversations? Just how smelly does a spacecraft get after a two week mission? Roach gives us the stories Life magazine never covered, and for good reason: they are not glamorous or sexy or adventurous. Living in space is a nightmare of logistical problems that made me wonder why we don’t abandon human space flight entirely and just get all the science we need from robotic spacecraft … until I got to the end of this gripping read and realized that venturing to go where no one has gone before is what our species does.

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7 How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like
by Paul Bloom

Would you wear Hitler’s sweater? What about the cardigan of Mr. Rogers? Most people say no to the first question and yes to the second, adding that they would feel more moral and upstanding wearing Mr. Rogers’ sweater. Why? Paul Bloom, one of the most interesting experimental psychologists working today, answers these and many other questions in this, his latest book (see also his previous Descartes’ Baby), in which he explores pleasure from evolutionary and social perspectives. By examining studies and anecdotes of pleasure-inducing activities such as eating, art, sex, and shopping, Bloom posits that pleasure takes us closer to the essence of a thing, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral. He argues that humans are hard-wired to give, as well as receive, pleasure. A study using mislabeled, cheap bottles of wine, wherein “40 experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said this of the cheap label,” demonstrates the subjective psychological influence behind what we find pleasurable.

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6 The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us
by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Psychologists Christopher Chabris and and Dan Simons produced one of the most famous psychological experiments in history when they asked subjects to count the number of passes made by a team of players, in which half completely missed a person in a gorilla suit walk across the scene, stop and wave its arms, and exit stage right. In this book based on this and other research, the authors write about six everyday illusions of perception and thought, including the beliefs that: we pay attention more than we do, our memories are more detailed than they are, confident people are competent people, we know more than we actually do, and our brains have reserves of power that are easy to unlock. Through a host of studies, anecdotes, and logic, the authors debunk conventional wisdom about the workings of the mind and what experts really know about how the mind works.

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5 What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, the editor and publisher of Whole Earth Review and one of the founders and editors of Wired magazine, explains why most of us have a love/hate relationship with new inventions, and why this conflict is inherent to all technology. But Kelly also argues that technology is an extension of life—and an acceleration of the mind. Technology is not anti-nature, but rather the “seventh kingdom” of life: it now shares with life certain biases, urges, needs and tendencies. The system of technology that Kelly calls the “technium” unconsciously “wants” to head in certain directions, just as do life and evolution. The technium functions as a living, natural system. Just as evolution has tendencies, urges, trajectories, established forms, and a direction, so too does the technium. Where is it headed? What is the true nature of its increasing presence in our society? And how do the goals of the technological agenda relate to humanity’s goals? Read this book to find out from one of the true visionaries of our time.

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4 The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

When and how did the universe begin? Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the nature of reality? Why are the laws of nature so finely tuned as to allow for the existence of beings like ourselves? And, finally, is the apparent “grand design” of our universe evidence of a benevolent creator who set things in motion—or does science offer another explanation? The Grand Design attempts to answer these ultimate questions based on the most recent scientific evidence. For example, Mlodinow and Hawking show that according to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. When applied to the universe as a whole, this idea calls into question the very notion of cause and effect. The authors further explain that we ourselves are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe, and show how quantum theory predicts the “multiverse”—the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature. They conclude with a riveting assessment of M-theory, an explanation of the laws governing us and our universe that is currently the only viable candidate for a complete “theory of everything.” If confirmed, they write, it will be the unified theory that Einstein was looking for, and the ultimate triumph of human reason.

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3 The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
by Sam Harris

Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people—from religious fundamentalists to nonbelieving scientists—agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to “respect” the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors. In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.

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2 The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley, the author of the bestselling science books Genome, The Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue, and Nature via Nurture, demonstrates in his new book that life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down—all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for 200 years. Yet Matt Ridley does more than describe how things are getting better. He explains why. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization—which started more than 100,000 years ago—has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.

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1 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I would never have imagined that a clump of cells could end up being such a compelling story, but such is the nature of narrative in the hands of a world-class storyteller such as Rebecca Skloot. The “immortality” comes from a line of cells that generated some of the most crucial innovations in modern medicine. They came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, a mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive in the lab. Known as HeLa cells (the convention is to use the first two letters of the first and last names of the subject from which the cells are taken), their stunning potency gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta’s family continued to live in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery decades later of her unknowing contribution left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion. Skloot includes her decade-long pursuit of the story behind the cells, and along the way gives readers detailed description of the science of using these cells to better humanity.

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34 Responses to “The Top 10 Science Books of 2010”

  1. Good effing doorknob. Sam Harris is far and away the most overrated of the “new atheists.” In his newest book, ripped to shreds by Massimo Pigliucci and others, he pretends he invented all the ideas he discusses, and also never seems to have heard of David Hume, among other things. Add in the fact that Harris has called for extrajudicial killings of some Muslims just because they’re Muslims, believes Buddhism isn’t a religion and is quite unskeptical about psi phenomena, and the lack of ideas in “The Moral Landscape” should and does come as no surprise.

    Ridley? It’s a snapshot book. Had he written (assuming, by teleporter, a printing press existed then) the same title in, say, 1260, he would have been laughed off the the face of the UK. Time will tell how accurate his snapshot is or is not.

    The Grand Design? Overrated, and again not just my opinion.

    Merchants of Doubt? It’s great indeed, BUT …
    After touting Lomborg earlier this month, how can you put this book in your top 10, Mr. Shermer? Is this a sign of MPD or something?

    • Steelsheen11b says:

      What does the Metropolitan Police have to with anything?*

      *I get that Metro Police wasn’t the MPD referenced.

    • kfk4life says:

      I would encourage you to reread Sam’s book. He talks about Hume and his ‘ought-is,’ as well as other things he said (p. 10, 38, 42, 196n13, 196n16, 203n20, 237n82).

      He never said you should just kill Muslims because they’re Muslims. That’s quite dishonest of you. He said that if you know that someone is going to execute a terrorist attack and you know they can’t be talked out of it, it may be better to kill them. That’s trying to save people, not kill them just out of malice. I think you’re smart enough to agree that Sam wouldn’t advocate the random killing of people based on faith.

      He never remotely claimed his ideas are original either.

      • I never said he said kill ANY Muslims just because they’re Muslims. But, he never explains how you “know” someone is surely going to commit a terrorist attack, either.

        So, no, KF, I disagree. And, just because his idea’s not original doesn’t make it any less wrong.

        I haven’t even talked about his other #fails, like his non-skepticism toward psi phenomena.

  2. Jon says:

    “In his newest book… he pretends he invented all the ideas he discusses, and also never seems to have heard of David Hume, among other things. Add in the fact that Harris has called for extrajudicial killings of some Muslims just because they’re Muslims, believes Buddhism isn’t a religion and is quite unskeptical about psi phenomena, and the lack of ideas in “The Moral Landscape” should and does come as no surprise.”

    Clearly you haven’t read the book, actually, make that any of his books. In The Moral Landscape, any of his talks on The Moral Landscape and on his website he clearly discusses the is-ought problem. He has never called for anyone to be killed for their beliefs. Talking nonsense like this just discredits the rest of your post.

  3. Lee Paul says:

    Just a generic comment on skepticism in general.

    Skeptics rant on the lack of evidence for the existence of a Supreme Being, a force of primal activation, a reason for the existence of everything, in fact skeptics deny His/Its existence, so often, quite forcefully. Do you actually consider yourselves smart or intuitive for identifying a lack of scientific understanding of religion in a time of little scientific knowledge. I don’t profess an agreement with religiosity, but see it as an attempt to understand what they saw. You skeptical academics have yourselves convinced that all you believe is factual, well-reasoned and elementally unquestionable. A difficulty, not a strength, is that others of your conviction, from the same background, confirm your beliefs thereby constricting debate and minimalizing opposition to your points of view.

    You and they fail to account for the most essential of realities; those of Life, Awareness and Intelligence. Do you seriously believe that all of this Universe evolved by consequence of an accidental, evolutionary anomaly, with Laws so precise as to allow for that Life, Awareness and Intelligence?

    I am a Skeptic, to be sure. I’m skeptical about the reason and the verifiability of your belief.

    Dr Shermer has changed his mind several times across his professional career from what I read from his books. I suspect that if you have not done the same; and have not recognized your ability to continue to learn; and have ignored an opportunity to improve your understanding of reality; and finally have ignored the possibility of your own fallibility,,, you have not done your due intellectual diligence. Wake up!

  4. Brian says:

    Puh-leeze. Ripped to shreds by Pigliucci? He wishes. The man’s a poo-poo artist, and can’t stay consistant within a single paragraph.
    Care to cite sources for any of your so-called facts?
    Psi phenomena is a misleading label as used by you, and, everyone knows, really means psychological, not psychic, as implied by the use of the shortened label, which is most commonly used to denote the latter. Nice try. I think everyone would agree psychological phenomena do exist.
    Buddhism is not a religion, as practiced by many Buddhists. As practiced by many others, it is. Who’s right?

    • Psi is “psychological”? Puhleeze back in spades. Special pleading at the least; special Humpty Dumpty-itis at the most.

      As for Buddhism? My post said it’s a religion, period. Dunno about what others said.

  5. Carl says:

    I would agree with Shermer on most of his picks and those I haven’t read yet do look interesting. The Moral Landscape is perhaps my number one pick along with The Grand Design since both seem to convey a life well lived with out superstition. One that I haven’t read yet though and isn’t on his list but was on Amazons top ten is The evolution of Childhood by Melvin Konner which goes through the whole of human evolution from the beginning. That will be my next read.

  6. Toni Daugherty says:

    The grand design – overrated? hmmmm Did U actually read it? I did & I don’t think the critics read it. I’ll admit that I did not fullly understand the last 2 chapters, even though I’m a Hawking groupie (read all his stuff), and neither did U unless you’re a physicist.
    Hardly overrated. Fascinating & eye-opening. U practically need to teach your neurons to reconnect in order to understand his ideas – esp the new ones at the end.

  7. Paul Krasner says:

    How could you possibly leave out “The emperor of all maladies: a history of cancer”. Possibly the best book of the year.

  8. Santino says:

    I would love to read some of the ground breaking work of SocraticGadfly. I don’t think this particular individual understands the concept of Art and how it is perceived by the individual. Criticizing someones taste in Literature, Music or Art is pointless and any intelligent person knows this. Those are Mr. Shermer’s picks for top ten. He is not forcing anyone to read them. So piss off with your stupid attitude.

  9. cosimdm says:

    I was as disappointed to see Sam Harris on this list as I was to hear his lecture. It was just warmed over Utilitarianism. Nothing new or original.

  10. Hobbynero says:

    Can you provide some links to your assertions? “…extrajudicial killings of some Muslims…” I’m having trouble taking you seriously. “not just my opinion.” Who else? Links please.

    • I can go one better than “just Muslims” on a Harris quote, Hobby:

      “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

      And, who’s to be the judge of which propositions are too dangerous? Sam Harris?

      And, given the amount of ire he’s directed at Islam as a religion I have no doubt as to what one focus of his would be.

      He’s OK with nuclear first strikes or waterboarding in some cases:

      Read his Wikipedia page, too:

      Really, some of you people have to stop putting him on a pedestal.

    • The “propositions” quote with the next sentence:

      “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them…. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others.”

      Hobbynero, that’s extrajudicial killing advocacy. Period.

      • When I see/read someone like Harris, I am reminded of Thomas More and his future son-in-law, Roper, in “A Man for All Seasons.” Roper wants More to act extrajudicially toward richard Rich, an opponent of his whose perjury will eventualy send More to his death.

        More responds:

        “What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? … And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”


        And, that’s why a Sam Harris scares the hell out of me, especially when he pretends he has science and rational thinking behind his claims.

  11. MadScientist says:

    So what does Ridley say will get better and what do others say will get worse? I can’t possibly take Ridley seriously; why should I believe a dictum about what the future will be like? There is no law of nature which makes such predictions a necessity. There are many examples of long-gone societies which did cooperate and prosper – and then shit happened. To say “it can’t happen to us” is simply ridiculous. Aside from destroying the environment and exhausting non-renewable resources, there is the unpredictable threat from nature. Will some bacterium or virus come along and wipe out most of the human population? What wiped out the Neanderthals? Just looking back in the past 2 years, with the global economic crisis many states have brought back economic protectionism and are currently threatening to interfere even more with the free market. With such wonderful examples of global cooperation, why should we believe there will not be a lot of contention over the provision of a variety of resources in the future?

    • MadScientist says:

      Ah, good ol’ skeptico – you can rely on them for conspiracy paranoia and pseudo-skepticism.

    • Max says:

      I hope that Randi’s piece on Global Warming a year ago was not a preview of his upcoming book, A Magician in the Laboratory. A magician in the lab is helpful when the experimental subjects may be trying to fool scientists with magic tricks, but that’s about it. I don’t see what a magician can contribute to, say, climate science or physics.

      • tmac57 says:

        Didn’t David Copperfield make a glacier disappear once? I might be remembering that wrong ;)

      • Yeah, that was a disappointment. He partially drew in his horns on that, but, we’ll see in the book how much he meant it.

      • Max says:

        Yeah, partially, and he made more gaffes as he was doing it: “Yes, I’m aware of the massive release of energy — mostly heat — that we’ve produced by exhuming and burning oil, natural gas, and coal. We’ve also attacked forests and turned them into fuel by converting them into paper at further energy expense, paper that is also burned, in turn.”

        As if it’s the emitted heat, not the CO2, that’s causing global warming. And here we thought Randi wasn’t aware of the science. He sure showed us.

        I’m not sure he’s even aware of the pseudoscience. For example, he committed “homeopathic suicide” by taking Arsenicum album, as if homeopathy says it’ll give you arsenic poisoning. In fact, it says that “like cures like” so Arsenicum album would TREAT arsenic poisoning. Homeopathy pushers also say that potency is different from strength, and that you can’t overdose on homeopathic preparations, so they’d probably laugh at attempts to do so.

      • Oh, yeah, I forgot about the “heat” comments. And, he did “show us”!

        On the arsenic, if I swallow some homeopathic arsenic, will that keep me from listening to NASA PR? :)

      • tmac57 says:

        From a helpful FAQ:

        My child just ate an entire bottle of tablets, what do I do?

        Do not panic. Homeopathic medicines are very safe, non-toxic, and have a very large margin of safety. It is unlikely your child could overdose on any homeopathic medicine. You can call our 24 hour emergency number at 800/624-9659 (after business hours, it is a recording – just follow the directions), and a pharmacist or registered nurse will return your call promptly. Our products are also listed with Regional Poison Control Centers. Most are well informed on the margin of safety of homeopathic medicines if you have one to call in your area.

        I’m tempted to call just to see what they would say,and if they could say it without laughing.

      • MadScientist says:

        In all his previous narratives, the phrase “magician in the laboratory” was specifically in a psi laboratory.

  12. JMB says:

    Good call on Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape. What a breath of fresh air! It amazes me that this book has drawn so much criticism. After 66 years of hearing pronouncements that science dare not address certain “sacred” philosophical questions and wondering why on earth not – I finally have my answer. Thanks, Sam!

  13. Marianne Walker says:

    I hope a new updated list will be provided with the best popular science books of 2011. Many newspapers have already published this (Boston Globe, Economist, etc), and also other popscience magazines, e.g. the New Scientist (, best biology books (, and Brain Pickings ( Looking forward to the Skepticblog list, as I found last year’s list the best of all.