(I hope this is on-topic on this site)

I am wondering what are some of the best examples of popular-science books that had large influence in public, but was based on weak science?

By "large influence in public" I mean that the book's claims became widely considered factual (at least by the general public, not necessarily by experts).

By "weak science" I mean any of the following indicators: that the book's "facts" were already known to be wrong or became proven very wrong later, was based on cherry picked studies, its claims are largely contradicted by the evidence, or something similar.

I am open to any branch of science whether it be biology or psychology, or whatever.

up vote 3 down vote accepted

All of the self-help books out there belong into the dubious category.

Whether it is about psychology, interpersonal skills, psychology, medicine or especially nutrition; and the biggest loser has to be economics.

Many psychology research findings are in a replication crisis, not the least because they are based on findings in weird people. Yet, the 'results' are gobbled up by popular books and remakers of ideology.

Medicine is as much an art form today as it was in the time of Imhotep. Sure, there is very hard science going around and many actors are performing in the best of faiths. But inherent limitations of smaller studies or big systematic reviews are seldom acknowledged by the popular media. Medical professionals should know that: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. But on the bookshelf of a department store you will just find the opposite. I'd nominate any last one of those books that relates to "cure for cancer".

After proteins were discovered, people were told to eat meat, as that was supposedly good for them. Then vitamins were the cure-all for everyone and everything. But cholesterol was a new nemesis, scaring people away from eggs and meat. "Eat more carbs, eat no-carbs, saturated fat is good for you, cholesterol is harmless." We know just not enough about the complexities of nutrition and in developed countries people are well fed and mostly approaching an area of diminishing returns.

Looking at the evidence based reviews like at Cochrane we have to face the fact that indeed most dietary advice from the last 100 years was very dubious if it came from medical professionals. And advice that came from dietary zealots that screamed this time we've got it" fared way worse.

Given these broad categories to choose a wealth of nominees from, I'd suggest to consider the following:

Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw: "Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach", 1982:

The book discussed free radicals and the idea that they cause aging, and how antioxidants were said to partially prevent the damage they do.3 The book suggests causes of aging and ways to slow them, with material on improving health and various aspects of the quality of life. One notable feature of the book was several full-page pictures of its male and female authors, Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, striking bodybuilding poses and showing off some impressive muscles for "sedentary research scientists," which they claimed was due to the "growth hormone releasers" they took daily.

Medical health experts have dismissed Pearson and Shaw's life-extension formula as dangerous. The American Council on Science and Health reported that the risks of their formula included headaches, intestinal disorders and kidney damage.

Put anything "quantum physics" into a popular book, and see the disaster unfold:

Rhonda Byrne: "The Secret" 2006.

The book has been translated into 50 languages and has sold over 30 million copies. Due partly to an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the book and film had grossed $300 million in sales by 2009. Byrne has subsequently released Secret merchandise and several related books.

In 2009, Barbara Ehrenreich published Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America as a reaction to self-help books such as The Secret, claiming that they promote political complacency and a failure to engage with reality.

Byrne's scientific claims, in particular concerning quantum physics, have been rejected by a range of authors including Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons at The New York Times and Harvard physicist Lisa Randall. Mary Carmichael and Ben Radford, writing for the Center for Inquiry, have also pointed out that The Secret has no scientific foundation, stating that Byrne's book represents: "a time-worn trick of mixing banal truisms with magical thinking and presenting it as some sort of hidden knowledge: basically, it’s the new New Thought."

A syncope opens up between professional psychologists and kitchen psychology with this 'masterpiece'.

Norman Vincent Peale: "The Power of Positive Thinking", 1952:

Peale's work came under criticism from various mental health experts, theologians, and academics. One general criticism against Peale's book was the lack of verified sources. The Power of Positive Thinking includes many personal anecdotes that the reader has no way of validating. The book includes stories about “a business executive”, “a man, an alcoholic”, “a famous trapeze artist”, “a friend of [Peale’s], a midwestern businessman”, and other unnamed individuals which cannot be verified from the information Peale presents with each anecdote.

[…] Murphy explains that such repeated hypnosis defeats an individual's self-motivation, sense of reality, and ability to think critically. He describes Peale's understanding of the mind as inaccurate and his description of the workings of the mind as deceptively simplistic and false. […] Ellis stated that eventually Peale's teachings “lead to failure and disillusionment, and not only boomerang back against people, but often prejudice them against effective therapy."

While contemporary theologians and mental health experts criticized Peale's teachings in The Power of Positive Thinking, the general public praised the self-help book. The Los Angeles Times estimates that “legions of followers testified that Peale’s message changed their lives for the better and represented the best combination of faith and pragmatism.”

This is evidenced by the popularity of Peale's book, which sold more than 5 million copies worldwide and was eventually translated into over 40 languages. In addition, Peale was close friends with American presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, both of which highly regarded his positive thinking teachings. Countless others accredited The Power of Positive Thinking for their success in overcoming obstacles including George Foster, of the Cincinnati Reds, Rev. Robert Schuller, founder and pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, and Billy Graham, a prominent Southern Baptist Minister.

President Donald Trump has called Peale “his pastor” and “one of the greatest speakers” he had ever seen. Fred and Mary Trump, President Trump's parents, traveled to the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan with their children to hear Peale's sermons. Trump grew up hearing Peale's teachings from his parents, and Peale officiated his first wedding. Trump credits his survival in 1990 after bankruptcy to Peale's positive thinking teachings.

And some will argue that the following doesn't even really count, but it claims to be based on science, in its title, and has had a huge influence, with a publication run of more than 83 million copies sold:

L Ron Hubbard: "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health", 1950:

Although it received an initial positive public response,8 Dianetics was strongly criticized by scientists and medical professionals for its scientific deficiencies. The American Psychological Association passed a resolution in 1950 stating of Dianetics "the fact that these claims are not supported by empirical evidence of the sort required for the establishment of scientific generalizations."

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    I agree with this answer (+1), although that most research is based on WEIRD people is the least of the problems. The Many Labs 2 Project found only few differences between WEIRD and non-WEIRD. The biggest problem is simply how robust the findings actually are. Let's Power Pose anyone?! – Eff Nov 30 at 12:33
  • @Eff Yeah, p-hacking, pub-bias… I could delve quite into the problems inherent to many fields of science. But isn't this Q about the soup that pop-sci authors brew from that? – LangLangC Nov 30 at 12:53
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    Yep, that's what my question is about, and I agree with your answer. – Eff Nov 30 at 12:58
  • To truly answer the question, is there any specific examples of books that you think are truly egregious? For example, one self-help book that has the lowest scientific quality to influence ratio? – Eff Dec 1 at 12:06
  • I have accepted this answer, because I think it is the most complete. But I also upvoted several of the other answers. – Eff Dec 1 at 15:55

There were a number of pop-sci books written by non-mathematicians (physiciscs, chemists, etc.) where the notion was spread that $\aleph_1$ denotes the cardinal of the continuum.

For example, George Gamow, One, Two, Three... Infinity

The prime example is psychoanalysis. Thousands of books were written, popular and not. But the general consensus today if that this is a very weak science.

Other examples are homeopathy, astrology, and UFOlogy. Unlike psychoanalysis (which is a weak science) these are not sciences at all. Nevertheless an enormous amount of literature was written on each of these subjects.

A good example are the books written by Percival Lowell about the canals on Mars: Mars, Mars and its Canals and Mars as the Abode of Life. Lots of people believed that this was a proof of the existence of an advanced Martian civilization.

There's always the vonDaniken "Chariots of the Gods" collection of nonsense about alien landing strips in the Andes and other UFO-related fakery.

A few years ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Michael Talbot's The Holographic Universe: The Revolutionary Theory of Reality. This appears to be a very popular book, currently with a 4.5/5 star rating based on 600 reviews on Amazon.

If I recall correctly (having tried to delete all memories) the first chapter of the book is an attempt to describe some of David Bohm's ideas. The remaining chapters then relate these ideas to psychic experiences, devoting a chapter to each one - ESP, remote viewing, etc. I think he even gives detailed accounts of people who claim to be able to time travel.

Not wishing to risk anyone else knowing I had actually read this book, I threw it out. Unfortunately my friend soon asked me where it was. I reacted like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights. For a few seconds I did that teenager thing where you stare at the ground and don't say anything. Finally, I claimed I had lent it to Duncan.

There's a long history of "scientific racism" that more recently has included the chicanery by Charles Murray, Steven Pinker, David Reich, Nicholas Wade, et al.

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    This is a bad example to my question. The works of Charles Murray, David Reich, and Steven Pinker are all well within mainstream research and they all cite the best state-of-the-art research on the topics they discuss. They are also discuss a multitude of possible hypotheses that may be able to explain the patterns in question. People such as David Reich are the exact opposite of my question; that's a researcher that is the top of the best quality population genetics that exists today. – Eff Dec 1 at 0:52
  • Actually their work falls far outside the scientific consensus. David Reich has been resoundingly dismantled by actual scientists. Likewise for Murray, Pinker, and gang. If science prevails over racism, history will put these people in the same category as phrenologists. – sfmiller940 Dec 1 at 2:08
  • The two links you've just given literally just harbor on and on about the term 'race.' But 'race' as a concept is not at all important to David Reich's work. So I don't know if you even know anything of Reich's work--it seems to me that you're just getting a second hand characterization of what he says, and not ready what he actually says. "Actual scientists"? You mean those signatories from sociology professors, gender studies professors in the link you've just given? Please spare me. If David Reich is not an "actual" geneticist, then none in the links you've given are. – Eff Dec 1 at 2:42
  • Sorry, but articles about race tend to focus on race. If you think that race has nothing to do with sociology, etc., then your epistemological issues are beyond my help here. I'm sure Reich's academic research is decent within his field, but on the subject of race he's a quack. – sfmiller940 Dec 1 at 2:56
  • But he basically doesn't talk about race... That's the point. As I said, 'race' is not important to David Reich's work. That's why I don't understand why people criticize him for talking about 'race.' The only thing that David Reich has done with regards to 'race' is to say that he doesn't think it's a precise term and therefore he doesn't use it. Here, from his book: "But "ancestry" is not a euphemism, nor is it synonymous with "race." Instead, the term is born of an urgent need to come up with a precise language to discuss genetic differences among people . . ." – Eff Dec 1 at 3:27

I am wondering what are some of the best examples of popular-science books that had large influence in public, but was based on weak science? By "large influence in public" I mean that the book's claims became widely considered factual.

I'd say the most obvious example was Stephen Hawking’s 1989 book A Brief History of Time. There's a lot wrong with this book, and I can't go into it all. But for an example, take a look at the chapter on black holes. Hawking referred to John Michell, talking about "such a strong gravitational field that light could not escape: any light emitted from the surface of the star would be dragged back by the star’s gravitational attraction before it could get very far".

Now, you might think Hawking is merely talking about Michell's understanding here, But he isn't. One of Hawking’s “seminal” papers was singularities and the geometry of spacetime dating from 1966. On page page 76 Hawking talked of “such a strong gravitational field that even the ‘outgoing’ light rays from it are dragged back”. This flatly contradicts Einstein, and is wrong. See Einstein’s fundamental ideas and methods of the theory of relativity. That’s where Einstein explained why light curves, saying a gravitational field is a place where “the speed of light is spatially variable”. That's why optical clocks go slower when they're lower. There's something important that you can work out from that. Something rather counter-intuitive. See how PhysicsFAQ editor Don Koks describes it: “light speeds up as it ascends from floor to ceiling, and it slows down as it descends from ceiling to floor; it’s not like a ball that slows on the way up and goes faster on the way down”. Hawking didn't know this. He didn’t know that in a strong gravitational field, outgoing light rays aren’t dragged back. They speed up even more.

The bottom line is that Hawking didn’t understand the first thing about gravity, so he didn’t understand the first thing about black holes either. But people believe what he said, because it's been repeated ad infinitum for decades. There are other examples. See for example my "physics detective" essay on Hawking radiation.

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