Debunked best-sellers of days gone by
February 25, 2018 5:24 AM   Subscribe

What best-selling books that "explain things" have gone on to be thoroughly debunked? I'm thinking of things like Guns, Germs and Steel and The Bell Curve.
posted by Shepherd to Science & Nature (46 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
The works of Immanuel Velikovsky. Big in the 70's.
posted by parki at 5:30 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]

Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule (from Outliers) has largely been debunked, and a lot of his other pieces have been found to have been heavily influenced by corporate dollars.
posted by stillmoving at 5:33 AM on February 25 [20 favorites]

The Kon Tiki expedition.
posted by Helga-woo at 5:45 AM on February 25 [15 favorites]

By whom and where has Guns, Germs and Steel been debunked? It's not possible to prove that having continuous climate zones across Eurasia, allowing food plants to spread, and domesticable animals, gave Eurasians an advantage, but those seem like a better explanations than any other I've heard.
posted by musofire at 6:33 AM on February 25 [32 favorites]

I don’t know in detail but I think a cognitive scientist friend told me that the right brain/left brain schema made popular by Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has been discredited. I think the pop sociolinguistics in Men are From Mars; Women are From Venus is also not now taken seriously but IANALinguist.
posted by Smearcase at 6:47 AM on February 25 [8 favorites]

The Long Tail
The Tipping Point
posted by panama joe at 7:08 AM on February 25

Freakonomics has been heavily criticised for sloppy research, egregious statistical errors and 'a range of avoidable mistakes, from back-of-the-envelope analyses gone wrong to unexamined assumptions to an uncritical reliance on the work of Levitt’s friends and colleagues'.
posted by verstegan at 7:10 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]

> By whom and where has Guns, Germs and Steel been debunked?

I realize this would be a better answer if I had sources to hand, but it's a rather divisive book that has been much better received by experts in some fields (like economics) than by those in others (anthropology, history.) "Debunked" is maybe a strong word but it's not universally acclaimed in academia.
posted by a mirror and an encyclopedia at 7:11 AM on February 25 [16 favorites]

Both John Lott's "More Guns, Less Crime" (bad statistics, unrepeatable results) and Michael Bellesiles's "Arming America" (faked research).
posted by goatdog at 7:14 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]

I think it's the Freakonomics sequel that has the really deep problems; the original is basically a popular summary of some of Levitt's work, which may have its detractors. It's the second book which has the climate change stuff.

(I also think that the tone of Freakonomics is dumb but that's not really a debunking).
posted by dismas at 7:20 AM on February 25

I guess Go Ask Alice doesn’t count but The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind?
posted by tilde at 7:21 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]

This article from 2005 presents a pretty good round-up of the critical response to Guns, Germs and Steel. I think it's going too far to say that the book has been 'debunked'. But its environmental determinism did not sit well with cultural anthropologists like the late Clifford Geertz, who criticised Diamond's work as 'sociologically thin and lacking in psychological depth', a criticism for which I have some sympathy, though I don't think it blows Diamond's thesis out of the water.
posted by verstegan at 7:28 AM on February 25 [13 favorites]

Louann Brizendine, the Female Brain: demolished in a series of posts by languagelog back in the day.
posted by peppercorn at 8:10 AM on February 25 [7 favorites]

Games People Play.
posted by johngoren at 9:24 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]

I think Gladwell’s individual essays hold up better than his books, if that makes any sense. Like, he’s a great storyteller and does a pretty good job proving his point. But he runs into trouble when he tries to tie his essays together into a larger theme — like he’s trying too hard or something.
posted by panama joe at 9:26 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]

Any book that relies on Myers-Briggs Type Indicators might qualify.
posted by soelo at 9:38 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]

There's a lot of critical writing out there on Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat that makes it borderline debunked.

I think that goes for a lot of social science books though. If you read published reviews of many of them you'll find that they have a bad habit of cherry picking from a vast sea of research and then coming to dubious conclusions.
posted by laptolain at 9:42 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]

Same with Jeremy Rifkin, especially regarding The End of Work.
posted by Rash at 9:45 AM on February 25

1421: The Year China Discovered America fits the bill, I think. The book as been described as 'preposterous' and its author 'either a charlatan or a cretin.'
posted by workerant at 10:19 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]

Debunked is a really strong word. Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir, so it can’t be “thoroughly debunked,” as the OP specifies, unless the author is actually a trust fund kid from Manhattan. At best, another author disagrees with some of his conclusions. I suspect that the number of books that meet OP’s specifications is actually quite small, but maybe OP could further clarify what is meant by “debunked.”

That said, Subliminal Seduction might qualify. It was all the rage when I was in high school in the 70s and had us all carefully examining not just advertisements, but even saltines, searching for the hidden word “sex.” I kid you not.
posted by FencingGal at 10:26 AM on February 25 [10 favorites]

Just coming back to add maybe Freud? He had some useful and interesting ideas but he also spoke with authority on society when in reality he was actually just talking about Freud.
posted by laptolain at 10:37 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]

Oh my gosh, I had forgotten all about Subliminal Seduction—all those images hidden within the ice cubes in ads!
Simpler times...
posted by bookmammal at 10:37 AM on February 25 [8 favorites]

Chariots of the Gods is an easy choice, but it does speak to the preponderance of WTF that fell out of the 1960s consciousness expansion etc ...

And then there's somebody like Carlos Castaneda, whose whole bibliography is based on at least one lie (that he ever studied under a sorcerer named Don Juan and/or that Don Juan ever even existed). As to whether that debunks the various theories and insights found in Castaneda's many books -- that's a whole other mystical magical realm of uncertainty ...
posted by philip-random at 10:55 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]

The China Study claims that a strict vegan diet prevents or cures practically all human diseases. It has been heavily questioned due to lack of evidence, blatant omissions of contradictory data and cross referencing data that are tangentially connected at best.
posted by waving at 11:12 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]

The End of History
The Art of Deal by whatshisname
posted by TheRaven at 12:08 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]

Norman Angell’s bestselling The Great Illusion proved, in 1910, that modern nations were so interlinked by financial, trade, technical, and cultural ties, that general war between them was likely to be so damaging as to make it impossible.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:19 PM on February 25 [8 favorites]

I thought of some more!

1) Malthus! Hey, you know how there was that big thing about how like "don't have kids to save the world" recently? And also you know how people talk about not handing out welfare to discourage breeding among the poor? Malthusian ideas are so widely accepted as part of the background tissue of our society, but actually population growth is decreasing, not increasing, and while everyone believes there's a maximum carrying capacity of humans on Earth, we are not going to approach it, and increased agricultural abundance does not appear to have driven us inexorably to its horrible brink. (We'll have widespread famines for other reasons!)

2) The Golden Bough-- claiming that a legend of a dying and reviving king is central to world mythology (it's not!) and that all cultures proceed inexorably from savagery towards wisdom (they don't!) The dying-and-reviving god currently appears to be a specific cultural inheritance that comes from the Ancient Near East and not a cultural universal. See also Joseph Campbell.
posted by peppercorn at 12:25 PM on February 25 [6 favorites]

Prozac Nation, or the serotonin balance theory of depression.

Here's a good article from The Guardian
In the 20 years since its launch, 40m people worldwide have taken the so-called wonder drug - but research revealed this week shows that Prozac, and similar antidepressants, are no more effective than a sugar pill. So how was the myth created? Psychoanalyst Darian Leader traces the irrepressible rise of the multibillion dollar depression industry, while others explore the clinical and cultural impact of Prozac, its perceived personal benefits - and sometimes terrible costs
Still somewhat controversial, as some people are helped by SSRIs, and no one wants to disabuse those patients of what helps them.
posted by Dashy at 12:28 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Hard to debunk since I don't think it was ever actually accepted in the first place. Still, it was and remains an interesting, quirky thought-piece, imo.

My vote would be for all the "Pyramid Power" books. All those people putting razor blades and raw meat etc., under cardboard pyramids to test one of the most dubious hypotheses I've ever encountered in my life ...

Err, jinks, joe.
posted by Chitownfats at 1:16 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]

I was waiting for someone to bring up The China Study, as it’s quite popular to claim it’s been debunked. No, it is not that simplistic. No, it has not been debunked.
posted by FencingGal at 1:23 PM on February 25

Margaret Mead was debunked, and then her debunker was debunked.

Not my area, FWIW.
posted by BWA at 2:03 PM on February 25

The End of History was about long-term trends; too early to tell if it's correct. Check back in 50 or 100 years.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 3:02 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]

1967's The Empty Fortress, quacking quack Bruno Bettelheim's paean to the 'refrigerator mother' theory of autism.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:42 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]

The Population Bomb.
posted by Toddles at 4:46 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]

Re: Subliminal Seduction, one of my teachers in the 80’s spent some time discussing various advertising strategies, and had students bring in newspapers and magazines from home for analysis. In an ad for Tide laundry detergent I was thrilled to discover the word ‘Sex’ airbrushed in neat cursive across a woman’s chest above her low, scooped neckline. Once discovered it was plain as day, and I felt like I’d won the lottery.
posted by jon1270 at 6:02 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]

My apologies for not having a specific title, but any book discussing recovered memories of "Satanic ritual abuse" would fill the bill here.
posted by JulesER at 7:55 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]

Keep off the Grass, or really any book by Gabriel Nahas
posted by panama joe at 4:08 AM on February 26

Mindless Eating (which I thought was fascinating and convincing when I read it) and other work by Brian Wansink. See The Inside Story Of How An Ivy League Food Scientist Turned Shoddy Data Into Viral Studies.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:51 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

Silent Spring maybe? I think it is controversial but some critics say that her call for DDT banning led to a widespread reemergence of malaria.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 6:57 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

Yes. That's controversial, since DDT has never been banned for use in mosquito control. Furthermore, preventing its use as a general farming pest control slowed the evolution of resistance.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 10:53 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]

Never Cry Wolf

Basically everything by Kevin Trudeau, to the point that a judge ordered a partial refund be given to all buyers of the diet book The Weight-Loss Cure "They" Don't Want You to Know About.
posted by nicebookrack at 1:22 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]

Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
posted by nicebookrack at 1:24 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]

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