January 27, 2005

Science Made Stupid Online

Long ago, when I was an editor of books, one of my best moments was finding and publishing Science Made Stupid by Tom Weller. The book was profoundly insane and insanely funny and rightfully won a Hugo when it was published all the way back in 1986.

Tom Weller was, and I presume is, one of my oldest friends. We go all the way back to Encina High School in 1960. Later we would be roomates for a brief period at the University of California at Berkeley. My first, but not my last, experience with LSD took place with Tom and a couple of other friends and had something to do with a yellow Porsche. I'm not sure exactly what, but it was very important, man.

Later, Tom would become, with David Goines, a graphic designer in Berkeley for a number of groups such as Country Joe and the Fish. Always a strange duck, Tom was both of that era at Berkeley and outside it. He remains there and in much the same state today.

I left Berkeley and went on to other things in New York and Europe for many years, but found myself suddenly in Boston at Houghton Mifflin Company. I was hired to bring "a fresh point of view" to that stodgy publisher and I did my best to accommodate them. One of the things I did was to reach out to my old friend Weller because I had confidence that his unique insanity would still be the same.

It was. The first little project we did was a book called MINIMS. It was, well, mininimal but it startled the publishing house with its sales. This gave us the ability to do something next that was even stranger for the times and the publisher, a project called Science Made Stupid . It was an easy project for me. I made the contract, sent the check, and Weller delivered the book -- text, drawings, the whole thing. It was a kind of demented children's book for adults who were still children. And it did for science what the maxim gun did for warfare.

Houghton Mifflin did its usual substandard "let's see if we can strangle this book in the cradle" publishing job, and the book entered the world with few advance sales and a publicity budget that consisted of twenty-five cents and two Wheaties boxtops. But the book refused to die, sold solidly, then garnered a Hugo, and a fond fan base that remembers it to this day. It has been out of print for almost twenty years now, but if you read the reviews on Amazon the yearning for the book is great. It is one of those titles that utterly befuddle people when they find out it is out of print. It was priced at around $5 when it was published but brings around $30 today if you can find a copy. It is, of course, not out of print because it cannot sell and continue to sell -- after all, there's a new freshman college class every September facing science classes. No, it is out of print because it was published by Houghton Mifflin Company, an organization that seldom fails to insist that victory become defeat.

But all is not lost. Because although this classic is long gone from the bookstores, it has come back to life as a web site. And just as Science Made Stupid was one of the funniest books of its time, Science Made Stupid Online is one of the funniest sites of this era. Think I'm kidding? I never kid about jokes. For example:

Click me and grow big.

Sound simple? It is.
Once, when the secrets of science were the jealously guarded property of a small priesthood, the common man had no hope of mastering their arcane complexities. Years of study in musty classrooms were prerequisite to obtaining even a dim, incoherent knowledge of science.
Today, all that has changed: a dim, incoherent knowledge of science is available to anyone. Popular science books, magazines and computer programs - with their simple, fatuous and misleading prose, their garish illustrations, their flimsy modern production values - have brought science within the reach of anyone who can afford their inflated prices or who can mooch off someone else.
Indeed, today a myriad of sources are available to explain science facts that science itself has never dreamed of.
This web site is one of them.

Posted by Vanderleun at January 27, 2005 7:08 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Damn man, what a great post. When I hit send I'll got there and site unseen mark it as a favorite.

Posted by: Steel Turman at January 27, 2005 8:04 PM

Maybe it's just me, continually frustrated with trying to teach undergraduates how to actually DO science, but I found the website to be shallow and childish. A better title would be Stupid Online.

I don't ridicule your discipline, why do you ridicule mine?

Posted by: slimedog at January 28, 2005 1:17 AM

I shall not soon forget the definition of a "galumph" as "one unit of wasted motion."

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at January 28, 2005 1:53 AM

Holy crap that is genius.

Slimedog - interesting choice of alias for someone looking for respect. As a scientist myself, when I look around at my colleagues and their work (quantum optics, spectroscopy, etc), I can't help but conclude they are over-esteemed.

Posted by: mike at January 28, 2005 6:56 AM


I'm with you 100% on the over-esteem problem, which has its roots in everything from elitism to office politics to the politicization of science. However, that's a problem with SCIENTISTS, not science. Our schools compound the problem by emphasizing scientific knowledge over scientific method. This results in a public that views science as the arcane province of geeks and NSF grant queens. But I also work with an unassuming Ph.D. who has published close to 200 papers, was a major contributor to the Agent Orange studies, and personally takes his wife and mother to the supermarket every week.

I went to the Science Made Stupid website with the hope that it would provide a humorous take on science that might get through to some of my students, who seem to memorize everything and understand nothing. Instead I found great cartoons harnessed to a glib dismissal of scientific thinking. What a gyp.

An alias prevents my posts from appearing to be an argument from authority, simply because of my name or position. But since you brought it up, I'm a Mike, too.

Mike Anderson
Lecturer in Statistics
University of Texas, San Antonio

Posted by: slimedog at January 28, 2005 9:06 AM

Uh, okay, but what is so wrong with puncturing the self-important hyperbole and jargon of science? Things that are substantive should be able to stand up to a little ribbing.

In the vein of unfunny feminism, I think you protest too much. If you don't think it's funny, fine, but righteous indignation? What, science is too sacred a cow to joke about? Well, from my direct observation, scientists tend to feel unappreciated by society around them, which may or may not have affected your sensitivity to parody. I wonder if they value intelligence and rigor so highly only because they possess them. Despite all the talk about the importance of science, etc, the market price for one suggests that they are on a par with a good regional manager of a chain

What if their genetic lotto had turned out differently, and they blessed (perhaps) with extraordinarily good looks instead of the big throbbing brains they're stuck with? How quickly would fashion and beauty trump all other human endeavors in their concern? Like, immediately.

But I do question why you expected "Science made Stupid" to be a useful teaching aide. Would a lit prof look to a Mad Magazine's parody of Hamlet for Shakespearian criticism? Frankly, you may consider it puerile, but the comparison of inductive and deductive approaches to science (A) rang true, and (B) made me laugh. If you disagree, good for you.

Posted by: mike at January 28, 2005 10:22 AM

Slimedog: Please chill. Did you not encounter the "How and Why" book series as a child? "Science Made Stupid" is more of a parody of that genre, attempting to teach complex principles to children, not a slam on scientific thinking. The illustrations are a direct copy of that art style, only flipped into absurdity.

At least, that's the way I took it.

Posted by: Bill Peschel at January 28, 2005 7:14 PM

After checking out the site, I see that what you're getting there is the abridged version. It's missing a lot of the artwork, and that and the page layout would have made it more obvious that it's a parody of a children's book.

I still can't believe that someone paid $45 for it on Amazon, and that booksellers are asking between that and $100+ for it.

Posted by: Bill Peschel at January 28, 2005 7:19 PM

Maybe my sense of humor is busted; I expect surprise, a unexpected moment of self-recognition, or a novel insight into the human condition. Science Made Stupid offers, in its own words "...simple, fatuous and misleading prose, their garish illustrations, their flimsy modern production values..." The comparison to Mad Magazine is apt, SMS is farce in the same vein. But it's still not funny.

Posted by: slimedog at January 29, 2005 5:58 AM

Slimedog, your sense of humor is not only broke,
but in need of a refresher course. You speak from
an altitude with your eyes squarely aimed down
your nose. Turn that telescope around man. Look
the other way. You might be surprised in who you
see. And what they really look like.

Posted by: Steel Turman at January 29, 2005 6:55 AM

Humor is a funny (peculiar) thing. It is, as they say, one of the arts that is impossible to fake in a person. Something is funny or it is not. And that, I've found, is the end of it. You can't argue someone into funny since funny only arises in the central position.

I, of course, do find this funny. But nobody else is required to. They does or they doesn't. Or, as somebody once said, "Comedy is you slip on a banana peel. Tragedy is I fall down a man-hole."

I say its spinach and I say the hell with it.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at January 29, 2005 7:29 AM

But Rev. Donald Sensing agrees WITH ME! (VICTORY LAP!)

One Hand Clapping

Gerard Van der Leun is right: Science Made Stupid Online is a fabulously funny site, a sort of Dave Barry takes on technical writing. I'd excerpt, but I wouldn't know where to stop.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at January 29, 2005 7:57 AM

Of course, that still does not make it funny if you're not laughing.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at January 29, 2005 9:31 AM

Science Made Stupid is about humor. It's about not taking oneself too seriously, no matter the size of the alphabet soup after one's name; science is supposed to be fun. Given the abundance of brodband dumb that pervades our modern world, science and the scientific method are more important than ever, particularly in the face of agendaism protrayed as scientifically based. When faced with a crowd of those folks proud of their scientific dumbness who like to deride those they call geeks, nerds, propeller heads etc, I like to ask them a simple question, "Why is the sky dark at night?" and watch the results -- now that is funny.

Austin, TX.

Posted by: Picti at January 29, 2005 4:07 PM

Wow!! Not only was I afraid I was the only person on the planet to have heard of, much less, own a copy - I now find that one of the denizens of my blogroll had a hand in its birth!

Cheers and Huzzah!

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at January 30, 2005 10:20 PM

You all miss the point with slimedog. Ask him what he thinks is funny?

Hell, I'll ask him!

Slimedog, what do you think is funny?

Posted by: Hugh Smith at January 31, 2005 1:13 PM

Thanks to One Hand Clapping linking to Science I spent the last 20 minutes laughing so hard I scared the pets.

Science (the book) is too pricey - but I did order "Cvltvre" and "Questions." Here's hoping Mr. Weller publishes again.

Posted by: afbrat at February 1, 2005 2:00 PM

Has Weller added new material, or done anything with the Big Bang? Too bad there isn't a way to contact the sponsor of this site. Maybe someone will post an answer. My e-mail above is invalid. Don't need to have it farmed by spammers.

Posted by: Wayne Watson at October 7, 2006 1:07 PM

There is a lot in the book that the website leaves out. I found Science Made Stupid in the children's section of a big city suburban bookstore. I think Science Made Stupid is uproariously funny. Unfortunately, time and tide, and probably lawyers, have stolen my copy, so I can't quote. However, I remember an archaeological joke: typical "pop science" drawing of a two-headed dinosaur, named Duplocephalus, and, in the same drawing, a dinosaur with a tail at both ends, named Duplocaudus. Then the text says that the two species are always found together in the same archaeological dig! Hilarious! I remember those jokes years later! --
---Bill Shoemaker

Posted by: Bill Shoemaker at August 31, 2007 12:21 AM

With Tom Weller's permission, I made some high-resolution color scans of both Science Made Stupid and Culture Made Stupid in a variety of formats that you can either download or view online.

Posted by: Chris Pennello at May 23, 2009 1:28 PM