7 Bad Boys of Nonfiction

Bad boy on bike

With notable exceptions—decadent and depraved gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson comes to mind—the bad boys of the writing world have been fiction writers. They wear the leather jackets and shades, while nonfiction squares button their tweeds and squint behind prescription specs. But while the authors listed here may be nerdy, and driven to report the facts (or the fake news—see number 5), they’re finding all sorts of fresh, nonfiction-y ways to misbehave. Here are some of my favorite bad boys of nonfiction:

1. Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy

Phil Plait has been blogging as “Bad Astronomer,” reversing misconceptions and righting science wrongs since the 90s, making him a kind of internet cowboy. A former NASA scientist with an asteroid named after him (165347 Philplait), he’s a guy you want to be getting your science from. Plait’s explanations are readable and witty, and he’s not evasive about going after misinformers. He also crosses into traditional bad boy territory—Plait has a tattoo of a flaming asteroid hitting the earth from L.A. Ink. (Read his second book: Death from the Skies! to learn more about the plausibility of such a scenario.)

2. Ben Goldacre, Bad Pharma

Don’t let his Oxford education fool you—Goldacre’s books, talks, and itchy Twitter finger are venomous. He gave up a likely lucrative career practicing medicine to research, write books, and campaign against unscrupulous journalists, wayward physicians, pseudoscientists, quacks, and data-manipulators. Goldacre and Plait are similar types of bad boys, in that they’re ruthlessly committed to good science and a properly informed public. May the targets of these truth vigilantes quake in fear.

3. Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist

The man with the juiciest media story and most conventionally bad reputation on this list is (sorry, buddy) Jonah Lehrer. Once a golden boy of popular neuroscience with an impeccable pedigree and an entrancing ability to relate complex subjects to a general audience, Lehrer was caught self-plagiarizing and fabricating quotes. Fellow science writer Carl Zimmer explains the messy situation here. Like any good bad boy, Lehrer’s apology was flimsy, and he’s announced plans to go on doin’ him—writing those books. Lehrer’s lost face, but he’s a talent. My view is that he should switch to fiction, making better use of his facility for reality fudging.

4. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

It’s hard to imagine a more dedicated iconoclast than evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. With zest or (even badder) nonchalance, he rejects the idea that religion has anything to contribute to our understanding. He’s also your typical brooding, black-clad bad boy. His latest book, The Magic of Reality, seems to be intended for young adults, and it attacks magic—magic! In this reality, good scientist, we still want a glass of something cool and supernatural to go with our empiricism sandwiches.

5. Stephen Colbert, America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t

He’s from the school of fake journalism, but the issues he tackles are real. That he published a book with such a syntactically (ahem) unique title speaks to Colbert’s bad boy-ness. Actor, writer, comedian, rock singer, and TV host Colbert uses hyperbole and absurdity to ask questions about politics and society, galvanizing us to, as he might say, re-become the informed, opinionated Americans we never weren’t.

6. Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind

The trouble with Ray Kurzweil is he just won’t be the genius inventor everyone else wants him to be. As a teenager he wrote a computer program that analyzed and composed classical music. The Kurzweil Reading Machine translated text to speech and was a revolutionary technology for the blind. Today he’s a director of engineering at Google. A brief list of Kurzweil’s incendiary beliefs (no joke, read his books): people will be immortal—and soon; the AI singularity is near; and human consciousness is machine storable, and in the future some of us will live on the internet and have nanobot bodies.

7. Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey

What’s a fiction writer doing on this list? Yes, Carl Hiaasen is the author of many novels, including, most recently, Bad Monkey. He’s also a journalist at the Miami Herald and has been chronicling the (often grim) realities of contemporary Florida for decades, earning him a spot on this illustrious list.

[Note: There are plenty of bad ladies of nonfiction out there. I’m particularly jazzed about Amanda Gefter’s forthcoming Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn (add that to your list of fantasy misdemeanors).]

Who’s your favorite bad boy—or girl—of nonfiction?

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