Sunday, August 3, 2008

Books II

Every month or so I write mini-reviews of some the books I have read recently.

Perhaps reading multiple rave reviews set my expectations too high, but I wasn’t blown away Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. To be clear, the book is excellent and thought-provoking, but it’s not quite up there with the recent non-fiction classics (How the Mind Works, Guns, Germs and Steel and so on). Tavris and Aronson are both eminent social psychologists and their aim is to demonstrate just how much people are beset by cognitive illusions such as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. The book is at its best when the authors summarize the relevant social psychology demonstrating, for example, that memory is a ‘self-justifying historian’ and fallible in the extreme, that clinical judgments divorced from experimental evidence is a recipe for disaster, that the criminal justice system regularly convicts innocent people because it does not sufficiently account for human fallibility and so on. The book deteriorates towards the end because the authors stray too far from solid evidence: the final chapter (“Letting Go and Owning Up”), for example, is insipid because they don’t seem to have evidence for their thesis that knowing about biases and cognitive dissonance can reduce their effect. Further negatives: Tavris and Aronson continually use a decidedly unhelpful metaphor of “the pyramid” (don’t ask), their emphasis on cognitive dissonance over the other biases seems overdone, some of their examples are a bit pat, and there are some contradictions (they claim, for example, that Americans see mistakes as stupid, but then insist in the final chapter that people who admit making mistakes are honored). Despite these problems, Mistakes Were Made is a fantastic book; the only people who won’t find it enlightening are those already familiar (and comfortable) with the illusions and biases literature. (See also: Tavris’ interview on Point of Inquiry and her blog interview with Greta Christina).

Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism by Philip Kitcher is an excellent little book that just blows the anti-evolutionists out of the water. Kitcher, a philosopher of science, wrote the book while he was a visiting scholar at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in the company of Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and others. At least one good thing and one bad thing resulted: the good thing was this book, which is a scholarly, scientifically well-informed, philosophically savvy and utterly convincing demolition of “scientific creationism”. The bad thing, to speculate somewhat, was Kitcher’s later horrendously misinformed tract against sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition. That is, I strongly suspect Kitcher was convinced by the radical science nutters (led by Gould) that sociobiology was dangerous pseudoscience. Speculation aside, Abusing Science is terrific – it may have been published in 1982, but it’s still relevant for the simple reason that creationism (even its latest incarnation as “Intelligent Design theory”) simply doesn’t change.

I really like Michael Shermer in several ways – I think he’s charming, smart and exceedingly eloquent (there is no better testament to his abilities than his TEDTalk on skepticism). However, I have to admit that I wasn’t all that impressed by Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. Firstly, some fairly minor quibbles: Shermer comes across conceited (naming a ‘law’ after himself, talking excessively about his achievements), he seems to be na├»ve about philosophy of science (in stark contrast to Kitcher) and, inexcusably, I spotted far too many logical fallacies. My real problem with the book, however, is that I thought it was unscholarly and its arguments were mostly unconvincing: I just don’t think Shermer did enough intellectual legwork. (The one exception is Shermer’s admirably clear treatment of the anthropic principle). Obviously, I already agree with his conclusions and I’m certainly not his target audience, but he does not marshal the best arguments for evolution and against intelligent design. That said, I think people who believe in intelligent design or creationism would benefit from Why Darwin Matters and I would recommend it for that audience, those already familiar with evolutionary biology can steer clear. (See also: Shermer’s interview on Point of Inquiry and his talk at the Cato Institute about the book. Note: he comes across far better in person than in the book).

I reviewed No Country For Old Men last time round, and my views of Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, The Road, is very similar. The novel, very briefly, follows a father and his young son’s journey south as they struggle to survive several years after an unnamed disaster brought an end to civilization and made the cultivation of food impossible. It is a gripping, terrifying and epic tale, told in McCarthy’s inimitable, free-flowing prose. The Road, make no mistake, is a terrific novel and I expect McCarthy to win the Nobel Prize before long. Like with No Country For Old Men, however, I really didn’t like the ending. [Warning: plot spoilers follow]. As you’ll know if you’ve read the book, in the end the father dies of an illness and the boy is rescued by some mysterious man who had been tracking them. I smell a deus ex machina (in the original sense of an arbitrary and convenient plot device introduced to end a story satisfactorily). Every single other character the father and son encounter on their journey is horrible: there are thieves, murderers, cannibals, and blood cultists, among many others. Indeed, even the old man they help turns out to be an ungrateful wrench. Yet, suddenly, just when it is convenient, “the good guys” arrive out of nowhere to save the boy. I hate to sound callous, but McCarthy should have stayed true to his story, stuck to its bleak themes, and let the boy die. [Spoilers end]. That said, read the book, it’s superb. (See also McCarthy interview on Oprah).

Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst is an outstanding, indeed exemplary, treatment of medical pseudoscience and quackery. Singh, a science journalist, and Ernst, the world’s first professor of alternative medicine, examine four common alternative modalities: acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbal medicine. In each case, they relate the treatment’s history, discuss its principles and methods, summarize the relevant clinical evidence and then make an overall assessment. Their conclusions will not surprise skeptics: with the exception of the herb St. John’s Wort (for depression), there is no evidence that any of the above-mentioned modalities have an effect beyond placebo, and some (chiropractic particularly) carry non-trivial risks.
Importantly, Singh and Ernst start the book with a chapter entitled “How Do You Determine the Truth?” which explains the scientific method and, vitally, its rationale, using historical medical advances (James Lind’s cure for scurvy and Florence Nightingale’s innovations, particularly). That first chapter alone is worth the price of the book: it is a perspicacious, detailed, persuasive, and unusually interesting defense of evidence-based medicine. Further virtues: the book is easy to follow but not superficial, the prose is lively and engaging, the explanations and illustrations are clear throughout and, probably most importantly, they get the science exactly right. Pretty much the only negative thing I have to say is that the introduction contains a bit too much foot-stomping and puffery about the authors’ neutrality, love of truth and rigor – a bit of humility is in order. My bottom-line: read this book, buy copies for your quackery-loving friends and family and spread the word. (See also: Singh's interview on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe).

Martin Gardner may have written the first edition of Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science in 1952 bit it is still relevant and certainly still worth reading. The first thing that stands out about this book is just how dedicated and scholarly Gardner was: he pioneered modern scientific skepticism so he could not rely much on previous work. As a result, he was forced to do an enormous amount of original research – he had to wade through countless obscure pseudoscientific tomes and then rely on his own judgment for a conclusion. Remarkably, despite taking positions on over twenty pseudosciences (sadly, many of which are still current), Gardner got it entirely right in almost all of the details. Moreover, his style is extremely appealing because he avoids hectoring and the temptation to nitpick, being content, on the contrary, to let silliness speak for itself. Finally, Gardner's book is particularly valuable to skeptics because it provides a sense of perspective and proportion: many of our current problems (like celebrities endorsing pseudoscience) is not new, and might have been worse in the past. Fads & Fallacies, in short, is a classic that richly deserves a continued readership.

Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage is an enormously important book that has not received nearly as much attention as it deserves. (By the way, I’ve blogged about an aspect of this book before). Keeley, an archeologist who specializes in Neolithic Europe, argues we have “artificially ‘pacified the past’ and shared a pervasive bias against the possibility of prehistoric warfare” (p. vii). His thesis, in other words, is that prehistoric warfare was at least as violent as modern warfare, and probably much more so. Keeley marshals masses of evidence in support of this conclusion, including excavated fortifications, mass graves, skeletons of unequivocal murder victims, in addition to an argument from ethnographic analogy. The latter argument is especially interesting: to establish the plausibility of prehistoric warfare, he reviews the evidence that current non-state societies are far from peaceful. The evidence here, incidentally, is absolutely overwhelming: over 40% of all people in tribal societies die violent deaths, compared to less than 1% for the U.S. and Europe in the 20th century including both World Wars. Had the world experienced violent death-rates in the 20th century comparable to those of non-state societies, billions of people would have died, instead of hundreds of million. Some negatives: Keeley’s prose is a touch purple in places, he extrapolates a bit too far once or twice (taking findings about trade in non-state societies to make recommendations for state policy), he denigrates Western military strategy too much and I think he caricatures Hobbes’ position. Overall, though, the book is fantastic: it is scholarly, interesting and entirely convincing. A particularly nice quote to give you a feel for the book:
The burned villages, the arrowheads embedded in bones, the death tolls, and the mutilated corpses speak more truthfully, more passionately on this dismal subject than all the recorded verbiage of the living, which is riddled with cant, sophistry, and flights of fancy. The dead voices heard here tell us that war has an ugly sameness; it is always a compound of crimes no matter what kind of society is involved or when in time it occurs. After exploring war before civilization in search of something less terrible than the wars we know, we merely arrive where we started with an all-too-familiar catalog of deaths, rapes, pillages, destruction and terror (p. 173-174).

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