Friday, October 31, 2014

Distinguishing between data & interpretation in popular science can help the public learn to think about the evidence (Books - The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin)

Nowadays, the outcome of every scientific study is expected to be instantly useable by the public.  News media demands ready-made dietary and medical advice, politicians and business people demand data to shore up the opinions they already hold, many funders want only outcomes that will translate to curing disease now.  As nice as it would be to cure on demand, that would be as likely as making a hits of every Broadway tryout.  Scientific "hits" are the product of fortuitous accident and incremental accumulation of knowledge, which usually includes more rejected possibilities than confirmed ones.

Pop-neuroscience satisfies this expectation with books falling somewhere between science and self-help.  Daniel J. Levitin's The Organized Mind (Dutton, 2014) creatively hews to this formula. I thank Dutton, a Penguin imprint, for my copy.  Of course the popularity of science, is not all bad.  It is wonderful to have the ear of non-scientists and encouraging that interest requires that the public enter the discussion somewhere.  But books that realistically convey how experimental outcomes find their way into the fund of general knowledge are in short supply.  The wider the dissemination of half-baked knowledge, the more discerning the eager-to-consume non-scientist must become.  In this age in which everything from raw experimental data and top notch interpretation to crackpot appropriation of small study outcomes and outright lies are easily available on line, and look superficially the same, the scientist has a responsibility to help the public develop a critical eye.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Giving beauty and form to the inexplicable (Books - The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan)

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) is a stunner of a novel.  The Man Booker committee seems to have thought so too, having awarded it this year's prize.  It concerns a man, a doctor, a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp, a father, a husband, an adulterer - all the same man - one Dorrigo Evans.  Although he is all of these things, Dorrigo Evans is irrevocably shaped by his time as a prisoner of war, suffering abuse and deprivation at the hands of his Japanese captors as he and his fellow prisoners were brutally driven to build the Thai-Burma Railway.  As an officer, he is expected to assume leadership of the prisoners. In this role and as a physician, he feels compelled to save as many men as he can from illness and violent punishment.  His humanity is tested as the circumstances offer only choices among cruelties, warping any possibility of compassion.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

An addiction to betrayal (Books - A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre)

Two middle-aged spies are sitting in an apartment in the Christian Quarter, sipping tea and lying courteously to each other, as evening approaches.  They are English - so English that the habit of politeness that binds them together and keeps them apart never falters for a moment.  The sounds of the street waft up through the open window, car horns and horses' hooves mingling with the clink of china and the murmured voices.  A microphone, cunningly concealed beneath the sofa, picks up the conversation and passes it along a wire, through a small hole in the wainscoting, and into the next room, where a third man sits hunched over a turning tape recorder, straining to make out the words through Bakelite headphones.

The two men are old friends,  They have known each other for nearly thirty years.  But they are bitter foes now, combatants on opposing sides of a brutal conflict.
So begins Ben Macintyre's atmospheric, brisk paced A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and The Great Betrayal (Crown, 2014).  You can read this book as fascinating political history, or as a thriller that just happens to be true, but I read it as a book about character.  Kim Philby and his close friend Nicholas Elliott went to English public school together, Cambridge together, and went into intelligence in MI6 together following World War II.  Elliott became a company man who climbed the ranks of British intelligence, while Philby infiltrated himself deeper and deeper into the circles of power.  He stints included several years in Washington D.C. at the height of the Cold War.  At that time he managed to befriend CIA Counterintelligence head James Angleton, a man known for paranoiac secrecy.  All the while he communicated everything he knew about British and American plans to Russian intelligence.  Philby made a hash of key British and American maneuvers for decades.  He did it without a computer, zip line, disguise, or walkie-talkie watch, and for years few people thought to give him a second look. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

When even magic is not enough (Books - The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman)

If you liked Lev Grossman's first two books in the Magicians Trilogy- The Magicians  and The Magician King - you should love the conclusion: The Magician's Land ( Viking, 2014).  Grossman appropriates the YA fantasy form to create a series that is not about glib fixes to the experience of being an outsider. If first volume was about power and love, and the second about belonging and purpose, the third is about loss, what one accepts versus what one fights for, and the possibility or impossibility of rebirth.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A son and historian's attempt to understand the world of his father (Books - Year Zero by Ian Buruma)

Ian Buruma's Year Zero: A History of 1945 (The Penguin Press, 2013), as is clear from its title, is a history written from the perspective that the legacy of World War II was so uniquely pervasive that it reset the clock.  The immediate post-war political,cultural, and moral spheres may be said to have been newly created out of the devastation of  that experience.  If you lived on earth in the 1940s, you were on one side of the moral battle or the other, and you were unlikely by its end to have been untouched by death as a result of it, as I have written before here.  I was drawn to this book because, aside from what I know of the quality of Buruma's storytelling, this book was said to use the story of Buruma's father, a Dutchman imprisoned by the Nazis in Berlin, and his subsequent journey home through a ravaged Europe, as a touchstone, and I am drawn to the use of personal narrative as a device which can turn intellectual interest into experiential engagement.  Buruma does write about his father as an inciting reason for his seeking understanding about this period in history in the prologue, setting the stage for a literary driving force like that in Greek tragedy, as Buruma himself recognizes:
The story of postwar 1945 is in some ways a very old one.  The ancient Greeks knew well the destructive force of the human thirst for revenge, and their tragedians dramatized ways in which blood feuds might be overcome by the rule of law; trials instead of vendetta.  And history, in the East no less that the West, is littered with dreams of starting afresh, of treating the ruins of war as an open building site of societies based on new ideas, which were often not as new as people thought.