25 July 2015

More books

Posted by Callan Bentley


I am way, way, way behind in reporting on the books I’ve read. As time goes by, the list gets longer, and the “book report” more daunting… So I’m going to do a brief book report in hopes of clearing out the backlog:

What if? by Randall Munroe

Really entertaining scientific answers to ridiculous questions, by the cartoonist author of XKCD. Highly recommended. Unique.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caeser, by Martin Windrow

A memoir of a man with a pet owl, first in London, then in the countryside. The owl does funny things; the man writes about them pretty well. About what you’d expect, really.

The Human Age, by Diane Ackerman

An exploration of the Anthropocene. Ackerman’s earlier books are quite good (The Moon by Whale Light, A Natural History of the Senses), so I had high hopes for this one, but it’s not as good as Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, though it covers much of the same ground in more flowery, less informative prose.

Spillover, by David Quammen

A chilling examination of zoonoses, those diseases that can jump from animal reservoirs into humans. Essential reading in the age of Ebola. This was on my mind yesterday as I attempted to evict some bats from roosting in my roof.

Rust, by Jonathan Waldman

An exposition on the subject of corrosion; a series of essays dealing with different aspects of the general subject of the chemical breakdown of stuff we depend on. Some are quite elegant and reminded me of John McPhee’s work (the Statue of Liberty one that opens the book, as well as the one on “Can School”). Others seemed protracted and dull (the one about the guy at the Pentagon who is making videos about rust). A mixed bag.

No Logo, by Naomi Klein

A classic of anti-consumerist sentiment. Feels a bit dated to read it now, twenty some years after it was first released, but it includes some chilly reminders of how deeply and intentionally corporate branding has woven itself into the fabric of our modern society. It looks closely and critically at advertising strategies that you don’t even notice any more, they’re so much a part of your life.

The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker

This is a book about writing, by ‘public intellectual’ Steven Pinker, author of numerous accessible, insightful books. He has the authority to discuss what makes good writing good, and how to avoid traps that lead to turgid prose. I first heard of it on the excellent podcast Point of Inquiry, hosted by Lindsay Beyerstein.

How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

Awesome. An examination of how the brain produces the mind, and its many manifestations. It’s masterful science writing, clear and creative and insightful. Top notch.

Reason in a Dark Time, by Dale Jamieson

A review of the history, ethics, economics, and philosophy of climate change science, climate change denial, and climate change politics. The book’s premise is that the efforts of climate scientists and environmental activists to prevent climate change have failed, and failed for identifiable reasons. Jamieson enumerates the relevant factors and explores the consequences. It’s a sober and grounded analysis, though I didn’t find it as perspective-altering as Jonathan Franzen did in the New Yorker essay that initially alerted me to Jamieson’s book.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? by Greta Cristina

An angry answer to the title question. Thought-provoking and righteous: a methodical examination of 99 really good reasons to be angered by religion’s influence on culture and by the way religionists can treat those who don’t believe in any gods.

Galileo’s Middle Finger, by Alice Dreger

A fascinating book about activism and justice within the realm of science. The author is a long-term activist on behalf of the rights of intersex people, and this background is relevant to the several controversies she explores in the book, and so she devotes a lot of time to her backstory in the early portion of the book. In pushing for those born intersex to make their own decisions about whether to engage in surgery, or which gender to assume (or not to assume), Dreger was forced to become literate in the science of gender and sex, and encountered significant societal resistance in the form of doctors who were practicing what they had been taught. She relentlessly worked to teach the experts using information, and helped to effect a widespread change in the procedures for nurturing intersex children. Coming out of this constant struggle of facts and ethics vs. cultural inertia, arguments and conflict were part of her daily life. When she heard of notorious allegations against a colleague studying transgender issues, she inferred that “where there’s smoke, there must be fire.” A group of transgender activists were vilifying this particular academic for the conclusions he presented in a book, and were rallying the forces of activism (some of which Dreger helped build) to demolish his reputation. When Dreger looked into it, though, every allegation turned out to be baseless, and while she acknowledges a bit of a tin ear in the accused researcher, she presents a compelling case of the injustice he was subjected to at the hands of those who didn’t like his data-driven conclusions. This sounds very familiar to anyone who maintains an interest in the cultural clash between scientific conclusions and the religious or political myths they deflate (evolution, climate change), but it is a compelling example of the same sort of dynamic playing out in a subject area that is completely independent (territory previously unknown to me). Several other cases are presented of similar phenomena, but the bulk of the book is devoted to the situation described above. The title of the book comes from Dreger’s discovery that when Galileo Galilei died, parts of his body were removed as relics, in the same sense that religious people removed bones from saints as holy relics. One, on display in Paris, is Galileo’s middle finger. (Galileo is of course famous for following his astronomical observations to their logical conclusions, even though these deductions violated the Catholic religious dogma of his day.)  In this symbol, Dreger sees a message for all controversies in science: follow the data and reason, and flip the middle finger to dogma and ideology.

Descartes’ Bones, by Russell Shorto

An entertaining look at the history of Rene Descartes, his contributions to intellectual discourse (he invented science, essentially, with his Discourse on the Method, which included that line often translated as “I think, therefore I am” — a grounding of knowledge in essential foundational observations) and also invented dualism (the idea that people have an immaterial soul separate from their physical body). When Descartes died, his physical remains took a fascinating journey, becoming disassociated and revered as relics along the way (kind of like Galileo’s middle finger, as noted above). The bones became fodder for many of the most seminal philosophical and scientific questions of the day. His skull was used to refute phrenology, for instance.

The Soul Fallacy, by Julien Musolino

I was alerted to this one by the same excellent podcast Point of Inquiry, that first led me to Steven Pinker’s work. Musolino appeared there, with host Josh Zepps, to promote the book. Ever since Descartes (see above review), most people have embraced the idea of an immaterial soul that is somehow imbued into our bodies, and persists after our corporeal death. But science suggests otherwise, and Musolino reviews the relevant literature that has led to the scientific rejection of the soul hypothesis. A useful little compendium.

Faith versus Fact, by Jerry Coyne

Apeaking of which… the title says it all. Coyne doesn’t see faith as compatible with fact. Writ larger: science and religion are irreconcilable. He explores why. It’s not nearly as compelling a book as his excellent volume Why Evolution Is True, but it is comprehensive, and to my reading, exhaustive. One starts with the conclusion and sticks with it in the face of evidence to the contrary. The conclusion is permanent, immune to falsification. The other starts with evidence, and uses it to reach tentative, falsifiable conclusions. How could they be compatible? Clearly they are diametrically opposed. Why would someone of Coyne’s talent waste time writing a book about such a thing? In short: because many people pretend that science and religion can get along, an attitude endorsed by many people and organizations, including The National Center for Science Education and the AAAS’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. It’s a bit of an “elephant in the room” issue, and I applaud Coyne for taking the time to show why such accommodationism is logically incoherent, tough as that may make things for those of us who promote science in the hyper-religious United States of America.

Final note: 4 of the 13 authors listed here are women – so I’m doing better at diversifying my reading list than I had been doing earlier this year (as noted at the end of this post), but I’m not even to parity yet. And every single one of these people is white, so the racial diversity of my reading list is abysmal. Sheesh.

Help me out, readers: Any recommendations for new books to read?