Archive for June, 2010

Solar, by Ian McEwan   no comments

Posted at 3:06 pm in Book review

Ian McEwan has long been concerned with climate change, but had never found a way to put it into a novel–sensibly wanting to avoid the polemic- disguised-as-fiction problem–until he was invited to a gathering of Nobel Prize winners. At a recent reading at the Folger Theatre, he described the people he met there. “You know how you’re shaking a politician’s hand, but he’s already looking past you to see if someone more important has arrived? These men–and they were all men–were like that, but by a factor of twenty.” And McEwan realized that he had his novel.

Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a piggish, serially philandering physicist, who decades previously did the work (on Einstein’s photovoltaics) that led to his Nobel Prize. Nobel prizes in physics are always won for breakthroughs by young scientists, and in Beard’s case this seems to have had roughly the effect that early stardom often has on child actors. Ever since, Beard’s life has been a round of speeches, honorary degrees, chairmanships of committees, and teaching posts that involve no teaching, all full of glory, but devoid of real work or meaning. The novel is told entirely from Beard’s point of view: selfish, irresponsible and immoral (much like the attitudes that have ushered in this crisis) but often very funny.

Beard has just become titular head of the National Center for Renewable Energy, notwithstanding his skepticism on climate change and fundamental disinterest in world-saving activities. To his dismay, his fifth wife Patrice, in unwelcome contrast to all of his previous wives, has responded to his most recent infidelity by taking a lover. To his even deeper chagrin, this has made her more, not less, attractive to him. At the Center, he finds himself unable to follow the explanations of the young physicists working there; even worse, in an idle comment, he committed most of the Center’s resources to a valueless project.

Even a trip to the Arctic, where he is in stark contrast to his idealistic  ship-mates, does not stir his his environmental conscience. The trip is hilarious, with Beard narrowly escaping being eaten by a polar bear, and the ship’s uncontrollably untidy boot room evoking both humanity’s failure to control nature and the very messy id beneath Michael Beard’s ego. A comic high point arrives when Beard takes aim at an artist who carelessly invokes Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, furiously striking out at what Murray Gell-Mann so felicitously called quantum flapdoodle.

But when a brilliant young colleague accidentally dies in Beard’s living room, he sees the chance to begin anew. After framing his wife’s lover for murder, Beard steals his colleague’s plan to create energy through artificial photosynthesis. Finally convinced of climate change, he begins working furiously to save the planet. He is no more palatable a human being than before, all of his moral inclinations (assuming he has any) channeled into his work. He is a familiar type–if a heavily exaggerated version thereof–in the environmental world, which raises the interesting question of just what part altruism and what part messianic drive underlie this work.

There is little to admire about Beard, dishonest, self-centered, mostly devoid of morals or decency, prone to extreme overeating, his early genius seemingly exhausted in his Nobel prize calculations. But he is not a caricature. There are aspects of Beard that everyone can relate to, in particular his tendency to eat too much. Beard is difficult to sympathize with, but not impossible to understand.

People can always redeem themselves, but don’t tend to do so in response to any particular thing or on any particular schedule.  It is to McEwan’s credit that he allows Beard not to grow, not to draw any human lessons from these events. But though Solar ends bleakly, it is a deeply funny and altogether admirable novel.

Written by Lorin on June 19th, 2010

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Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, by Joseph T. Hallinan   1 comment

Posted at 6:05 pm in Book review

Human beings have an interesting dilemma.  Sanity, I suspect, hinges to some degree on believing ourselves to be right more often than not, on believing that what we see is actually there, and that what we remember actually happened.  Unfortunately, we are very often wrong, about almost everything. In Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average,  Joseph T. Hallinan fascinatingly plumbs the depths of our errors.

In a style familiar to readers of Freakonomics and Outliers, he gives a plethora of examples, from medicine to criminal justice to the military. We are never safe from mistakes, though this is due less to problems of intelligence and organization, and more to the inherent flaws of our approach to the world.

One facet of this approach is efficiency. For instance, if we are looking for something and conclude that it is unlikely to be there, we tend to stop looking. This has unfortunate implications for radiologists and airport screeners: in one 2002 study, TSA officers missed one in four guns.  (Screeners have a literally one-in-a-million chance of seeing a gun.)

Equally, if we believe that we know what will be there, we don’t look very closely: we skim.  Hallinan describes a misprint in a piece of music that had gone unnoticed for decades, and was not detected until an unskilled pianist played the piece. All other pianists had simply automatically substituted the correct note.  This suggests, counterintuitively, that the best proof-readers may not be experts.

And we see what we expect to see. I read of a study in which wine experts were given white wine that had been colored to make it appear red. Many of the experts failed to notice that it was white, and gave detailed evaluations of a red wine.  I explained this to a delighted waiter at Cookshop once; I wonder if he ever tried it out on the sommelier.

The list of things that we get wrong goes on and on, often driven by just the sorts of devices that have advantages in other situations. We often have trouble drawing a penny from memory or reciting the national anthem (I failed the penny test, but recited the anthem without error), we are terrible at judging risk, and we tend heavily toward overconfidence–think, for instance, of the millions of unused gym memberships we pay for every year. We also think that we can multi-task. We can’t.

Fortunately, Hallinan does not regard these problems as unsolvable, and the last few chapters of the book describe ways in which we can attempt to overcome them. Forewarned is forearmed, at least some of the time.

Readers of  Jonah Lehrer, Atul Gawande, and Malcolm Gladwell will recognize both Hallinan’s style and a number of the examples he gives, but for anyone interested in the disjoint between what we believe and what is  true–and how to tell the difference–this book provides a fascinating account.

Written by Lorin on June 13th, 2010

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A pseudoscience bookshelf   3 comments

Posted at 5:46 pm in Book review

All of these books discuss and in various ways combat pseudoscience, and I’ve found each of them instructive and enlightening–if not a little disturbing.

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, Susan Clancy

There has never been a shred of evidence for any visit to our planet by aliens, but this does not prevent a surprisingly large number of people from believing they have not only seen but been kidnapped by aliens. Clancy fascinatingly describes why this might be.

Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays, Frederick Crews

These book reviews and essays are not all about pseudoscience–there is an excellent piece on the death of post-structuralism–but the largest section of the book is devoted to its varied manifestations in psychology, as part of a devastating critique of Freud. Crews is an immensely lucid and intelligent writer, and is a pleasure to read on any topic.

Weird Water and Fuzzy Logic: More Notes of a Fringe Watcher, Martin Gardner

Gardner, much-lamented grandfather to the skeptics’ movement, holds forth in his wonderfully lucid and entertaining way on good science, bad science, and the people who practice each. (His collection The Night is Large is also marvelous.)

Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, And Sexual Hysteria, Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters

Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Mark Pendergrast

Few topics in pseudoscience are as compelling as the the memory wars of the 1990s, when a large number of women were convinced by irresponsible therapists (who were often under the influence of the execrable book The Courage To Heal) that in spite of the fact that they had no memory of it, they had been abused throughout their childhoods. They were guided by these therapists into developing false memories of abuse, destroying families and lives in the process. Needless to say, the therapists had no understanding of how memory works. Making Monsters stomach-churningly tracks these events and clearly describes the real science of memory.

Pendergrast, whose own daughters falsely accused him of abuse, lays out in heartbreaking detail the tragedy of both his own family and the larger “recovered memory” movement.

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi

Randi famously demonstrated that Uri Geller’s spoon-bending was a hoax, and has made a career out of debunking other false claims.  Here, he provides a delightful list of all manner of lunatic ideas through the ages.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle In the Dark, Carl Sagan

This is the book that first introduced me to pseudoscience and the skeptics’ movement. It is still one of the best books on the topic, with Sagan at his most brilliant and engaging.

Searching For Memory, The Brain, The Mind, and The Past, Daniel L. Schacter

This is a riveting account of how memory works, how it doesn’t, what the common misconceptions of memory are, and of what can result when those misconceptions intersect with the judicial system.

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, And Other Confusions Of Our Time, Michael Shermer

Shermer, the impressively clever founder and director of the Skeptics Society, explains–as well as anyone can–why superstition and pseudoscience are so widespread, and describes some of their odder and more unsettling manifestations, from creationism to Holocaust denial.

Written by Lorin on June 7th, 2010

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