Monday, January 29, 2007

The Republican War on Science (Chris Mooney)

I don’t generally seek out books like this—a decided lefty sitting around reading books about just how bad the Republicans and the Bush administration are seems almost unspeakably banal, like a college Republican sitting in his dorm room nodding along with Sean Hannity. And when a friend passed Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science to Maria for me, my first reaction was, “Oh God, this book is going to make me so mad.”

Having secured a healthy supply of blood-pressure medication and a plastic tub of Tums Ultra, though, I finally plunged in. It’s important to establish up front that this is no leftist screed or Michael Moore–esque conspiracy theory: Mooney conducted what I’d ballpark as about 200 interviews for the book’s material (listed in the back), and includes 62 pages of detailed source notes—he’s clearly done his homework, which includes interviews with (and extensive discussions of answers from) people like Bush presidential science adviser John Marburger and President’s Council on Bioethics chairman Leon Kass (who requested that some of his written statements be reproduced in full, which Mooney has obligingly done). And he acknowledges that the Left has been guilty of abusing science as well—particularly in cases of animal rights activism, hyping fears about genetically modified foods, and overplaying the potential for quick cures from technologies like stem cell research. “In fact, in politicized fights involving science, it is rare to find liberals entirely innocent of abuses,” he writes. “But they are almost never as guilty as the Right.”

Mooney organizes the book into four sections. The first provides an overview of the relationship between science and politics going back to FDR, arguing that the current climate largely originated from the alliance between business interests and religious conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the Gingrich Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and, ultimately, the current administration. The second discusses areas where science has come under attack mainly because of its conflict with corporate interests, namely global warming, environmental and public health regulation, the links between fast food and obesity and between mercury poisoning and fish, and the protection of endangered species under the Nixon-era Endangered Species Act. The third outlines the impact of religious thinking on those old favorites evolution, stem cell research, and sex education and abortion. The fourth focuses specifically on the Bush administration.

The major shift that has taken place, in the current administration in particular, is the pervasive treatment of science as a politicized tool, not only by ignoring, suppressing, or sowing misinformation about broadly accepted results that conflict with their policies, but also falsely adopting the language of science to justify those policies. There was a time when politicians largely allowed scientists to do their work, and then politicians took those results into account in making policy decisions, an entirely separate process—when the politicians’ role was to debate over what to do with the accepted body of scientific knowledge, not argue over what that accepted body of scientific knowledge was. Near the end of the book Mooney discusses, as an example, the fact that despite compelling studies demonstrating that needle-exchange programs help prevent the spread of HIV and do not encourage drug use, neither the Clinton administration or the second Bush administration supported them at the federal level. But while the Clinton administration simply said that it accepted these conclusions but had decided to leave the decision up to local communities, the Bush administration justified its decision to the Washington Post (as discussed in this editorial) by directing the paper to “a number of researchers who have allegedly cast doubt on the pro-exchange consensus.” Mooney goes on, “So the Post actually called up these scientists and found that, lo and behold, they think no such thing. The Bush administration peddled other questionable evidence to the paper, too, which the Post also skewered.”

This type of false justification is both dishonest and cowardly, and illustrates one of the key tactics in the titular war, familiar to anyone who has been following debates over global warming and evolution. It goes back to a famous tobacco company memo from the late 1960s:

Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.

This has since been dubbed “manufacturing uncertainty,” an approach that recurs throughout the book, and one that relies heavily on the misunderstanding that good science is somehow both unanimous and definite. Rather than focusing on central findings and the broad weight of evidence, opponents who find those disagreeable seize on the caveats in individual studies or reports to discredit them, and point to other studies (frequently from less credible sources with clear conflicts of interest) that take an opposing view or play up the uncertainty even more.

But science is always uncertain; it is central to the whole notion of science that all hypotheses and theories are provisional in the face of evidence, even those that are tremendously well supported. Good scientists are open to this uncertainty and accept it as a necessary element of their work, not hamstrung into inaction and an endless inability to accept basic conclusions, which is the state the Right has steadily led the government into. They hide behind loaded Orwellian terms like “sound science” and “junk science” (two terms that Mooney dissects at length for what they really mean, which has little to do with scientific merit), pretending to simply want reliable information while rejecting anything they don’t agree with as too uncertain to act on.

All of these tactics are brought to bear on, for example, global warming. In the face of an overwhelming number of studies showing that human activity is contributing significantly to global warming, the Right regularly cites scientific outliers and industry-funded research (to show there is a “controversy” in which “more research” is needed) and cherry-pick sentences from scientific reports that supposedly show uncertainty among scientists—reports that, when read in total, come down firmly on the side that human activity is contributing to global warming. They also hold what Mooney calls “science courts” in congressional hearings, which, in one example, pitted a single scientist representing the mainstream view against two “doubters” with strong ties to the petroleum industry (undisclosed at the time, of course). To anyone watching, whenever a question was asked about whether or how humans are affecting the climate, the vote came down two against and one in favor:

All the disagreement led Senator Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, to throw up his hands and state, “We are expected to make some policy decisions based on what we ought to be doing with regard to these kinds of things, but yet there does not seem to be a basis for that kind of decision.”

How surprising. In fact, the treatment of two sides of a debate as equal in merit even when one has tremendous support behind it and the other is a fringe position at best is a major problem not only with the Right, but also in the broader coverage of science in the media. Mooney cites two studies that dramatically illustrate the discrepancy: one by science historian Naomi Oreskes published in Science in 2004, which determined that of a sample of 928 scientific papers published between 1993 and 2003 with the keywords “global climate change,” not one disagreed with the mainstream consensus that humans are causing global warming; and one by scholars Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff published in the journal Global Environmental Change (not freely available online, but discussed by the authors here) that found that of articles on global warming in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times from 1988 to 2002, 53 percent gave “roughly equal attention” to both this mainstream view and the outlier view that it is solely a natural phenomenon. This was perhaps credible early on—the 1990 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was far from settled on the subject—but simply isn’t any more. The years since then have only confirmed and added to the evidence, and subsequent IPCC reports have reflected that. As the executive editor-in-chief of Science wrote in a 2001 editorial, “Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science.” You’d never know it from the way it’s often discussed by the media (who often just report that one side says X, while those who disagree say Y) or the Right (who don’t want to do anything about it, on grounds completely unrelated to science).

It’s also important to keep in mind that strong scientific consensus is not a cavalier thing—it’s not a fad, or groupthink. The doubters like to cast themselves as independent-minded skeptics refusing to conform, but as a Harvard biological oceanographer tells Mooney, “Every good scientist is a skeptic through and through.” And when the first studies came out, scientists were appropriately skeptical—they thought, along with most everyone, that the climate was reasonably stable, and human activity small in comparison. What convinced them was evidence, and evidence heaped upon evidence, and study after study over the course of decades. To dismiss that in favor of a few doubters is both perverse and incredibly irresponsible.


The key problem is that the Right no longer treats science as a source of information to help them create the best policies—instead, they’ve already decided what the best policies are, and science that might obstruct those policies must be wrong. The studies are treated as political attacks, not evidence-based results. Mooney discusses this at length throughout the book, but two examples particularly struck me. The first example came during a 2004 congressional hearing regarding the shutoff of irrigation water designed to safeguard endangered fish species, involving Rep. John Doolittle, a conservative California Republican:

First, he tried doggedly to get NAS [National Academy of Sciences] panel chair William Lewis to answer a policy question: Should the 2001 water shutoff have occurred? Lewis repeatedly (and properly) declined to answer the question, noting that the NAS committee had restricted itself to assessing the scientific basis for the water cutoff decision. Doolittle seemed incapable of grasping the distinction.

The second comes when discussing David Reardon, a prominent (albeit questionably credentialed) pro-lifer who has published extensively on alleged negative physical or psychological consequences of abortion despite comprehensive studies demonstrating that no such link exists:

In fact, Reardon appears to believe, for religious reasons, that abortion must cause harm. In a 2002 essay in the conservative journal Ethics & Medicine, Reardon defended what he called the “neglected rhetorical strategy” of opposing abortion on the grounds that it hurts women, instead of simply because it is morally wrong. He also noted that “because abortion is evil, we can expect, and can even know, that it will harm those who participate in it. Nothing good comes from evil.”

I suspect that one reason the Right is so convinced that scientists who disagree with them are biased or fraudulent or incompetent is that they themselves are so inclined to manipulate the evidence to favor their beliefs, rather than the other way around: to put it in stark terms, it’s as hard for an honest person to assume other people lying as for a liar to assume other people are being honest.

The weakest (and perhaps most dispiriting) part of the book is the epilogue, entitled “What We Can Do”—which, it turns out, for ordinary citizens doesn’t amount to much more than “For God’s sake, stop electing these people,” coupled with a plea for journalists to learn something when they write about scientific topics so they can appropriately convey consensus instead of simply seeking a he said/she said type of “balance.” The chapter reflects, in a way, the helplessness of both scientists and the exiled Left over the last six years, because the fate of science in politics is ultimately up to the politicians, many of whom have recently proven themselves either unfathomably cynical or else so misinformed and incurious that they seem incapable of either understanding science or putting it to good use. The emblem of this era has been the now-notorious 2004 statement of a “senior adviser” to the president in a New York Times article by Ron Suskind:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

This was about foreign policy, of course, but given the types of abuses documented by Mooney, it’s just as apt for describing the Right’s approach to science. I’ve touched on some of the subjects Mooney explores much more fully in the book, and would certainly encourage anyone to read it, regardless of political affiliation, who wants a thorough untangling of how science has been misused in recent years. The danger of continuing down this path is very real. Because the problem with reality is that it tends to stick around whether you believe in it or not—and unfortunately, if our leaders keep ignoring it, everyone pays in the end.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Brainiac (Ken Jennings)

Where were you the summer of Ken Jennings? We were in Madison, and every day after work I'd come home halfway through the game. "How's Ken doing?" I'd ask Jim, who was working from home at the time, and he'd give me the update on the current Jeopardy! game. At first I wasn't a big Ken fan, but he quickly grew on me: He seemed very nice, was gracious to the two poor saps who had to play against him, and didn't present himself as too much of a know-it-all or too pretentious. It was probably the longest streak of continuous Jeopardy-watching we've ever had. In the end, Ken won 74 Jeopardy! games.

Well now Ken Jennings has written a book: Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. The book is a mix of Ken's experience on Jeopardy!, along with more information than you could imagine on trivia: the history of it, stories about people who make their living writing about it, how to phrase a good trivia question, and crazy days-long trivia fests in places like Steven's Point, Wisconsin.

A complete aside, but while reading this book, I could not get the song "Jeopardy" by Greg Kihn out of my head. Not because it's a particularly good song, but because it's on the radio a lot and I only know the first line ("Our love's in jeopardy, baby. Oooohhh ooh ooh ooooohhh.) and it easily repeats in my head. Greg Kihn is now an aging rock star who is one of the radio deejays on the morning show we listen to on our way to work. Among other things, he usually talks about how much he hates Berkeley (he's a George Bush voter), what new parts of him ache as he's getting older (sometimes he even takes calls from other aging rockers to discuss their latest body ailments), and at least once a week about how his Dad fought in the snow in Belgium in World War II, and how things just aren't the same as they used to be. Even now, while writing this review, the song is looping in my head, though sometimes I switch the lyrics to the Weird Al version ("I lost of Jeopardy.")

Ken's a pretty decent writer, and I found the story of his adventures with Jeopardy! to be the best part of the book. Someone else in the book's production must have known that too (whether it was Ken or his editor) because the book is organized so that many parts begin with Ken's story with Jeopardy!, leave you at somewhat of a cliffhanger, and then jump into a many-page long story about the history of trivia before returning back to what happened on Jeopardy!. (Did you know that we he first tried out for Jeopardy!, they still had the 5-day champion rule? He was called to be on the show 8 months after he auditioned, and in that time, they had changed the rule.)

Ken couldn't talk about the Jeopardy! experience while it was happening, so he felt like he was leading a double-life of sorts (the tapings would occur every Tuesday and Wednesday each week, so he'd fly back and forth between Los Angeles and his home town of Salt Lake City). But once his episodes were on air, he became a national celebrity. He knew it was maybe getting out of control when his young son started referring to him as "Ken Jennings" instead of "Daddy."

If you're the least bit curious about the inner workings of Jeopardy! or want to know more about trivia, I'd recommend this book. Jennings even has trivia questions throughout each chapter, so you can test your own trivia knowledge.

Next book up: Ball Four by Jim Bouton

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

A friend mentioned The Master and Margarita to me several years ago, and despite my love for the classic Russians, I somehow hadn’t gotten around to reading it until now.

My loss, it seems. This is a phenomenal book—compelling, surprising, endlessly inventive, frequently hilarious. (Every time I laughed, Maria would tell me again that I must be mistaken, because the Russians aren’t supposed to be funny.) Bulgakov wrote it during the Stalinist purges and show trials of the 1930s, knowing that he would never see it published in the repressive Soviet Union. It’s simultaneously a satire of Moscow life, a love story, and a philosophical fantasy, which begins when the devil (here named Woland) arrives in Moscow with a squabbling group of attendants and begins causing trouble. It’s set mostly in contemporary Moscow, but also follows in parallel the story of Pontius Pilate during the sentencing, execution, and aftermath Jesus’ crucifixion, a story variously told aloud by Woland, dreamed by a poet named Ivan Homeless, and read by the title character Margarita in a novel by the unnamed master, a story that converges toward the end with the main Moscow thread.

What makes it so funny is both the writing and twists the story takes, the way both are bound up in the characters and the setting, and how the episodes build on each other. I tried to find a brief one-off line I could quote by way of example, and finally realized that the humor is too elaborately woven into the story for that—giving an example required summarizing the scene and characters, then quoting from a few different paragraphs at least before arriving at the punch line, which even then probably wouldn’t seem as funny as it was in the book’s full context. It’s irreducible, and the more satisfying because of it. So you’ll just have to take my word on this.

The translation, incidentally, was the recent version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, done before they became the most well-known translators in America following Anna Karenina’s appearance in Oprah’s Book Club in 2004. Obviously I haven’t read the other versions (evidently the one by Burgin and O’Connor is also excellent), but I certainly had no complaints with this one: the writing is marvelous. In great fiction the sentences have a physical weight to them—you can almost roll the words around in your palm like marbles—and this is great fiction. This has more to do with the alchemy of Bulgakov’s story than the translation, of course, but translation is a difficult and interesting art, and shouldn’t be overlooked; although I suspect Maria might think I’m insane for saying this, I’m looking forward to settling down with Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov with Pevear and Volokhonsky in one hand and the traditional Constance Garnett in the other.

They also provide a good introduction and a useful but not overwhelming set of endnotes. It’s helpful to know, for example, that Bulgakov was still revising when he died in 1940, and left it unfinished in certain ways—which explains why, for example, characters in the second half will sometimes leave a room by flying through a window, and then shortly after be seen walking down the stairs and out of the building. The endnotes, meanwhile, mostly identify real contemporary and historical figures that appear in the book, highlight allusions to other works (most notably to Faust), and explain aspects of Russian culture that Bulgakov and his Russian audience would have taken for granted. (This is particularly important for Bulgakov’s frequent subtle, sideways references to the Soviet secret police, which sometimes hinge on knowing something as specific as what they do with the coat buttons of someone held for questioning.)

But at any rate, this is a thoroughly entertaining classic, incorporating the irreverence and penchant for absurdity of a book like Catch-22 alongside the deep unreality and social critique of one like The Trial while creating its own inimitable world. It deserves to be as well known as both of those books, and can't be recommended enough.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Mindless Eating (Brian Wansink)

Wansink's lab ran a study using American soldiers to see how eating in the dark affected the taste of food. The researchers told the soldiers they would be trying a new kind of strawberry yogurt and that they wanted to make sure that it tasted good, even in the dark. The researchers turned off the lights and gave the soldiers the yogurt. The soldiers all said the strawberry yogurt was good, and one soldier, who said strawberry was her favorite flavor of yogurt, said this would be her new favorite brand. Well, here's the thing. It wasn't strawberry yogurt. It was chocolate yogurt.

This is just one of the many intriguing studies in Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. Wansink is a scientist, not a diet book writer or a nutritionist. He is also not a food snob. While he does enjoy a good fine-dining restaurant, he also is a big fan of Burger King’s Cini-Minis. His job is to do research on what we eat and what specifically changes what and how we eat. Wansink tells us right away in the introduction that the average person makes over 200 decisions about food every day, most of which are unconscious (after thinking about this statistic, I decided I probably make more than that and Jim decided he probably makes less). We take cues from such things as food packaging, restaurant lighting, food appearance, and environment. And while you may think that you’re smart enough to be immune (trust me, that’s how I felt when I started reading this book), you’re not: Wansink proves that time and again with all his research.

Wansink also says that this book is not about “dietary extremism.” He has a long discussion about why most deprivation diets---Atkin’s, South Beach, SugarBusters---don’t work: “1) Our body fights against them; 2) our brain fights against them; 3) our day-to-day environment fights against them.”

What the book is about is using what he refers to as the “mindless margin” to work for us in maintaining or losing weight. The mindless margin is a span of about 200 calories that can make the difference between gaining 10 pounds in a year (by eating 100 calories more a day) or losing 10 pounds in a year (by eating 100 calories less a day). The reason he calls it mindless is because your brain and body won’t even notice that the 100 calories are missing.

He covers a wide variety of topics and research in the book, including why we overeat when we aren’t even hungry and the power of numbers in grocery store promotions (e.g., “'2 for $2’ versus ‘1 for $1’”):

“After the research was completed and published in the Journal of Marketing Research, another friend and I were in the checkout line at a grocery store, where I saw a sign advertising gum, '10 packs for $2.' I was eagerly counting out 10 packs onto the conveyer belt, when my friend commented, ‘Didn’t you just publish a big research paper on that?’”

One study focused on the eating habits of young children, focusing on their like/dislike of vegetables. His initial assumption was that parents who practiced healthy eating habits would have children who liked vegetables. That may have been true for some, but he came across a day-care center filled with children who loved broccoli, regardless of their parents' eating habits:

“Many of the children told us they loved broccoli because their friends liked it or because it was ‘cool.’ Most of these associations we could trace back to two little brothers. In their laddering interviews both said broccoli reminded them of dinosaur trees, and they liked it because of that. This didn’t make much sense, but because of the far-reaching impact it seemed to have on the rest of the day-care group, we interviewed the mother in person. We discovered she had convinced them that broccoli looked like a dinosaur tree and when they ate broccoli, they could pretend they were ‘long-necked dinosaurs eating the dinosaur trees.’ At the dinosaur-loving age of three and five, this was pretty cool, and it quickly became pretty cool to their friends.”

I highly recommend this book to everyone. It's fun to read, you'll learn tons of neat information that will impress your friends, and it makes science fun.

Next book up: Braniac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins)

Although he’s recently become more well known for his opposition to religion and supernaturalism in works like The God Delusion (see review), Richard Dawkins is, first and foremost, a biologist and animal behaviorist. The Selfish Gene, his first book, concerns itself with a basic question of evolution: Where does natural selection act?

The common understanding of the process is that it takes place at the level of the individual organism: for example, a zebra that has slightly better leg muscles than other zebras, and can therefore run faster, is less likely to be run down by a lion looking for dinner. It is also therefore more likely to reproduce and pass its slightly better leg muscles down to the next generation, and eventually most zebras have those slightly better leg muscles.

This is all well and good, but it also quickly runs into difficulties in the real world. For example, how can this explain a bird that, upon spotting a predator, makes loud warning cries to the rest of its flock? This is good for the flock, obviously, but it also draws the predator’s attention to the bird making the warning cries—seemingly the opposite of a better leg muscle, and something that on the face of it shouldn’t be favored by natural selection. Similarly, the real crux of evolution is in reproduction, with survival important mainly because it allows reproduction to occur. So what to make of nonreproductive drones and workers in insect populations, most of whom never pass on any genes at all?

A conventional answer when Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene was that natural selection takes place at both the level of the organism and the level of the group or species. The bird’s warning cry is bad for the organism, but good for a particular flock—flocks that used warning cries were more likely to survive than flocks that did not. Similarly, although sterile workers are little good to themselves as far as reproduction goes, their ability to concentrate on finding food and other tasks, without having to expend energy on reproduction, benefits their group.

Dawkins’s argument runs counter to this thinking, not in its effect (apparent individual altruism for the benefit of the group), but in its cause. Rather than moving up to the level of the group or species, we have to move down to the level of the gene. The question to ask is not whether or how a particular trait is good for an organism, or good for a species, but whether it’s good for the gene that influences the trait. When we say that a fast zebra is able to pass its slightly better leg muscles on to the next generation more effectively than other zebras, what we are really saying is that the DNA structures that produced those muscles have become more common in the population. From the gene’s point of view, the muscles are incidental. In this model, the organism, and the species it belongs to, are “survival machines” or “vehicles” that have, through the slow incremental processes of natural selection, been built by DNA replicators because those replicators that had good vehicles were better at surviving and reproducing than those who did not build such vehicles. It perhaps started with elements as simple as a cell wall, or two strands entwining to produce something better than each could on its own, and the argument in The Selfish Gene is that all of the complexity of life today is a difference of scale, not of principle.

This leads to all sorts of interesting and counterintuitive consequences. A central idea of the book (not original to Dawkins, although he expands on it) is the idea of kin selection. In local populations, there’s a good chance that a gene in any particular animal is also in other nearby animals, simply because they’ve been reproducing with one another. So although the bird warning others of a predator might be less likely to reproduce on its own, the warning is likely to benefit the same gene sitting in other members of the flock. We would also expect, for example, that animals would be more likely to show this altruism toward members of their family—who are, after all, the ones most likely to share the same gene. And not only that, but they should presumably be most likely to be altruistic toward those closely related to them, and less likely the further away you get: parents share 50 percent of their genes with their children and 25 percent with their grandchildren, so you would expect them to go more out of their way to help their children than their grandchildren. Siblings (who also have a 50 percent chance of sharing any given gene) should be more likely to help each other than they are to help cousins (who have only a 12.5 percent chance of sharing a gene).

This helps explain the nonreproductive insect workers mentioned earlier. A number of insect species are haplodiploid, which just means that rather than a chromosome determining gender (as in humans), eggs that have been fertilized by a male become females, and eggs that have not been fertilized become males. In these species, males have half the number of genes of females, which in terms of kin selection means that males share 100 percent of their genes with their mother. From the gene’s point of view, helping the mother to propagate children is just as good as if the individual male itself were able to reproduce.

These are just two basic examples, and simplified accounts of them at that; much of the pleasure of the book is in Dawkins’s fuller explication of these and many others. Ideas from game theory like the prisoner’s dilemma and the evolutionarily stable strategy turn out to be remarkably relevant to the gene’s “desire” to propagate itself at the expense of rival genes, and Dawkins has a talent for explaining these complicated ideas nonmathematically in vivid, lucid language.

He also moves beyond pure biological evolution to a more general theory—that natural selection and evolution are not specific to plants and animals, nor even to DNA. The only elements required are:

  • Stable replicators capable of making copies of themselves with a high degree of accuracy, but not perfect accuracy
  • Competition among these replicators such that the differences between them make some more likely to replicate and spread than others
In other words, reproduction, variation, and competition—these three things must lead, in principle, to natural selection and evolution. Dawkins speculates that life anywhere in the universe, regardless of how different it might be from life here, will have arisen from this process, and he also notes that it need not even apply solely to living things. This was the book that introduced the now widespread term meme, a cultural analogue to the gene that propagates itself through human minds and also possesses the three requisite elements for evolution. A meme reproduces when one person passes it to another, varies when the person it passes to doesn’t remember it or understand it exactly as the first person did, and competes with other memes for prominence in individual minds and in the culture at large.

The 30th anniversary edition of the book was released last year, and is worth reading almost as much for the endnotes as the text itself. Although he has mostly refrained from revision, and says that he still holds substantially the same views now as he did when he originally wrote the book, he also notes places where he turned out to be wrong, or he has changed his mind, or further evidence has come to light, or others have expanded on his ideas or raised interesting counterarguments.*

He does also display some of the weaknesses later evident in books like The God Delusion. In the endnotes, he admits at several different points that he went overboard with his rhetoric—for example, when he predicts that we will eventually see the idea of the evolutionarily stable strategy as “one of the most important advances in evolutionary theory since Darwin,” and says in the endnotes that this was “a bit over the top. I was probably over-reacting to the then prevalent neglect of the ESS idea in the contemporary biological literature.” You wonder whether the same type of overreaction might have resulted in some of the angrier-sounding passages of The God Delusion. He also seems unable to refrain from taking potshots about his pet peeves, which you wish his editor had been able to convince him to cut. (In The God Delusion, I’d imagine that those who agree with him would term them “witty asides”; those who don’t, perhaps “snide barbs.”) Toward the end of The Selfish Gene, for example, he devotes a couple parenthetical sentences in the middle of a paragraph to explaining the correct pronunciation of the word algae. Perhaps correct (at least at the time), but also pedantic and irrelevant.

Those aside, The Selfish Gene is a terrifically engaging book—it won’t topple The Blind Watchmaker from atop my list of favorites, but it’s well worth reading. Although since Dawkins mentions more than once in the endnotes that The Extended Phenotype is the book he’s personally most proud of, that one will be getting a shot soon.

* Sometimes in funny ways. In a section discussing the division of labor in social insects that leads to some individuals devoting themselves to bearing offspring and others to caring for those offspring, he notes, “Although it is theoretically possible for evolution to proceed in this direction, it seems to be only in the social insects that it has actually happened.” The endnote to this sentence begins, “That is what we all thought. We had reckoned without naked mole rats.” Hehe.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The End (Lemony Snicket)

One of my new favorite ways to exercise at the gym is to read while using the recumbent exercise bike. This is especially good considering that the TVs at the gym are normally only on CNN and ESPN (I would be grateful for ESPN if it were baseball season, but it is not). Last Sunday morning, I sat down on the bike, set up my program (Hills Plus, Interval), and settled into the beginning of The End by Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). And then a woman sat down on the bike next to me.

"Is that the last one?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"I read some of the earlier ones. But I just can't get passed how depressing they are."

Hmm, I thought. I mean, the books are dark, but we're not talking anywhere near Six Feet Under: Season Five depressing. Or even 5 minutes of CNN depressing. In fact, they're very humorous (in a unusual and intelligent sort of way). And they're full of writing like this:

They found some of their least favorite spices, including dried parsely, which scarcely tastes like anything, and garlic salt, which forces the taste of everything else to flee. They found spices they associated with certain dishes, such as turmeric, which their father used to use while making curried peanut soup, and nutmeg, which their mother used to mix into gingerbread, and they found spices they did not associate with anything, such as marjoram, which everyone owns but scarcely anyone uses, and powdered lemon peel, which should only be used in emergencies, such as when fresh lemons have become extinct.

The way Handler tells his stories is part of the enjoyment of reading these books. And ending a 13-book series that has a dedicated fan base isn't easy. Wrap things up too easily and you'll satisfy some and annoy others. The same would be true for leaving things too open ended. Simply put, we find out some answers and we are left with some questions, which really does follow the spirit of the rest of the books.

Next book up: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brain Wansink

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)

Murakami’s stories don’t seem written so much as transcribed directly from the subconscious, built on the unfathomable logic of dreams. They often give the impression that something mysterious and enormous is just out of sight, intruding just a small corner into an otherwise normal world.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman brings together 24 uncollected stories from throughout his career, including several that were later worked into novels. It’s trademark Murakami in a lot of ways—Kafka or Borges as written by Raymond Carver, a profusion of terse, typically unremarkable first-person narrators grappling with mysterious women, inexplicable strangers, strange deaths and disappearances, and, in one, a talking monkey. (Anyone who’s been following his work will also recognize his ongoing preoccupation with ears, cats, zoos, and wells). But he gets a lot of mileage out of this instantly recognizable voice—the book ranges from fable-like stories at the far side of bizarre (“The Ice Man,” “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes”) to relatively straightforward realist fiction (the title story, “The Year of Spaghetti,” “Firefly”).

If you’ve read Murakami before and liked him, you definitely won’t want to pass this up. If you haven’t: time to jump on board—this is as good a place to start as any.

Also highly recommended (at least among the ones I’ve read so far):

A Wild Sheep Chase
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Norwegian Wood

Short stories
The Elephant Vanishes
After the Quake

(For the record, I found his most recent novel, Kafka on the Shore, a little disappointing—it was missing some essential quality of coherence that his other work seems to create effortlessly. But otherwise, I have yet to read anything of his I haven’t liked.)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World (John Wood)

About a year ago, one of my coworkers told me that she volunteered at this place that built schools overseas. I thought that was pretty cool, but then I didn't think too much else about it. Then one day we were looking through photos of a trip she took to Cambodia and Vietnam a few years ago. She told me the trip was through the company she volunteered with, and that part of it involved touring the schools the company help finance. Again, I thought that it was a great thing, but I still didn't completely realize how amazing the company was until I read the book she loaned me: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood, who is the founder of the company she volunteers for, Room to Read. And now I'm very glad to say, I finally get the importance of this company and the work it's doing.

John Wood was trekking in Nepal when he visited a school's library. But it didn't look how we would imagine a library to be. It was empty, save for a few outdated books locked up in a cabinet because they were so valuable. He vowed right then to send books to this country to fill the library. His local guide said that many travelers before him had made such promises, but no one had ever followed through. But John did. He contacted his friends and relatives, received tons of donations and worked through the logistics of getting the books over there. And that was just the first step.

Probably the most amazing part of this story is that John had never worked in a nonprofit before and had never really seen himself in this role. He was first and foremost an entrepreneur and used his knowledge from Microsoft to create a successful company. But in many ways, he was just like any of us: an ordinary person who had a goal, did everything he could to meet the goal, and just happened to change the world because of it.

Over the years, the company has expanded out of Nepal and into Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and other countries. It has helped finance schools, libraries, computer rooms, and scholarships for girls. (One of the central workings of Room to Read is that each project must have local support---the company provides a challenge grant, which the community needs to meet financially and/or through providing labor and supplies to meet their goal.)

They've partnered with publishers to create bilingual books and books relating to each specific culture. Even though they didn't know how they were going to do it (both staff-wise and financially), they responded to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka with a pledge to build schools there. The donations came in and they found the staff devoted to do the work, and they were one of the first companies to respond to the disaster with a future investment to the community.

One of the reasons Room to Read is so successful is that donors can see exactly where their money is going. For a certain amount of money, they can adopt an entire school and even visit the school once it is constructed. And throughout the book, Wood continually stresses how important education is to the growth and health of a community, its country, and our world. The personal stories he tells in the book are uplifting and enlightening, both those of the students who have benefited from the programs and the donors themselves.

If you are interested in learning more about Room to Read, I'd recommend reading this book (it really is inspiring) and visiting their website. They take monetary donations but they do not take book donations from individuals (they have found over the years that new book donations from publishers work best for their needs).

Next book up: The End by Lemony Snickett

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)

Be forewarned: Richard Dawkins does not pull punches, a fact that should be obvious to anyone looking at the title of his most recent book, The God Delusion. He has little patience for poor reasoning or wishful thinking, and, as he says early in the book, “I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.”

I’ve been a fan of his ever since I read The Blind Watchmaker, a wonderfully lucid and detailed explication of Darwinian natural selection that debunks both creationist/“intelligent design” rhetoric and the widespread misunderstandings that enable them to keep promoting their religious views as science, at least in America. (Anyone who says that evolution is “just random chance,” for example, does not really understand natural selection, and anyone who says that evolution is “just a theory” does not really understand the scientific definition of theory.)*

In Dawkins’s view, life’s complexity and variety used to provide the single most compelling reason to believe in a higher being. But Darwin showed that such a being is at best superfluous to our understanding of the universe and ourselves. The God Delusion serves as a natural extension of a book like Watchmaker: what that work did for the conflict between creationism and evolution, The God Delusion does for the broader conflict between religion and science, arguing not just that a Designer is unnecessary to explain the development of life, but that there are simply no good reasons to believe in God (or gods), and that religion is not only misguided but actively harmful to society—that it encourages the sort of blind, uncritical acceptance of received truths that supports fanaticism and intolerance.

And make no mistake: he does see religion and science as diametrically opposed. Dawkins spends a good number of pages putting to rest well-meaning notions that religion and science simply serve two different purposes, the “non-overlapping magisteria” of Stephen Jay Gould. Religion makes profoundly scientific claims about the nature of the universe (for example, whether Jesus rose from the dead is a scientific claim—it either happened or it didn’t) and tends to shun or embrace science and its methods as is convenient (if scientific evidence came to light demonstrating that Jesus did rise from the dead, it’s unlikely that religious leaders would ignore that evidence as irrelevant on the grounds that science has nothing to do with religion). And for those questions that science can’t answer, he sees no evidence that religion has any true expertise to offer, to say nothing of the impossibility of deciding which religion, exactly, is most expert.

Dawkins covers both the classic “proofs” of God’s existence and philosophical approaches like Pascal’s wager, and argues that, from a scientific point of view, God is no more likely than Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He also thoroughly dissects many other arguments in favor of the emotional or cultural usefulness of religions (which, either way, have nothing to do with whether those religions are true):

  • Don’t religions provide valuable moral guidance?
  • Doesn’t religion provide comfort and purpose to millions of people? Why would you want to deprive them of that?
  • Most religious people are perfectly nice—why can’t you leave them alone?
  • Every culture in the world has religion—isn’t it an intrinsic part of humanity?
  • Weren’t Hitler and Stalin atheists?
  • How can atheists be happy? Don’t they think life has no purpose?
  • Aren’t you just a scientific fundamentalist?
I would guess that for many, at least some of these ring true. (I’ve heard both the first and second myself, more than once, from people who aren’t especially religious themselves.) If you’re one of them, you may be interested in hearing the other side—why, for example, the link between religion and morality is nonexistent, and why Dawkins thinks that even moderate religion make a dangerous virtue of unquestioning obedience that then allows extremism to flourish.

Given how things are going so far in the twenty-first century, with a president who apparently believes God wants him in the White House, regular assaults on both science curricula and separation of church and state, and 40 percent of Americans still rejecting evolution—without even getting into the hornet's nest of religiously motivated terrorism—I’m glad to see books like Dawkins’s and Sam Harris’s on the best-seller lists. The term atheist has come to be loaded with far more negative weight than it deserves, and I would hope that they can start putting a lot of misconceptions to rest. (A recent Newsweek poll found that only 37 percent of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president. By way of comparison, homosexuals apparently fared better.) At one point Dawkins quotes Julia Sweeney’s show Letting Go of God, when, after describing how her parents learned that she had become an atheist, she says,
I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God anymore, but being an atheist was another thing altogether.
Absurd, of course—but absurdity that rings true. I doubt this book will convince very many people to abandon their faith and take up rational secularism, but with a few people here and there, it might eventually reach the levels of popularity currently enjoyed by astrology, ESP, and haunted houses.

Although I do hope the Flying Spaghetti Monster sticks around.

* The Blind Watchmaker also has some really awesome parts about bats.

Monday, January 01, 2007

3 Nights in August (Buzz Bissinger)

I am fully aware that baseball season is the longest sports season in America, but that doesn't mean I handle the off-season any better with that knowledge. I don't like it. But some things make it a little more bearable, like Buzz Bissinger's book 3 Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager, which uses a three-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs in 2003 to present an intimate look into the mind of Tony LaRussa and into baseball, itself. (Bissinger is also the author of Friday Night Lights, the popular book about football in a small Texas town, which is one of the reasons LaRussa sought him for a collaboration.)

Now, as a Cubs fan, I do have to disclose my bias against both the Cardinals and LaRussa. Before I read this book, I was definitely not a fan of either (and I'm still not going to root for the Cardinals---they're the Cubs biggest rival in the NL Central division). But after reading Bissinger's book, I have a lot more respect for LaRussa. I found out he's a strict vegetarian and has been for years. And he works really hard at what he does. If you've ever seen LaRussa in the dugout during a game, he has a poker face like no one else, and he looks almost as businesslike as a Yankee. But I learned he is very much emotionally invested in the game. And if something doesn't turn out the way it should (as often happens in baseball), LaRussa takes it personally and wonders what he could have done to change the outcome for the better.

3 Nights in August really gets into the inner workings of baseball and covers all the small details involved in shifting the defense, where to lay down a bunt, how it's easier to get a pitcher to change his mechanics than a hitter (oh, Corey Patterson, I fear you will always be swinging at those balls up high), the origins of the use of bullpen relievers and pitch count, and how the game is always changing. Plus it featured my first Cubs team, the 2003 team that almost made it to the World Series. They had Kenny Lofton, who I still love and root for no matter what team he's on (the picture above is of the Kenny bobblehead Jim got me for Christmas), "My Man Simon" (who is no longer "My Man" and is now just "Randall Simon"), Sammy Sosa before he started really sucking, and Moises Alou, who I just can't understand why anyone wouldn't like him. This was the year when Wood and Prior were (gasp!) both uninjured and consistent.

I loved this book and would recommend it to any baseball fan. It made me realize what a bad manager I would be and that there's a lot of thought behind the many decisions a baseball manager makes every day (but I'm still going to yell at the TV when I disagree!).

Next book up: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children by John Wood