An interesting survey of what's known about the sensory capacity of birds. One little nugget that reflects more on the scientists than the birds: birdAn interesting survey of what's known about the sensory capacity of birds. One little nugget that reflects more on the scientists than the birds: birds were assumed to lack the senses of taste and smell. Because… I don’t know. A complete failure of imagination on the part of the people making the assumptions, presumably....more
This is a memoir of a lifetime's fieldwork rather than a book about baboons. There's a lot of baboon stuff you can learn from it, but there are also pThis is a memoir of a lifetime's fieldwork rather than a book about baboons. There's a lot of baboon stuff you can learn from it, but there are also plenty of human stories.
The success of a book like this depends almost entirely on whether the author can write and tell stories; which Robert Sapolsky can. He writes thoughtfully and entertainingly about baboons, and about people, and occasionally he makes the parallels explicit — although he doesn't need to labour that point because it is such a natural comparison to make.
Ben Goldacre's previous book, Bad Science, was effectively an adaptation of his Guardian columns of the same name, and although it wasn't a straightfoBen Goldacre's previous book, Bad Science, was effectively an adaptation of his Guardian columns of the same name, and although it wasn't a straightforward compilation, it had something of the same character: a bit of a grab-bag of subjects, held together by the broad theme of bad science and bad science journalism, with a emphasis on trying to entertain as well as inform.
This is a more focussed book. And a drier one, which you may or may not think is a good thing, depending on your tolerance for the occasionally clunky attempts at wackiness and humour that characterise a lot of popular science writing.
Personally I thought Bad Pharma did a good job of taking a potentially tough subject and presenting it in a clear, engaging way. It's not, btw, a tough subject because it is full of difficult science or complicated statistics, but because it's a book about institutional and bureaucratic failings within the healthcare industry. Institutional structures, bureaucracy, regulation, professional standards: this is not the sexiest subject matter. But Goldacre did a good job of convincing me that it was important enough that I should keep reading, and making it readable enough that I was able to do so.
The book follows all aspects of the life of a drug — the way it is developed, tested, licensed, marketed, prescribed — and talks through all the ways that biases get into the system and distort medical practice. There is plenty of evidence that these distortions make healthcare worse and more expensive; the only question is how badly. But the same processes that distort the science make it impossible to accurately judge the damage.
The pharmaceutical companies are the major villains of the piece, unsurprisingly; they are the ones doing badly designed trials, hiding the results of trials with flattering outcomes, paying academics to put their names to ghostwritten articles, and spending twice as much on marketing as they do on R&D. But as Goldacre points out, they are only able to get away with it because of repeated failures by everyone else involved: regulators, governments, journals, professional bodies, patient groups, and so on. All of whom have been at the very least complacent, and often suffer from deep conflicts of interest, since the drug companies seem to be the only people in the whole system who actually have a lot of money to throw around. So they spend a lot of money advertising in the medical journals, they donate money to patient groups, they sponsor conferences and training for doctors.
It's a worrying book, which deserves to be widely read....more
David Nutt became somewhat famous in the UK when he was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD], the statutory body which is reDavid Nutt became somewhat famous in the UK when he was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD], the statutory body which is responsible for advising the government on drug policy, and specifically on the appropriate legal classification of different drugs.
He was criticised and eventually fired for being rather too vocal about the fact that the government consistently ignored the advice of the ACMD and allowed political considerations to trump the evidence, and for pointing out some inconvenient truths about relative harms; that alcohol and tobacco are both more dangerous than many illegal drugs, and that horse-riding is considerably more dangerous than taking ecstasy.
This became a bit of a cause celèbre in the geekosphere. Because we all know that politicians will ignore the evidence if it’s politically inconvenient, but it’s rarely quite so blatant as firing someone for saying what the evidence is.
This book covers various aspects of drug use: how drugs work, how harmful they are, what addiction is, what treatments are available and so on. It covers alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs as well as the illegal ones.
It’s interesting to read because it simultaneously seems radical and rather obvious. Radical because if all the evidence in the book was taken seriously it would involve a top-to-bottom rewriting of UK drug laws; and obvious because actually not much of this stuff should come as a surprise.
For example, however much politicians may splutter about the comparison, can anyone who lives in this country seriously doubt that alcohol causes far more social harm than ecstasy or cannabis? Or that, purely pragmatically, treating addiction as a medical problem is likely to be more successful than treating it as a moral failing? And even if you think cannabis should be illegal, surely it makes intuitive sense that it is counterproductive to imprison users: both because being in prison is in itself more damaging to the individual’s future prospects than the actual drug use, and because it is very expensive to lock people up.
It’s interesting though, and very readable. It helps that, although the book takes a ‘liberal’ stance compared to the current law, it’s not derived from a naive libertarianism. Nutt is not arguing for loosening the drug laws on the basis of increased personal liberty; he wants the law to be better at managing harms and risks. So he supports the ban on smoking in public places and would tighten some of the rules on alcohol sales. And although treating addiction to heroin and cocaine as a primarily medical problem could be seen as ‘soft on drugs’, he’s arguing for it on the basis that it is the best way to minimise harm.
A few random interesting points from the book: he points out that coca leaves, cocaine and crack are all pharmacologically the same substance, and that the method of delivery makes a huge difference not just to the experience but also the addictiveness. I was startled to learn that about 500 people a year die of heroin overdoses after coming out of prison because, having stopped or reduced their use while inside, they have lost the tolerance they used to have.
And I was struck by his suggestion that the duty on alcoholic drinks should be proportional to actual alcohol content, rather than by category with one rate for beer and one for wine and so on. That would be a direct incentive for drinkers to switch to weaker drinks and for manufacturers to reverse the trend of beers and wines getting stronger. Which seems sensible. There is a general argument for making alcohol more expensive anyway, but it seems like a good start to make Special Brew considerably more expensive than lagers with less than half the alcohol. ...more
I highly recommend this fascinating book; it seems to be out of print, but there are lots of second-hand copies on Amazon. As the title suggests, it'sI highly recommend this fascinating book; it seems to be out of print, but there are lots of second-hand copies on Amazon. As the title suggests, it's about poor mad George III. And even Americans, brought up to think of George II as a tyrant, might have a little sympathy for him after reading this.
It starts with a detailed account of his illness—or his illnesses, really, since he initially suffered from relatively brief bouts, separated by long periods of good health. Having offered a diagnosis of porphyria, which is a hereditary condition, Macalpine and Hunter examine the medical histories of George II's relatives and demonstrate that porphyria can be identified, with varying degrees of confidence, in a startling number of them; most notably perhaps in James I, Mary Queen of Scots and Frederick the Great of Prussia.
The book then moves on to a survey of C18th psychiatry, both in terms of its theoretical basis and treatment, and looks at the way it developed. Not surprisingly, George's illness had a huge impact on the mad-business because of the publicity surrounding it. The idea of a king being forcibly confined in a strait-waistcoat focussed people's minds on the treatment of the insane. The book traces developments in the treatment of patients and the law surrounding insanity, both in terms of treatment and things like criminal responsibility. Finally it looks at the way developments in psychiatry have affected historians' portrayal of George III.
It is, as I say, fascinating. The account of his illness is remarkable, not least because of the political chaos around it. It was just the moment when, although Britain was increasingly recognisable as a modern democracy and decision-making increasingly rested with the Prime Minister and parliament, the king was still an important enough figure that his incapacity led to a crisis. And with the question of whether or not to establish a Regency depending on it, and a Regency would mean a change of government, his treatment was incredibly politicised. His doctors issued regular bulletins about his status, which were pored over by all concerned; his doctors themselves became associated with different political factions and found it very difficult to agree on anything.
Meanwhile the king was kept from his loved ones, frequently confined to a strait-waistcoat, and was subjected to a variety of unpleasant and intrusive treatments—bleeding, cupping, blistering, emetics—none of which, we now know, did him any good at all. And at least one aspect of his treatment, a 'lowering' diet without any meat in it, will have been actively making him worse.
Still, interesting though all that is, it was starting to get a bit repetitive—thoroughness is a great quality in a historian, but doesn't always make for riveting reading—and I was glad to get past the details of George's case and onto the broader stuff, which I found fascinating. For example, as psychiatry increasingly worked under the theory that mental illnesses are self-contained and separate from physical illnesses, the king was diagnosed with 'manic-depressive psychosis' , and all of the his various and violent physical symptoms—pain, fast pulse, colic, sweating, hoarseness, stupor—were interpreted as hysterical, or even as invented by the Court to disguise the truth of his condition.
And because it was assumed that he must always have been manic-depressive, the diagnosis colours historians' portrayals of his whole personality:
Watson, in the standard Oxford history of the reign, writes : 'He lacked the pliability and easy virtue of less highly strung people. When his obstinacy encountered an immovable obstacle, all his resources were at an end and the black humour claimed him... Madness was but this mood in an extreme form.'
The book quotes a whole series of similar descriptions. But the king's early biographers presented a completely different picture, and in fact, we now know that between bouts of illness, sufferers from porphyria can be very healthy. Macalpine and Hunter are pretty scathing about psychiatry generally; the book was written in 1969, and it would be interesting to know whether they thought there had been any progress in the meantime....more
Or to give it its fuller, more informative title: Bones Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened. It is what it sounds like: a brief (undeOr to give it its fuller, more informative title: Bones Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened. It is what it sounds like: a brief (under 200 pages, including the index) overview of dating technologies for a general audience: radio isotope dating, dendrochronology, Antarctic ice cores and so on. And I enjoyed it; Turney writes well, and he whizzes through the material leaving me feeling a bit better-informed without it being too much like hard work. And I think that's pretty good going for what is a very technical subject.
Interestingly he starts with what I don't think of as a 'scientific' technique at all: his first example of dating is an attempt to fix a plausible date for King Arthur by looking at all the different manuscript evidence and trying to coordinate it. This carries all the usual problems of early medieval history: sparse evidence; second, third, fourth-hand accounts written many years after the event; confusions between different calendars and so on. I was slightly surprised by this way of starting the book, but actually it's quite a good way into the subject. Without any of the technical stuff about radioactive isotopes it illustrates the same kind of problems you might have dating a fossil or anything else: trying to reconcile various kinds of data, each of which carries its own particular problems and sources of error.
The choice of King Arthur, as opposed to any of the other myriad shadowy early medieval figures, is an indication of his popular instincts: he does like to use colourful examples. So we get the Turin Shroud, the Pyramids, Thera, Java Man. Which is fine by me.
So brief, colourful, and not too technical overview of what is really a vast and complex subject, but if that's what you're looking for (and on the whole I think it was), it does a good job of it....more
This is the latest of Pinker's books on various aspects of language and psychology. Specifically, it looks at what language can tell us about the waysThis is the latest of Pinker's books on various aspects of language and psychology. Specifically, it looks at what language can tell us about the ways the human mind understands the world. For example, the various tenses available to us might tell us something about the human brain's inherent models for understanding time. Or different kinds of action verbs tell us something about the underlying concepts our minds use to understand the interaction of objects. All his examples are from English, but he assures us, on his honour as a linguist, that the points he makes are more broadly applicable.
He sounds very plausible, but as so often with these things I don't really have the expertise to judge. I daresay there may be other linguists/cognitive scientists/psychologists who strongly disagree with everything he says, but I have no idea what their arguments might be. What has a broad plausibility for me is that Pinker provides a layer of cognitive concepts that act as a framework to make language-acquisition easier without being too implausibly complex. In other words: I am persuaded that infants learn their mother tongue so quickly and easily that their must be some kind of (presumably innate) cognitive headstart. Pinker's model requires really quite a lot of innate ideas, and I can imagine some people boggling at it, but it is at least an idea of what kind of explanation might be needed. So I found all that broad process interesting.
If anything, I sometimes found myself fighting the instinct to dismiss it because it seems too obvious. I read him arguing that the human mind understands something in such-and-such a way and there was a bit at the back of my head saying "well yes, obviously" even though there's nothing inevitable about it. It might just be that these ways of thinking seem obvious because they are innate. On the other hand I've read books about psychology which have been full of surprising insights, so there's no reason to assume that we have a clear idea of how our own minds work.
So the project is an interesting one. And Pinker writes well, on the whole: it's sometimes heavy going, because the subject requires lots of close attention to fine details of usage, but he writes clearly and, as far as possible, he keeps the book ticking over with peculiar facts, anecdotes and other sparkly objects designed to hold the attention of the magpie mind. If anything, I get the sense that he has slightly toned down that aspect of his style, though I haven't done a direct comparison: I seem to remember that in The Language Instinct, which was the first of his books that I read, he could hardly go half a paragraph without some kind of popular culture reference or joke, and it sometimes came across as trying too hard. But there's still enough there to help sugar the pill.
When I read The Language Instinct I was at university doing an English Literature degree, so I naturally read it with half an eye on whether it could tell me anything about literature. There are two observations I'd make about that: firstly, although many of the literary/critical theories I was introduced to were implicitly or explicitly theories about language, none of them bore any relationship whatever to the ways of analysing language I found in Pinker. Literary theorists, in trying to understand language, had not apparently felt any need to talk to any linguists. The only linguist whose name came up was Saussure; and while I don't hold Saussure responsible for all the ridiculous things that have been said by the people who name-check him, I'd at least point out that he died in 1913, and linguistics has moved on since then.
The second observation is that, although I found this state of affairs irritating, I didn't suddenly find I had lots of new and interesting insights on literature after reading the book. It's only a popular treatment and I didn't make any attempt to follow it up by reading other books, but still, I spent time thinking about it and didn't get anywhere. The same goes for The Stuff Of Thought; it's all quite interesting, but it doesn't instantly give me any new way of thinking about the literary use of language. In the chapter about metaphor, there's a short discussion about literary metaphor, which is fine but doesn't offer anything that you wouldn't find in a good book on how to write poetry.
Linguistics, cognitive science and other disciplines which examine language and the interface between language and thought don't actually need to offer an insight into literature to justify their existence. We can't claim to have a complete understanding of language until we can say how poetry works, but I guess that can wait; in the meantime, The Stuff Of Thought is an interesting read....more
I picked this up again because I was blogging about cycads. In this book Sacks visits a couple of Pacific islands where many of the locals have unusuaI picked this up again because I was blogging about cycads. In this book Sacks visits a couple of Pacific islands where many of the locals have unusual neurological conditions; total colour-blindness on Pingelap and a degenerative disorder called lytico-bodig on Guam.
The neurology is interesting—the colour blindness isn’t typical red/green colour-blindness but a complete absence of colour perception, and lytico-bodig is a disease of unknown cause, with such varied presentation that it was originally thought of as two diseases, lytico and bodig. And he’s very good at the travel-writing side of it, evoking these Pacific islands and supplying lots of context.
I think Sacks is always worth reading—he’s thoughtful, brings a diverse range of references to his writing in a very natural way, and is superb at empathising with his patients and presenting them as real people with personalities, rather than just interesting cases. And neurology makes for fascinating subject matter. Having said that, this is one of his less memorable books, so if you haven’t read any Sacks I’d suggest starting with An Anthropologist on Mars or The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Seeing Voices, about deafness, is excellent too, as is his chemistry-themed memoir, Uncle Tungsten. ...more
I’m a big fan of Oliver Sacks; his books are full of fascinating stuff about the weird ways that people’s brains can go wrong, without making it too mI’m a big fan of Oliver Sacks; his books are full of fascinating stuff about the weird ways that people’s brains can go wrong, without making it too much of a freak show. This book is all about music: perfect pitch, musical savants, people who suddenly lose the ability to hear music, musical hallucinations and so on.
Personally I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of his other books, probably because I’m not very musical myself. But it’s certainly interesting. ...more