I'd heard about this fellow's work from several directions before I ever picked up the book (one of my oldest friends has agreed to donate his body to...moreI'd heard about this fellow's work from several directions before I ever picked up the book (one of my oldest friends has agreed to donate his body to this research facility), and I was frankly enamored with the idea (of the research facility, not the donation).
I was actually mildly disappointed with the scale of his facility -- I had imagined it as a huge spread, out in the wilds of southern Appalachia, with various experiments scattered in the hollows and tucked away at the end of meandering paths.
Sort of like a hiking area the Adamms family might enjoy.
The memoir approach also surprised me, but it worked quite well, since Bass's career certainly had drama to it.
But, still, the book didn't work as well as I expected. I blame the editors, since Bass must remain the hero in this story, but it is too bad he didn't get a better book out of this.
Ken Miller's book scores well on several points, but ends up weak on the task he set himself.
The first three-fifths of this book is a well presented r...moreKen Miller's book scores well on several points, but ends up weak on the task he set himself.
The first three-fifths of this book is a well presented rebuttal on the accusations the Intelligent Design (ID, née Creationism) community has made against the Darwinian theory of evolution. Miller is an excellent advocate: he presents the science at enough depth to convince and to satisfy the more technically-minded among his audience, without getting overly burdened by details. He reveals the astonishing story that ID's attacks have indirectly strengthened the Darwinian argument by posing a series of supposedly fatal flaws, only to fail time and again: evolution answers those challenges with yet more fascinating and delightful molecular legerdemain.
But Miller didn't set himself the task of merely defending Darwin's science, but providing a plan of defense against the broader attack the ID movement is attempting: the overthrow of the Enlightenment's materialist world view, the foundation of the scientific method.
At this point, confusion accumulates. Miller's qualifications are incomparable for the discussion of science, but the larger attack is one of social philosophy, involving questions of theology and ontology, as well as the tactics of manipulation of the raw populace of the United States and western world. Miller does a better job than most could -- his citations of Augustine and Aquinas are spot-on -- but his argument lacks focus, clarity and, above all, force. After plowing through the final hundred pages, we are left to wonder how reassuring the assertion that "we are made of stardust" would be to Joe the plumber as he considers his vote for his school board. That is, of course, a cruel trivialization of those hundred pages, but it is hard to draw out anything more concrete.
Only a Theory is definitely a worthwhile read, both to understand the attacks on and defense of Darwin's theory, and as an introduction to the ID movement's frightening attempt to roll back hundreds of years of progress in thought and knowledge.
But Miller's attempt at providing a strategic outline of a cultural defense or counterattack -- no.
P.S. Miller cites Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind while discussing the means and ends of culture wars. It occurred to me that Miller is, perhaps, like Bloom in an important way: Bloom's vituperative lambaste was an overreaction to the worst excesses of academia's embrace of postmodern cultural relativism. But the system didn't fail: Bloom had underestimated the common sense of plain folk and had mistrusted the inherent appeal of the better choice. I hope and suspect that Miller is also reacting to his worst fears, and that the recent efforts of the ID movement will be its high tide mark -- its very successes have exposed it to too much glaring scrutiny. American's have gone through paroxysms of reactionary extremism before, after all. The republic survived McCarthyism, and will survive Intelligent Design. (less)
This was a curiously fractured book. Those moderately rare folks expecting the subject to stay close to the title will be surprised: although Poundsto...moreThis was a curiously fractured book. Those moderately rare folks expecting the subject to stay close to the title will be surprised: although Poundstone does spend quite a bit of time and text explaining the Prisoner's Dilemma (the archetypal game theoretic problem), this is almost as much a biography of the scientist John Von Neumann.
The nexus is the cold war fascination with the PD as a mechanism for strategic analysis of the arms race. Unfortunately, game theory was seized upon as a means of understanding long before academia (economics, mathematicians, philosophers, political scientists) actually understood what the games had to tell us in the abstract, thus horribly warping what we thought we could learn about interacting with the enemy. (Specifically, early examiners hadn't yet seen how iterated games radically changed the strategies and tactics of play.)
For most folks, Poundstone's book is weaker for the confusion. The tale isn't told well enough to draw the reader in, so only those who arrive already interested in each of the topic areas examined will tolerate the union.
This book was disappointing. There were definitely good elements, but it starts off poorly and — crucially — never quite figured out what it was about...moreThis book was disappointing. There were definitely good elements, but it starts off poorly and — crucially — never quite figured out what it was about.
The first problem regards the title:
i·con·o·clast (ī-kŏn'ə-klăst') n. 1. One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions. 2. One who destroys sacred religious images.
Neither of those two definitions jibes with how Berns uses the word.
Right there on the cover, the author provides the definition as "A person who does something that others say can't be done." Somewhat related to the first 'official' definition, yes, but a bit of a stretch; the sense there is closer to a political or philosophical extremist than to an innovative genius. Certainly the original coinage depicting the Byzantine emperor Leo III wasn't about innovation so much as reactionary religio-politics. But Berns doesn't even stick to his stated usage, either. In the opening chapters he catalogs a number of very successful folks — and at least one "failure" — and collects them all under the "iconoclast" umbrella. His steadfast desire to focus on the thread of similarity and ignore the manifold differences is quite disconcerting. When I was doing the academic thing many years ago, one of the lessons I learned is that if people aren't careful to use words consistently then discussions and debates can be so ambiguous that they become useless. I vaguely recall that someone once tallied the different ways economists use the word "capital" and it was in the dozens. The overuse isn't quite so extreme here, but it is quite blatant and leaves an attentive reader suspicious and incredulous.
Early on, Berns emphatically states that special skills in visualization — the ability to see what others don't perceive — is the sine qua non of iconoclasm. Or is he conflating this with imagination? Because he also asserts that "imagination comes from the visual system." Only to then provide many examples of the imaginative component of iconoclasm that have nothing to do with visual perception. For example, Ray Kroc, the kind-of founder of McDonald's -- nothing visual about his innovation.
The dictionary definition uses the word "overthrows", and the idea of someone that explores new territory is an important part of what the book covers -- for instance, on page 170, he describes someone as "a pioneer (i.e., an iconoclast)". But at other times the meaning shifts towards "genius".
Oddly, this might be a nice companion book with Malcolm Gladwell'sOutliers, although Gladwell doesn't need the companionship they way Berns does. Both deal with exceptionalism. Gladwell makes a very strong case that outliers are that way due to extremes of upbringing and culture; Berns is trying to convince us that these people are neurologically distinct as well: they actually think differently in fundamental and measurable ways. Are these ways teachable? The book's subtitle implies they are, but the book never really explores self-improvement.
Except, oddly, in the surprising and interesting appendix: "The Iconoclast's Pharmacopoeia". Here, Berns examines a number of drugs and how they affect the brain and the neurochemical pathways involved in perception and innovation. This reminded me of the excellent Buzzed: both provided detailed information about drugs without preaching, and both force an honest thinker towards the conclusion that drug policy is absurdly paternalistic and misguided.
Berns is at his best when he drifts away from his iconoclasm hobbyhorse. Late in the book he discusses the results of clinical research exploring how social conditions can actually change basic perception, and it is quite compelling. One research area explained involves how the brain strives for efficiency; if our peers have reached a consensus that something is "A", then it is more efficient for our brain to tell us the same than for it to permit us to waste time and energy thinking that it might be "B". The result is that what people actually perceive can change. If all of your friends agree how delicious that wine is before you taste it... well, your brain might be wired so it actually does taste better. This kind of research into how perceptions may be subject to non-perceptual cognitive influences has fascinating implications, from how advertising works to the reliability of court testimony. I would have been happier reading a whole book about those kind of discoveries, without all the poorly thought-out stuff on what makes an innovator, er, genius, er... pioneer, er, ... iconoclast.
I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless, and the icy Earth Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air...