It would be nice to take a look at this book, but the prices at Amazon...
2 new from $134.99; 1 used from $135.55
That's too rich for my blood.
I learnIt would be nice to take a look at this book, but the prices at Amazon...
2 new from $134.99; 1 used from $135.55
That's too rich for my blood.
I learned about it from Malcolm Gladwell, who referred to it in his essay Dangerous Minds (reprinted in his collection What the Dog Saw circa page 351). Apparently Rowland enumerates and details the different tricks an astrologer or psychic will use to seem clairvoyant. For example, the "Rainbow Ruse" is a "statement which credits the client with both a personality train and its opposite". Quoth the schemer: "I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self-effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you." Then there's the Jacques Statement, the Barnum Statement, the Fuzzy Fact, the Greener Grass Technique, the Diverted Question, the Russian Doll, and Sugar Lumps, Forking, the Good Chance Guess, and the Vanishing Negative.
That group is meeting tomorrow, and I'm roughly one-third the way into the book, so I want to get some thoughts clarified. (We typically read the same book two months in a row, so I'm okay with not having finished it).
Accessible cognates are an expansion (to me, at least) on the idea of the availability heuristic. I was first exposed to the latter as type of cognitive bias, but what Wilson explores is the idea that *all* mental constructs have a "energy level" that makes them more or less accessible. When we think — consciously or unconsciously — the more recently and more in-depth our cognates are the more easily they are accessed, and the mere act of accessing them bumps their energy state up. This is due simply to efficiency: memories or concepts that are used more often and intensively are kept closer at hand.
But when this idea is applied to *all* concepts, a crucial insight is made. As a child, the complex of ideas that makes up "mother" (or, at least, primary caregiver) will always be close to the top of this accessibility hierarchy. When a new person comes along — perhaps a preschool teacher — who shares many similar attributes, the brain will re-use the mother concept if that seems like a good fit (explaining the childhood faux pas of calling a teacher "mom").
The Freudian idea that we frame new relationships in terms of our infantile relationships to our parents is close to this idea, but not quite the same. One peculiar outcome of this: consider the stereotypical talk therapy situation of a man trying to stop acting out his relationship with his mother within the context of his other female intimates. The mere act of talking about his relationship with his mother — over and over, and over — would tend to solidify her premier position as the most accessible female pattern. A better approach would probably be to deeply explore other variations of female relationships in order to break that dominance. Perhaps modern talk therapy does deal with this paradox, I don't know.
Normal schizophrenia: perhaps the central theme of the book, so far, is that we all have two personalities. First, the conscious self, which may or may or may not be in control. Second, the agglomeration of many unconscious mechanisms also forms a consistent pattern of behavior and thought, and is thus also a personality. Not all of those varied mechanisms work together, some are more deeply buried than others (the fear response to what looks like a snake is different and not really related to one's reaction to embarrassment in front of peers, for example). But crucially, those two personalities are independent enough that they might work at cross purposes. The conscious mind might find a prospective friend intelligent, charming and interesting all while completely oblivious to the signs that friendly discussions with this person will quickly devolve into acrimony because they they trigger memories of an overbearing older brother.
A crucial problem is that the unconscious is unavailable for inspection. Navel gazing, per se, won't reveal these buried tendencies.
Furthermore, those tendencies will be heavily context dependent. A person might react to embarrassment in front of peers with clownish bravado, while a similar reaction in front of an attractive person of the appropriate sex results in sheepishness, and an authority figure might witness clumsy and panicked denial. A question like "do you embarrass easily?" becomes meaningless.
True or False: You prefer meeting in small groups to interaction with lots of people.
Context is missing: is this with co-workers in front of the group's authority figure? Or a peer-only team meeting? Or Thanksgiving dinner with relatives you haven't seen in a year? Or a reunion with high school friends?
And even if the question is made very explicit, the inherent divide between the conscious and unconscious might mean that we might remain fundamentally confused about what we "prefer". Perhaps we think that a small group of peer co-workers would be preferred, but unconsciously we react very poorly to the chaos implied by a lack of direction and thus the typical outcome of such a meeting is less preferred; meanwhile the presence of authority at a larger meeting might be consciously resented as paternalistic, but unconsciously we might end up more satisfied with our performance and behavior when such a control is present.
I recall taking that test many years ago and feeling frustrated at these ambiguities. Does "preference" mean who I want to be? Or who I think I actually am? Or, worse, who I'm worried I might have to admit to being if I were more honest with myself?
What Wilson promises later in the book is a kind of indirect self-help technique. This isn't nominally a self-help book; with human consciousness under discussion, I'm pretty confident that any book that actually tries to sell itself as such would be uselessly simplistic anyway. At the same time, the possibility for advice is inherent, and many books that examine the many aspects of cognition will offer pointers that the author suspects might help. They'll sometimes call them heuristics, of course, in order not to be tarred with the self-help brush.
I haven't gotten to the details yet, but the gist of it seems to be that whereas introspection per se isn't useful, it is possible to use our interactions with others in our past as a dark mirror. By examining situations in which our behavior bewildered or frustrated us, we can try to compose a description of who that "other person" inside our skin is, and learn which situations trigger their antics and how to avoid those situations, and perhaps even to understand where "their" past intersects with our conscious past.
Back to the book for a bit more reading before tomorrow's meeting. ...more
Yet another one. Looks like a good survey of irrationality in daily life, but perhaps weak on depth, based on the New York Times review, The Out-of-SiYet another one. Looks like a good survey of irrationality in daily life, but perhaps weak on depth, based on the New York Times review, The Out-of-Sight Mind....more
This book is about cognitive frameworks, or, more precisely: about two frameworks that plausibly explain many of the differences between liberals andThis book is about cognitive frameworks, or, more precisely: about two frameworks that plausibly explain many of the differences between liberals and conservatives.
Oddly enough, I'm still struggling with how this book interacts with my own cognitive framework. I have several pages of notes that should eventually go into a review, but Lakoff's focus on those two political perspectives was so ultimately frustrating that the book left me incredibly frustrated.
As far as the book goes, it is a fascinating dissection at how personalities can share deep similarities across a broad spectrum of society due to those frameworks.
But so many questions: are these supposed to be the innate two? Or are these just the current dominant pair due in our evolving culture? If the latter, what other frameworks have been used by, say, the founding generation of the United States? Or of the Socratic Greeks? How does one research such questions?
In our own time, do these dominant two account for 99% of everyone in the United States? Eighty percent? Fifty-one percent? I know it isn't 100%, because I'm certain I don't fit either framework. How many hyper-rationalists like me are there out there?
The problem is that I've left the book sitting on my desk for so long un-reviewed that I have to return it to the library tomorrow: no more renewals.
So some notes that might help me do a better job after I've read Lakoff's Philosophy in the Flesh, currently holding down my bedside table.
» P. 72: Morality is Strength (thus, Meta-morality is morality): "One consequence of this metaphor is that punishment can be good for you, since going through hardships builds moral strength. Hence, the homily, 'spare the rod and spoil the child'. By the logic of this metaphor, moral weakness is in itself a form of immorality. The reasoning goes like this: A morally weak person is likely to fall, to give in to evil, to perform immoral acts, and thus become part of the forces of evil. Moral weakness is thus nascent immorality, immorality waiting to happen." What does this say about the myth of pure evil? Is the prospect of moral weakness and nascent immorality illuminated in Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray or Conrad's Heart of Darkness?
» P. 76: Moral Authority: "... Within the Strict Father model, the parent (typically the father) sets standards of behavior and punishes the child if the standards are not met. Moral behavior by the child is obedience to the parent's authority...." This incorporates the profoundly disturbing implication that the parent is always right. Actually, the model has the caveat that the parent must be acting in the child's best interest and have "the ability to know what is best for the child", but these still blithely ignore what happens when the parent is well-meaning yet wrong. My personal framework demands that all authority is contingent, and that a very high priority goes to every individual's responsibility to be capable of evaluating the demands of authority and considering, when necessary, whether the consequences of denying such authority is worth the entailed costs. While I believe I see evidence of Lakoff's "Strict Parent" model throughout society, my personal framework directly contradicts it. What framework is the "Question Authority" bumper sticker a reflection of?
» P. 109: Nurturant Parent Morality: "... Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial. If parents' authority is to be legitimate, they must tell their children why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance. The questioning of parents by children is positive, since children need to learn why their parents do what they do, since children often have good ideas that should be taken seriously, and since all family members should participate in important decisions. Responsible parents, of course, have to make the ultimate decisions and that must be clear." Sounds good (and consistent with "Question Authority") but also sounds incredibly naive, much like communist idealism. This completely ignores the less mature reasoning abilities of children, and ignores the limited patience of normal parents. Seems like a caricature.
» P. 112: "What does the world have to be like if people like this are to develop and thrive? The world must be as nurturant as possible and respond positively to nurturance. It must be a world that encourages people to develop their potential and provides help when necessary. And correspondingly, it must be a place where those who are helped feel a responsibility to help others and carry out that responsibility. It must be a world governed maximally by empathy, where the weak who need hep get it from the strong." Oh, please, what world are we living in? Human nature is both cooperative and competitive. ('What's so great about being among "the strong" if that just means you have to do more work', he was heard to whine.) What about when people don't want to "develop their potential"? Plenty of people spend hours online, but how many of them are taking the free online classes at the Open University, etc.? Folks don't seem to optimize themselves to meet society's needs; free-riding behavior kicks in far too easily. Always remember: we've all descended from the people that won their wars; genes that say "turn the other cheek" are too easy to take advantage of to last long.
» P. 127: "In Nurturant Parent morality, the virtues to be taught—the moral strengths—are the opposites of the internal evils: social responsibility, generosity, respect for the values of others, open-mindedness, a capacity for pleasure, aesthetic sensitivity, inquisitiveness, ability to communicate, honesty, sensitivity to feelings, considerateness, cooperativeness, kindness, community-mindedness, and self-respect." Again the caricature of the liberal. This reminds me of the "always cooperate" tactic used in iterative Prisoner's Dilemma: a naively nice strategy that is quickly wiped out by any predators. Of course, the Strict Father morality is paranoid and easily falls into predatory patterns — and we know who wins that battle. Will Lakoff ever find elements of a cognitive framework that mimic the best PD strategy, tit-for-tat? Actually, *generous* tit-for-tat beats tit-for-tat in a chaotic environment, and it is that element of generosity that appears to have been seized upon as the core of the NP morality. But this only survives in a highly benevolent environment, and probably isn't stable even then.
» P. 242: Re: the culture wars and the possibility teaching pluralism: "There may be a problem in taking this route to teaching morality and avoiding partisan moral and political indoctrination. Many conservatives believe that there is only one possible view of morality—Strict Father morality. Many religious conservatives believe that teaching both moral systems is itself immoral." Well, no duh. Witness the quote I found while reading Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past:
An officer of the Daughters of the Colonial Wars, for instance, complained about books that “give a child an unbiased viewpoint instead of teaching him real Americanism. All the old histories taught my country right or wrong. That's the point of view we want our children to adopt. We can't afford to teach them to be unbiased and let them make up their own minds.”
Ecumenicalism logically can't include zealots that want to burns the others at the stake.
» P. 261: After a somewhat labored exploration of how Christianity as each of the two paradigms interpret it: "Finally, the two forms of Christianity have very different understandings of what the world should be like so that such ideal persons can be produced. Strict Father Christianity requires that the world be competitive and survival difficult if the right kind of people (strong people) are to be produced and rewarded. Nurturant Parent Christianity requires that the world be as interdependent, nurturant and benign as possible, if the right kind of people—nurturant people—are to be produced." Sounds like Warriors for Christ versus Mother Teresa, eh?
» P. 269: In the chapter on Abortion, Lakoff points out the variants of each model exist. For example, if the "Men are dominant over Women" aspect of the Strict Father model is removed, one gets conservative feminism. Lakoff plausibly argues that this indirectly removes a crucial condition for requiring opposition to abortion, and thus these conservatives "are not bound by the logic of their morality to be either pro-life or pro-choice. In short, the model predicts that there should be conservatives who are pro-choice, and that they should be those who do not rank men above women in the moral order." One of the glaring holes of Lakoff's book is the lack of empirical evidence or even a research program that would produce testable hypotheses. This is understandable, since research on human ethics and morality can't easily be separated from the messy world in which we live. The book is largely a thoughtful exposition based on plausible initial assumptions, and is no more scientific than Plato's Dialogs. That Lakoff shows that this model can explain or predict counter-intuitive beliefs is the only sign of scientific rigor I recall.
» P. 280: Liberal often castigate the conservative morality for whipping up anger and outrage, thus creating social conditions that foster immoral behavior. The relatively recent assassination of a doctor who performed abortions is one example; another is even more recent example of the militant who flew his small plane into a government building, killing himself and one government employee. "To the conservative, immoral behavior is attributable to individual character, not to social causes: What is right and what is wrong are clear, and the question is whether you are morally strong enough to do what is right. It's a matter of character. Conservatives believe that if an extreme conservative commits a crime, say killing people, in the name of vigilante justice, then conservatism itself cannot be held to blame, nor can those who spew hate over the airwaves. The explanation instead is that that individual had a bad character, that is, a bad moral essence. ...explanations on the basis of social causes are excluded."
» P. 296: Good example of when the cognitive frameworks can be intermixed even within one person.
Consider someone who is a thorough going liberal, but whose intellectual views are as follows: • There are intellectual authorities who maintain strict standards for the conduct of scholarly research and for reporting on such research. • It is unscholarly for someone to violate those standards. • Young scholars require a rigorous training to learn to meet those scholarly standards. ... • Students should not be "coddled." They should be held to strict scholarly standards at all times. ...
» P. 356: In his chapter "Raising Real Children", Lakoff discusses research that shows strongly that children raised within the Strict Fatherr morality tend to be more dysfunctional than those raised in the Nurturant Parent morality, even by the standards of the former: "This overall picture is quite damning for the Strict Father model. That model seems to be a myth. If this research is right, a Strict Father upbringing does not produce the kind of child it claims to produce. Incidentally, this picture is not from one study or from studies by one researcher. This is the overall picture gathered from many studies by many different researchers (see References, B2)." Yes... but...
Lakoff starts his book claiming he will be as non-partisan through most of the book, only explaining his conclusions the beliefs fostered by those conclusions in the final chapters. Yet, despite being a liberal myself I couldn't help but feel throughout the book that his bias was evident. I had the impression that his examples were chosen to highlight the failures of the Strict Father model and hide, or at least not address, those of the Nurturant Parent model.
Moreover, the picture Lakoff presents is that of a strict dichotomy, and I have reasons (someone eccentric ones) to think this is fundamentally flawed. Years ago I read a book on game theory which hinted that the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma was a thought experiment that provide astonishing insight into the eternal conflict between cooperation and competition. Sophisticated iPD models shows that blind "niceness" fails quickly in the face of predation; it also shows that predation fails more slowly, but no less inevitably when there are no more nice "suckers" around to prey on; the winning strategy is nice, but cautious, and strikes a middle ground between the two poles.
That Lakoff has formulated a model of cognition that somehow manages to completely ignore this golden mean makes me deeply suspicious. Certainly our genetic heritage from millions of years of cognitive development should provide the underpinnings that assist not just in "Strict Father" competitiveness or "Nurturant Mother" cooperation, but what lies between, what has allowed us to muddle through eons of flawed civilizations.
These comments, lengthy as they are, don't even tap into the several pages of notes I've got. They are only comments triggered by the post-it-note bookmarks I use to highlight specific passages.
It should be clear that this is, at least to me, a very important book. It is very flawed as well; even beyond the preceding complaints, Lakoff's style is pedantic and verbose, and often repetitive. I wish he had written a better book, however what he gave us still will be a source of deep thinking and surprising insights for those willing to wade in. ...more
Tomasello has written a short, sweet technical introduction to his theory of cooperation, which is a pretty hot topic in cognitive circles these days.Tomasello has written a short, sweet technical introduction to his theory of cooperation, which is a pretty hot topic in cognitive circles these days. The book was adapted from a series of lectures (Stanford's 2008 Tanner Lectures), so it isn't as heavily footnoted or quite as academic in tone as an academic journal article, but it doesn't spend quite as much time on background and basics as a typical pop-cog book. Still, it does cover a lot of territory in its short length (only 172 pages, with pretty big margins).
Tomasello explores cooperation with several different comparisons. He is most famous for comparing infants and toddlers to young chimpanzees, but that is just one aspect — he also explores cross cultural differences, for example. Children and chimps, however, are a very intriguing place to start, which is why the New York Times leaned heavily on his work in the December 2009 article We May Be Born With an Urge to Help (well worth reading).
He focuses on two basic phenomena (p. xvii): (1) Altruism: one individual sacrificing in some way for another; and (2) Collaboration: multiple individuals working together for mutual benefit.
De Mesquita's book is on the whole quite interesting, but ultimately very frustrating as well.
The essential idea is that he has created a computer modDe Mesquita's book is on the whole quite interesting, but ultimately very frustrating as well.
The essential idea is that he has created a computer model that simulates the interactions of multiple agents to predict the likelihood and form of an outcome. The basic form of the simulation is an iterated and evolving game. The inputs to the model are, apparently, purely quantitative representations of various attributes of those agents, including influence, salience and preferred outcome; the logic of the model is derived from game theory and rational choice theory.
What makes this intriguing is that De Mesquita's consulting firm apparently has had some signal successes with his predictions. He isn't shy about pointing to a CIA assessment giving him a 90 percent accuracy rate. More interesting, to me, is that he reports taking his model to the classroom of a skeptical academic and working the students in several analyses. Since those students provided the inputs and monitored the use of the model, it seems unlikely that it was being tweaked by its author — and since the model was used to successfully (at least according to the author) predict events several months in the future, its legitimacy is boosted.
The frustration of the book is that the model is proprietary, and De Mesquita provides practically no information regarding how it works. And its predictive powers as well as some of the details revealed should certainly raise skeptical eyebrows.
Why the cynicism?
First, the idea that complex negotiations and interactions can be reduced to simple numbers is tenuous itself. For example, he apparently believe that China's relative influence in negotiations over the regulation of greenhouse gases is 15, compared to the EU's influence of 87. Nuance and complexity are both elided.
Even if numbers can do the job, there is a big problem with knowing which numbers to include and which to ignore. Chapter 8 somewhat deals with this, when he acknowledges that his analysis of the Clinton health care effort came out completely wrong — because he included the House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, who then went on to get himself indicted and convicted on corruption charges. If that actor had been left out of the equations, we are told the model would have done just fine.
The larger problem is that the modeler must explicitly choose beforehand what to include in the model, and any exogenous effects cannot be known of until they become salient. De Mesquita seems to be implicitly arguing that history is effectively convergent: as long as there is no "earthquake", an analysis that includes only trivial representations of the most major agents involved will still usually be correct.
As an example of how flawed this might be, consider his presentation of his analysis of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Using only data that was known in 1948, he set up multiple somewhat randomized simulations of the following fifty years. On the face of it, his results are deliciously plausible: in 78 percent of the simulations, the United States emerged the sole superpower at some point during those fifty years; in 11 percent, the Soviet Union emerged the victor, and in 11 percent the conflict continued.
But he claims that his model predicted the formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, "each of which emerged in almost every simulation as the nations' positions shifted from round to round according to the model's logic." (This is footnoted with a reference to the Journal of Conflict Resolution, but I'm not so obsessed that I'm going back to the source. Oddly enough, as an international relations student I subscribed to that journal back in 1998 when his article was published, but I don't recall reading it.)
But if you put numbers into the model, how is it going to create the answer that some specific organization or coalition was formed? Only by programming the question into the model. But that adds another set of variables, doesn't it? Which questions should be asked, and how do we interpret the numeric outcomes to mean which answers?
The idea that the future could be predicted and even shaped is tantalizing, but such a bold claim requires much more detailed evidence than De Mesquita is willing to offer about his treasured model.
P.S.: oddly, one of the more intriguing discussions in the book is a game-theoretic analysis of the decline of the Catholic Church's political hegemony after the Concordat of Worms in 1122. For those that do choose to read the book, this is a delightful tidbit in the final chapter.
I hadn't realized this was a collection of Gladwell's essays, many (most? all?) have seen publication in the New Yorker. I found this out while readinI hadn't realized this was a collection of Gladwell's essays, many (most? all?) have seen publication in the New Yorker. I found this out while reading the New York Times essay on the book, Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective, by none other than Steven Pinker. His evaluation of What the Dog Saw is mostly laudatorypretty hostile*, althoughand he takes the opportunity to get a dig in at Outliers:
The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle. Fortunately for “What the Dog Saw,” the essay format is a better showcase for Gladwell’s talents, because the constraints of length and editors yield a higher ratio of fact to fancy.
And just for the sake of completeness, the New York Times published a "profile" of Gladwell, back in 2006, entitled The Gladwell Effect, by Rachel Donadio, which includes two pictures showing Gladwell's exuberant hair at two degrees of shornness. Bonus! (Although not quite as luxurious as Pinker's tresses...)
* Review edited for accuracy after I was prompted to read it more carefully! ...more
An excellent interview with the author was broadcast on KQED Forum. Summary:
Pediatrician and former head of the Food and Drug Administration David Kes
An excellent interview with the author was broadcast on KQED Forum. Summary:
Pediatrician and former head of the Food and Drug Administration David Kessler says the U.S. food industry has manipulated American consumers into unhealthy eating habits. In his book, "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite," Kessler describes how chronic overeaters might resist artificially induced food cravings.
Kessler is a pediatrician and was a commissioner of the United States FDA (Food and Drug Administration) during the 1990s. He became very active and aggressive in the war on tobacco (see his A Question of Intent), and more recently has gradually turned his attention towards the war on obesity.
How does this book differ from Eric Schlosser'sFast Food Nation, or Michael Pollan'sIn Defence of Food or The Omnivore's Dilemma? The radio interview linked to above gave me a clue, which I checked by searching for the word "dopamine" in each of these books. This is the neurochemical that mediates the reward system in the brain, including addiction behavior. Amazon and Google both tell me the word is used 37 times in Kessler's book, but not at all in any of the other three. The obvious conclusion is that this book is not redundant, but actual investigates the neural mechanism in which food—especially sugar and fat in combination—can act as an addictive drug. Perhaps the other books asserted as much, but Kessler seems to be delivering the goods. ...more
Every time I donate blood (and I've donated well over ten gallons) I'm asked whether I've spent at least three months in the U.K. prior to 1996 (c.f.) Every time I donate blood (and I've donated well over ten gallons) I'm asked whether I've spent at least three months in the U.K. prior to 1996 (c.f.). This is because of what we all called "Mad Cow Disease" and what the medical folks now call Variant Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (vCJD).
This book is poorly titled. Certainly, the horrible fate of an Italian family brings immediate human pathos to the story of prion diseases, but the more pressing story for many of us will be the atrocious practices in our food supply that permits—or even encourages—diseases like vCJD. But the real story lies elsewhere.
(It doesn't impress me that the Italian family is described as "noble", according to the blurbs. What on earth does that have to do with anything? Is the disease be more terrible because it is inflicted on "modern, cultured Italians, with stylish hair and eyewear"?)
There are several parallel stories told here. The chapters dealing with the Italian family's curse are interesting, as are those describing the investigation into Kuru ("a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy associated with the cannibalistic funeral practices of the Fore people of New Guinea"), although the chapters discussing the petty squabbles and large egos of the leading researchers in the field were less than riveting. But the heart of the book is the drama of how foolish cultures (British and American, mostly) willingly tolerate a socioeconomic system that eviscerates governmental regulation and industrial oversight, and how that played out in the Mad Cow disease crisis of the late 80s to mid-90s. (America mostly sitting smug on the sidelines, yet meanwhile tolerating incredibly disgusting practices in meat production, as well as incubating the Chronic Wasting Disease that is still spreading).
A European Union committee estimated that the English ate as many as 640 billion "doses" of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy during the mad-cow crisis. Luckily, it turns out the disease jumps the species barrier to humans very, very poorly—although there was a time when we didn't know that. British agricultural regulators are also responsible for the promotion of British agriculture (as so with the USDA), so they buried the story as long as they could. By the mid-90s, when the crisis reached its peak, one expert admitted that they could not "rule out 500,000 cases", and newspapers were wondering whether Great Britain would soon end up quarantined with half a million dying a year.
The problem? A fairly rare disease was spread through milk herds of Britain through the practice of protein supplements fed to milk cows. Among the sources of that protein are the carcasses of cows too diseased to permit into the human food supply. (Another source is chicken feces, which is still quite legal in the United States, by the way). Almost all diseases are eliminated through the rendering process, but "prions" are incredibly durable proteins.
But early on, British authorities were astonishingly stupid in their response to this disease. Americans had developed an antibody test that would almost instantly confirm the presence of a prion-based disease, but the British regulators choose to use a laborious and lengthy process of microscopic visual inspection rather than admit to trading partners that their food supply might have yet another problem. In fact, England's chief epidemiologist "wasn't a believer in prions". This, despite the fact that by this time two different Nobel Prizes had been awarded (to Americans!) for the discover of this new disease vector.
Britain—and the world—got lucky because BSE/vCJD isn't easily transmissible from cows to humans or between humans. Unlike scrapie in sheep, for instance, or perhaps Kuru (which might, perhaps, be infectious by merely handling the corpse of an infected person, instead of through cannibalism). The United States has inadvertently pushed scrapie into the wild population of deer, elk, etc., in the American wild, where it spreads with apparent ease.
After finishing this book, it is a relief to ponder that all-in-all the number of people that die annually due to prion diseases is probably barely one hundred, and so this is less of a realistic threat to the reader than, say, bee stings or choking on a chicken bone. But prions are the worst instances of proteins-gone-bad, and misfolding proteins are also suspect in many other diseases (e.g., Huntington's and Alzheimer's), and so we'll probably be hearing more about prion-like diseases in the future.
This was an engaging and well-written book; I highly recommend it for anyone that enjoys science and medical non-fiction. ...more