Humans are not from Earth: a scientific evaluation of the evidence was a bit of a left-field choice for my reading list I’ll admit. The self-published...moreHumans are not from Earth: a scientific evaluation of the evidence was a bit of a left-field choice for my reading list I’ll admit. The self-published book by ‘U.S. ecologist Ellis Silver’ (more on that later) caught my attention at the back end of last year when it was discussed on the Skeptics with a K podcast.
The book exploded into public consciousness when it was covered on the Daily Fail, and shared at the last count 58,000 times, and from the looks of it, parroted and linked to on countless conspiracy theory websites, including Alex Jones’ notorious Prison Planet.
I bought it as it was only 77p on my Kindle and then completely forgot about it. I found it again as I was tidying up my Kindle and putting together a list of my next ten books, and, remembering that it was only supposed to take a couple of hours to read, decided to give it a shot.
Ellis’ thesis is that humans did not evolve along with the rest of life on earth but that we were planted here by aliens (either fully formed or after being interbred with Neanderthals, he can't decide which), possibly to punish us for being war-mongering and horrible.
Here are his genuine reasons:
The sun hurts our eyes The sun kills us (gives us skin cancer) Some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) We commonly suffer from bad backs We have 223 apparently unique genes There no 'missing link' the fossil record We lack the ability to sense the Earth's magnetic fields (and use to get a sense of direction) We lack body hair Some people suffer from hay fever and asthma We like eating tasty food that is sometimes bad for us We breed too much, resulting in overpopulation We lack natural defenses against large predators We're destroying the environment The technological leap from protohumans to modern day is just too great We suffer from a host of chronic illness.
So, basically: I don't understand; therefore aliens.
As Ellis’ friend, Dave Haslett, says: “there are far too many coincidences for it to be a coincidence.’ (This is genuinely used as an argument in the book.)
Ellis' ridiculous arguments have been dismantled by others so I won't bother doing it here.
I’m not actually convinced that Humans are not from Earth isn’t just a massively successful hoax. The best writers at the Onion couldn’t have written a more convincing parody of conspiracy theory/poor science literacy/vanity publishing literature.
To check that it wasn’t actually just someone taking the piss, I did a little search for ‘Dr’ Ellis Silver and his academic background; he was referred to as an 'expert' in several reports on the book, although it was never clear what of - self-publicity perhaps? I can’t find much of anything that suggests that Ellis Silver is even a real person, nevermind one with a doctorate in ecology from a US institution. Nothing turns up on Google Scholar for an academic and a regular google search just turns up countless links to the book and to the publisher’s webpage, i4w2. There’s also nothing on the Amazon author’s page, and on an inactive twitter account for Ellis Silver, ‘ecological consultant and author’, there are just a handful of tweets referring to the book's publisher. *Alarm bells ringing*
Hoax or not, I think Humans are not from Earth would actually make a great learning resource: you could play name that logical fallacy, learn how not to formulate an argument, and, if you want to teach someone about evolution, going through everything this book gets wrong would actually be a pretty good place to start.
Anyone with a basic understanding of biology/who's heard of Occam’s Razor might laugh at this batshit crazy stuff, but the uncritical Daily Mail article, the way this tripe spread unchecked across the net, and the 10 five-star reviews for the book on Amazon (if they're not also parodies), are all pretty dispiriting.(less)
‘If you’ve got nothing to fear then you’ve got nothing to hide’ is what we’re told by governments and politicians looking to justify ever-increasing c...more‘If you’ve got nothing to fear then you’ve got nothing to hide’ is what we’re told by governments and politicians looking to justify ever-increasing constraints on free speech, privacy and civil liberties, all in the name of fighting the nebulous ‘War on Terror’. With fresh revelations about activities of GCHQ and the NSA arriving nearly every other day, AC Grayling’s polemical Liberty in the Age of Terror, now five years old, is even more relevant today than at the time of its publication.
In part one, Grayling outlines just why privacy and the most fundamental right of all, freedom of speech, matter, and how, in their eagerness to be seen to be doing something, politicians are quick to put in place laws and legislation that infringe on these rights and create more problems, both practical and ethical, than they solve. Biometric ID cards, blanket CCTV coverage, the tracking emails and telephone calls, and blasphemy laws are just a some of the examples Grayling uses to eloquently argue the case that we are in the midst of a fundamental change in the relationship between the citizen and the state, a relationship in which individuals are becoming suspects first, essentially guilty until proven innocent.
That ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’ (a quote commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson) is a central theme of the book. In willingly, or passively, allowing your freedoms to be eroded because you feel you have ‘nothing to hide’, Grayling says your complacency requires that you believe: “... that the authorities will always be benign; will always reliably identify and interfere with genuinely bad people only; will never find themselves engaging in ‘mission creep’, with more and more uses to put their new powers and capabilities to; will not redefine crimes, nor redefine various behaviours or views now regarded as acceptable, to extend the range of things for which people can be placed under suspicion—and so considerably on.”
The proposed Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Disorder (IPNA) civil order to replace (Antisocial Behavioural Orders (ASBOs), which would permit injunctions against anyone aged over 10 who "has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person" (my emphasis), is a recent example of the UK government (which is the focus of Liberty in the Age of Terror) demonstrating exactly why that trust is not justified.
Being deemed a 'nuisance' or 'annoying', nebulous terms that are ripe for misunderstanding and abuse, are deemed things the police can potentially take action against you for. Thankfully, the House of Lords saw sense and required that the bill be ammended.
Lord Dear (a former chief constable of West Midlands) has this to say about IPNAs: “It risks it being used for those who seek to protest peacefully, noisy children in the street, street preachers, canvassers, carol singers, trick-or-treaters, church bell ringers, clay pigeon shooters, nudists. This is a crowded island that we live in and we must exercise a degree surely of tolerance and forbearance. ” — http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2...
Lady Mallalieu, a QC and Labour peer: “My main concern is the extent to which lowering the threshold to behaviour capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person has the potential to undermine our fundamental freedoms and, in particular, the way in which the proposed law might be used to curb protest and freedom of expression.” — http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2...
Unfortunately, it looks as though the amendments appear to be in wording only. ‘Nuisance’ and ‘annoyance’ will be replaced with ‘harassment, alarm or distress’, the terms used in the ASBO legislation. One set of nebulous words are to be replaced with another, with the principle of the legislation - and its liberty reducing nature - remaining the same.
More recent still, there was the proposal which could see terror suspects (suspects mind, not people who have actually been convicted of anything) stripped of their citizenship and left stateless. How any sensible government can think this is a good idea is beyond me.
Grayling does concede that in the case of a real threat from terrorism, some curbs to freedom may need to be enacted, drawing on the Second World War as an example. Curfews and ID cards were in place at a time of genuine existential threat but these were strictly time-limited. Once the threat was over, freedoms and rights were restored. Grayling suggests that all laws which impinge on civil liberties should have ‘sunset clauses’, which strictly stipulate when the law must be reviewed in order for it to continue to stand or be repealed. What we have at the moment, particularly in the UK and the US, are non-specific, non-time-limited acts, which once in place are hard to remove and only pave the way for things to get worse.
In Part 2 of the book, Debates, Grayling discusses the works and arguments of other prominent philosophers, including Isaiah Berlin, John Gray, Slavoj Zizek (whom he really takes to the sword), John Ralston and Tzveten Todorov. Here, the arguments are dense, but also more varied. Where Part 1 was focused largely on the principles of freedom of speech and civil liberties, here we get digressions on the value of humanism (in his evisceration of John Gray’s contrary pessimism) and a staunch defense of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights against short-sighted critics who deride it for not immediately solving the world’s, and moral relativists who see is an imposition by ‘the West’. The debates section is perhaps one that needs to be read twice, if at all in fact. Whilst it’s a lesson in combative philosophical debate, the wider arguments set out in Part 1 can get lost and it’s occasionally very heavy going.
Both appendices are, however, well worth your time. The first is a precise of the UDHR a wonderful and valuable tool and stepping stone on the way to a fairer, open and just peaceable world. The second is a history of the tsunami of legislation introduced by Labour government the Bush administration that has eroded civil liberties post 9/11 and come close to running contra to many of the principles laid out in the UDHR. The number of illiberal, ill-thought-out laws and acts brought introduced by to the UK by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments is astounding and the potted history of the NSA since 2000, and its relationship with both the US government and the private sector, also makes for gruesome reading. You wonder why ‘if you’ve got nothing to fear then you’ve got nothing to hide’ governments and organisations like GCHQ and NSA try so hard to keep secrets.
As a collection of Grayling’s previous writings brought together in book form, Liberty in the Age of Terror can occasionally feel repetitive, but I don’t see this as a wholly negative, as much of what he says is important enough to bear repeating. This book makes for sobering frightening reading, but is also a call to arms for those who do not wish to relinquish their hard-won freedoms and rights.
Ben Franklin’s “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” appears several times throughout Liberty in the Age of Terror ; e would do well to keep that in mind if we are not to end up in world where Room 101 becomes a reality.(less)
Over the last few years, Gunnar Tjomlid has rightly built up a reputation as the best skeptical blogger in Norway. Consistently insightful, even-hande...moreOver the last few years, Gunnar Tjomlid has rightly built up a reputation as the best skeptical blogger in Norway. Consistently insightful, even-handed, almost obscenely thorough, and perhaps most importantly, accessible, Saksynt is a fantastic example of grassroots skepticism. His award at the Vixen Blog Awards a couple of weeks ago was richly deserved, and came in the same week that he was embroiled in a controversy that had other bloggers accusing him, amongst other things, of trivializing child pornography for daring to turn a skeptical eye to sensitive issue.
Placebodefekten, released by Humanist Forlag in the Autumn of last year, draws together ideas, criticisms and explanations from Tjomlid’s countless blog posts over the last few years to discuss some of some of the psychological, biological and societal factors that come together to produce the placebo effect – a phenomenon much more complex than just something that ‘works’, or has an effect, because you expect it to – and how, in combination with a raft of shortcomings in the way we see the world, it contributes to the popularity and proliferation of alternative therapies.
By definition, alternative therapies are those that have either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work. Despite this, they continue to remain popular and proliferate, with millions of spent on chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy, reiki and the like, every year.
Testing whether something ‘works’ is not just a matter of measuring if someone gets better after being treated. The treatment effect (the measure of whether the treatment works) is a combination of the genuine therapeutic effect of the treatment, the natural development of the disease or illness, and the placebo effect in addition. The natural progression of the ailment and the placebo effect are commonly and wrongly conflated. Tjomlid does a fantastic job of untangling them and explaining how and why therapies which have no scientific basis or evidence-base behind them appear to help people get better.
No one’s going to die from a swallowing a homeopathic sugar pill or dangling a crystal over their head but alternative therapies don’t stop there. Whilst chirocpractic can occasionally have deadly consequences, it’s the anti-vaccine movement we have most to worry about. Not vaccinating yourself or, worse (because I think it is a dereliction parental duty) choosing not to vaccinate your child, isn’t just a matter of personal choice and freedom: compromising herd immunity is having devastating and deadly consequences.
One of Tjomlid’s analogies, when deconstructing the idea that vaccines are bad because they’re ‘unnatural’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ bears repeating. If a wolf was attacking a child, no parent would hesitate in fighting the wolf off, despite it being within the wolf’s nature to attack the child. But when we get smaller in scale, down to bacteria and viruses, the same thinking doesn’t seem to apply. Whilst the principle of protecting a child from harm is the same in each case, using vaccines to protect against nature’s microscopic predators is seen as wrong because instead of say a throwing a rock or a stick or firing a gun we are now using denatured proteins. In trying to ‘protect’ children, the anti-vaccine movement, driven by fears of ‘chemicals’ and/or the now thoroughly debunked idea that vaccines cause autism and/or in extreme cases government mind control devices, are doing the exact opposite.
Much of Placebodefekten covers familiar ground for skeptics: our natural tendencies for pattern-seeking, poor memory and memory reconstruction, confirmation bias, our drive to seek cause and effect relationships, and for order and control in our lives. That’s not to say that the seasoned skeptic won’t learn something new; I picked up countless ways to better explain these biases to others and there were plenty of ‘oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that before’ moments. (Case in point: I’ve been using the terms ‘alt-med’ or ‘alternative treatments’ since forever but will now exclusively use ‘alternative therapies’ as both the former terms imply a level of underserved legitimacy.)
Each chapter ends with an ‘alternative cliché’ (‘it worked for me!’, ‘it’s ‘natural’ so it must be safe and good for you’, ‘it strengthens your immune system’, ‘the placebo effect doesn’t work on children and animals’ etc.) which is pithily dismantled in a couple of hundred words. They’re a useful reference point next time you have a friend or relative extolling the virtues of alternative therapies but not the time or perhaps ability to explain the intricacies of human psychology and the immune system.
It’s the personal ‘it worked for me’ or 'my son was vaccinated and was then diagnosed with autism' stories that are powerful and stick in the memory – anecdotes are one of the strongest weapons in the armoury of alternative therapy practitioners and advocates. ‘The plural of anecdotes is not data!’ is the skeptic’s cry, and whilst this is true, it has resulted in skeptics shying away from utilizing the power of narratives and –wrongly – thinking that numbers and facts will do all the work.
One of the real strengths of Placebodefekten is way Tjomlid uses anecdotes as a way to frame the science. Personal stories, such as his quest to get to the bottom of a frequently upset stomach, walk the reader through just how easy it is to convince yourself, even as a skeptic, of the wrong thing. Short stories of Stein Alderman (stone-age man; a clever pun in Norwegian) going about his daily business break up the pace and set up some of the chapters with entertaining analogies of cognitive biases. These stories give meaning to the skepticial thinking behind them, and have greater effect than just playing ‘name that logical fallacy’ and shouting ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc!’ , which I’ve often seen skeptics do.
The final chapter, which focuses on the wider social and implications of the placebo effect, is when things get really interesting. How can/should those practising science-based medicine use the placebo effect in an effective and ethical way is a tricky question, not least because the answer must take into account the ethical implications of doctors potentially lying to patients, withholding the truth or talking up the effect of a treatment, whilst in no way legitimizing the use of alternative therapy placebos like homeopathy.
Tjomlid suggests that one thing health practitioners can learn from alternative therapists, and a good way to potentially utilize the placebo effect whilst avoiding many tricky ethical issues, is to give the patient time, listen attentively, take them seriously and make them feel valued. This sounds sensible enough but there are two significant problems. The first is very practical: health services are already over-stretched and most doctors just do not have the time for lengthy consultations. The second strikes at the heart of an important conundrum set out in the final chapter of Placebodefekten. Tjomlid, quite rightly, identifies our increasingly medicalized lifestyles as one of the root causes for the continuing popularity of alternative therapies in the face of overwhelming evidence against their efficacy. As a result of the ever-decreasing risk of disease and illness (thanks in no small part to conventional medicine and vaccines of course), small, generalized complaints (tiredness, lack of sleep, irritability etc.) become more noticeable and significant to the individual – these are exactly the kinds of ailments that can’t be easily ‘treated’ and are exactly the kinds of diffuse, fluctuating and self-correcting things homeopathy and the like claim to cure. In advocating for doctors to use more time listening to the patient, and perhaps performing a (non-invasive) medical examination that is not strictly necessary in order to utilize the placebo effect, there is a very real danger of legitimizing non-serious complaints and creating a vicious cycle of medicalization, which keeps the door to alternative therapies open.
Thought-provoking, entertaining and informative, Placebodefekten is an effective vaccine against uncritical thinking. I suggest getting immunized as soon as possible and reading Saksynt for regular booster shots.(less)
I can always count on my cousin for an off-the-wall book as a Christmas present and he out-did himself with Egghead, a collection of modern poetry by...moreI can always count on my cousin for an off-the-wall book as a Christmas present and he out-did himself with Egghead, a collection of modern poetry by the young comedian, songwriter and performer, Bo Burnham.
The poems range from half a dozen words to two dozen lines which flit with dizzying frequency in tone, style and subject matter; serious and melancholic on one page, or even on one line, and whimsical and absurd the next. Candid, heartfelt, and occasionally surprisingly cynical musings on love, life and loneliness are interspersed with ditties on chameleons riding sex toys, golgi bodies and ant farms. You never really know what to expect next other than that when the sucker-punch comes it’ll catch you off-guard and startle you in the way it reveals something about human nature.
Each of the poems are complemented by Chance Bone’s deceptively simple line drawings. Some of the illustrations are literal interpretations of the text, others are more obtuse; some echo the frequent non sequiturs in the poetry - they appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with the words on the page and are just little stories unto themselves. The juxtaposition of text and drawing draws your eye across the page whilst also taking your mind off in different directions, again adding to the impact of the punchline or observation.
Burnham’s self-awareness ripples through the book, but it stays very much on the right side of become irritating because it’s just so damn funny and clever in the way it plays with your expectations of him, the idea and the format. In Absurd, he writes “If the poem you’re writing is silly and dumb, / make sure that it rhymes at the end. Bum.” Verging on childish? Perhaps; Clever? Definitely. The self-awareness even extends to the subtitle. You can very well survive on ideas alone – Bo Burnam burgeoning career is proof of that; and long may it continue. - See more at: http://scicommbobulate.blogspot.no/20...(less)
In KonspiraNorge, journalist and writer John Færseth explores how and why conspiracy theories have established themselves in Norway, how they’re found...moreIn KonspiraNorge, journalist and writer John Færseth explores how and why conspiracy theories have established themselves in Norway, how they’re found in different forms across the political spectrum, and the changes taking place as different conspiracy movements shift focus, morph and feed into each other.
I thought Anders Behring Breivik and the events of July 22nd 2011 would loom large in KonspiraNorge, but instead they form the backdrop of this wider more general discussion, which, as a relative newcomer and outsider when it comes to Norwegian society and politics, I appreciated. The first third of the book actually focuses on the US, where conspiracies of the type we meet today, particularly concerning the Illuminati, Bilderberg group, and Freemasons seem to have been born.
New World Orders and anti-Semitic conspiracies, and the frightening frequency and strength with which they continue to crop up both on the conservative right, where they are best known, and occasionally liberal the left, form the backbone of the book. The focus shifts, disappointingly briefly it must be said, to conspiracies surrounding Islam and Eurabia towards towards the end, at which point Færseth also touches a slightly more contemporary phenomenon, that of the slow cross-pollination between the traditionally male-dominated realm of conspiracy theory (with its negative focus on global politics) and the female-dominated New Age/alternative medicine (with its positive focus on self). ‘Conspirituality’ is the overlap in the venn diagram of paranoid thinking that is typified by ideas such as vaccines containing mind-controlling nanotechnology.
The interviews Færseth conducts with both well-known purveyors of conspiracies, including writers and editors for the notorious Nyhetsspeilet, and the odd members of general public who seemed to have been sucked in, are revealing and interesting and set the book apart from what is occasionally a retread of familiar ground. What’s frightening and fascinating in equal measure is just how often the interviews reveal how those taken in by conspiracy theories have misapplied useful critical thinking principles – asking questions, following what the evidence tells you, being weary of arguments from authority, etc. – to arrive at some quite outlandish conclusions. Arguing with conspiracy theorists is often a Sisyphean task: picking holes in one source often just leads to them referring to another equally unreliable source, they’ll often shift the conversation to other things, or they’ll tend to focus on unresolved, small, peripheral details in the belief they’re enough to undermine the mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Just this afternoon as I was finishing up this review I saw this 9/11 Truther documentary shared Facebook and described as “by far one of the best documentaries I've ever seen” and followed up by "... at least my opinion is based on information from both sides you're just being narrow minded. The official report is scientifically impossible even a school kid would know that".
Although it sounds a little defeatist, it’s not about convincing those that are already taken in by a particular conspiracy: ‘you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into’, although it does occasionally happen. It’s far more effective to inoculating people by giving them the tools to apply sceptical thinking appropriately. Færseth is right to point out that this begins by focusing on the current generation of young adults and children, who have unprecedented access to information and need to form good habits of source criticism and critical thinking to help them filter the good from the bad – beginning with fact-checking before clicking like or share the next time they see something on Facebook.
For those masochists who do wish to take on conspiracy theories via internet forums, conversations or debates, Færseth has some sound advice which I think bear repeating:
- Be polite (it’s far too easy to forget this but it helps your cause no end). - Don’t go in without hard facts, especially in discussions with people who deeply invested in the topic and could readily trip you up. - Avoid falling foul of Godwin’s Law or Reductio ad Hitlerum. - Don’t be afraid to admit if your opponent is right about something (if you are sure they are) whilst at the same time continuing to dissect other arguments about which they are not . - Stick to the point and avoid letting the discussion sprawl into none-related areas.
There is some cheeky humour dotted throughout KonspiraNorge, not least in some of the brilliant subheadings (the highlight of which is ‘Hitler was a gay magician’), which help soften the occasional bouts of despair you feel for humanity, but it lacks the same charm and wit found Jon Ronson’s comparable Them, which I thoroughly recommend.
Whilst certainly engaging and informative, I can’t help but feel that KonspiraNorge would have been all the more compelling with some tighter editing. By way of example, discussions of conspiracies surrounding former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and whether or not he is really a Jew are introduced and scattered throughout the book but we have to wait until two thirds into the book before we come to a chapter dedicated to the matter, and even then it is largely focused on holocaust denialism, which is covered in earlier section. This is one of many ideas which sprawl over several chapters, creating needless repetition that clogs things up.
For all its flaws in structure, KonspiraNorge is a good, critical, even-handed - and occasionally genuinely terrifying.(less)
The great strength of good science fiction is the ability to take contemporary events and technologies and extrapolate them in ways that predict the f...moreThe great strength of good science fiction is the ability to take contemporary events and technologies and extrapolate them in ways that predict the future whilst simultaneously telling us something about —and satirizing— the present. Much-celebrated writer Margaret Atwood crafts stories and worlds that do exactly this, although, rather controversially, she prefers to not to call her books science fiction, as, according to her rather restrictive definition, the ‘fiction’ in ‘science fiction’ is ‘things which are not possible today’ and her books are very much based the technology and social mores of the present.
Over the course of the three tightly-woven books that make up the MaddAddam Trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and, the recently released MaddAddam, Atwood transports us to a twisted but all-too-real dystopian future, where a carefully engineered plague has wiped out most of humanity, leaving behind a rag-tag bunch of survivors fighting wild and dangerous genetically modified animals and each other for survival, whilst living uneasily alongside a new species of lab-engineered quasi-humans, table rasa and sporting glowing blue genatalia.
Oryx and Crake centres on Snowman, who, suspecting he is the last man alive, is slowly going insane whilst he scavenges for scraps and lives in trees to avoid being scavenged himself. The story is told over two timelines: In Snowman’s present (around 100 years into the future) we learn of the Crakers, the perfect bioengineered quasi-humans created by the titular Crake, Snowman’s one-time best, and only, friend. Having no sense of the world around them, the Crakers rely on Snowman to make sense of the world for them, something which he is struggling to do for himself as comes to term with the devastation around him.
Told in parallel, through Snowman’s fevered and bitter recollections, we are also taken back to his pre-apocalyptic incarnation as Jimmy, who was lucky enough to be born into the privilege of sanitary Compound life, home of moneyed execs and scientists, separated from the urban jungle of the Pleeblands, where the proles dwell. Snowman’s story is of the outcome of Crake’s attempt to reboot the human race; Jimmy’s is of the why and how it happened. Jimmy’s love-hate friendship with Crake, and love of the ethereal Oryx, play out in a terrifyingly well-realised world of technocratic apartheid that’s driven by increasingly sophisticated bioengineering and rampant free-market consumerism and with a terrifying backdrop of violence, paedophilia and hyper-intelligent pigs.
The Year of the Flood
The Year of the Flood is a pseudo-sequel, with much of the novel’s timeline overlapping with Oryx and Crake. The perspective switches primarily to sturdy and pragmatic Toby, who inadvertently finds herself seeking refuge with a pseudo-Christian religious cult, the God’s Gardeners, who live a life of ascetism in preparation for the ‘waterless flood’. It was refreshing to have a female protagonist, still an all-too-rare a thing in post-Ripley-from-Aliens science fiction, and Toby is certainly easier to warm to than Jimmy and his needy weakness.
The weaving of this story with that recounted by Snowman/Jimmy is executed really cleverly and in a way that never feels clunky or contrived, something that can’t be said for many other expansive books (and TV shows) that have tried the same. The Year of the Flood still retains the grim streak of Oryx and Crake, but this is undercut by the gentle satire and absurdity of the God’s Gardeners and their Nature Religion. In Oryx and Crake, the tightly controlled bubbled-off world was the really interesting character, not the people in it. The introduction of a wider set of protagonists and relationships, the anarchic setting of the Pleeblands, and perhaps the religious element too, gives Year of the Flood a more human and humane feel.
MaddAddam has the same pseudo-sequel feel as The Year of the Flood; gaps are filled and the foundations of the story extended and the narrative is woven into a knot that is a joy to unpick. Through more flashbacks, we delve deeper into the inception of the God’s Gardner’s and Crake’s rise to infamy, whilst in the present, the remaining survivors band together and attempt to rebuild their lives and establish some semblance of normality and routine.
This book is perhaps the funniest of the three, off-setting what feels like unrelenting bleakness with some delightful off-beat humour, largely as a result of the Crakers playing a more central role in the story. Never again will you exclaim ‘oh fuck’ without raising a wry smile. It also has the most to say about being human, about the humanity left in the society that remains, and the indelible humanity left in the creatures that Crake deliberately designed to be less human.
The brilliance of the story is taking some of humanity’s excesses, demands and needs –plundering the earth for resources; killing animals and each other; constantly striving to modify and ‘improve’ nature and ourselves for vanity and sustenance; economic apartheid; religion– and taking them to their not-quite-as-absurd-as-they-first-appear extreme. Prepare to be enlightened, confused, and occasionally grossed out as you inhabit the warped but disconcertingly familiar reality that Atwood as created.
Dystopias are the natural future homes for pessimists. As a natural optimist, I have strong hopes for humanity and what we can do with the science and technology available to us. The MaddAddam trilogy is razor sharp satire and a dizzying parable for where we are now and what may lie further ahead on the slippery helter-skelter that we find ourselves hurtling down. (less)
The continuum from chemistry to life is now being stretched into technology. Adam Rutherford’s ‘two-books-in-one’, Creation, explores how life might h...moreThe continuum from chemistry to life is now being stretched into technology. Adam Rutherford’s ‘two-books-in-one’, Creation, explores how life might have started and just what the future of life might be, with the advent of synthetic biology and increasingly cheaper, easier and democratic genetic engineering technologies putting us on the cusp of a revolutionary new age.
In The Origin of Life, with care, just the right amount of detail and cheerful wit, and using the stories and biographies of modern and historical chemists, Rutherford explains the science and scientific discoveries that are helping us figure out what life is and just how life on earth began.
Life may have originated on earth many times, but we know for certain that it only succeeded once. We know this, not just because all species on the planet same the basic genetic code, but because the proteins that the genes code for are all ‘right-handed’. I like to see this as though all the books in the library of life were not just written in the same language but also in the same font. If there wasn’t a single origin, we’d see left-handed proteins.
Stanley Miller’s seminal 1953 paper ‘A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions’, proposed the idea that life began in a ‘primordial soup’, and idea that has held sway for a long time, but newer theories propose that life actually started in porous rocks. British scientists like Nick Lane are trying to recreate conditions that resemble the earliest on earth to see just how chemicals can become life. The aim is not to reproduce the conditions exactly for the origin of life as they happened, that is pretty much impossible as much of what we know about that time has been lost in the tumult of the earth’s turbulent geological history; creating one plausible way it could have happened is enough.
MRS GREN: movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, nutrition, is what every school kid learns as something like the definition of life, but MRS GREN are the seven things that living things do; it is not a definition of what life is. There’s quite a bit of chemistry to get your head around as Rutherford explains the inadequacies of the MRS GREN definition and we move from molecules to cells to organisms made of trillions of cells, but this is no bad thing because of the engaging way it is presented; A writer that can explain the intricacies of the Krebs cycle without calling it the Krebs cycle deserves a huge deal of credit, and by the end of it you’ll have a pretty good idea of the ideas that lie behind newer ideas which define life as ‘energy capture that locally fights the second law of thermodynamics’, and the role of chemiosmosis in the origin of life.
The Future of Life is about where our increasingly sophisticated technological mastery of biology will take us, moving on from the chemistry lesson of the first 'book' and into exciting, speculative territory, centring around the nascent field of ‘synthetic biology’ and the ever-blurring line between biology and engineering.
We’ll learn of possibilities of modern transgenetic techniques which have led to the Freckles the goat, who has DNA from the golden weave spider spliced into her genome, allowing her to produce spider silk in her milk, and through the neat metaphor of early hip hop, we’ll learn how the BioBrix initiative is taking the tradition of open-source programming and democratising the science of gene manipulation, taking it out of the hands of the moneyed elite and putting it into the hand of any enthusiastic biology or engineering student who wants to build circuits outs of cellular machinery. I'd recommenced listening to the excellent Guardian Science Weekly podcast on the 6th International Meeting on Synthetic Biology, held at the Imperial College London in July for more details about the exciting projects and ideas currently in the works.
The latter part of The Future of Life moves away from the nitty-gritty of the genetics and discusses the revolution afforded by new biological techniques in the context of some of the ethical dilemmas that come to the fore as we grapple with new ways of understanding and controlling nature. There’s a fair and robust defence of GM crops, and a discussion of the tension between the possibilities afforded to us by new genetic engineering techniques and the public’s (general lack of) understanding of the science and the resistance of vociferous interests groups, that serve to outline some of the problems, which whilst certainly not new, will come increasingly to the fore as we search for ways to meet ever-growing global food – and fuel – demands.
As biology becomes engineering, commodification, ownership and patents become increasingly significant. One issue, that of patenting genes, has come nearer to resolution in the few months since the publication of Creation. The BRAC1 gene, which repairs DNA in breasts tissue and is associated with increased risk of breasts cancer when faulty, came into the wider public’s conscience after it was revealed that Anglie Jolie had a preventative double masectomy after screening positive for a mutated version of it. Myriad Genetics, wished to hold patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 and be the only producer of tests to detect mutations in these genes, something which an anthema to the open source ethos of BioBrix and the like. Ben Goldacre wrote about the absurdity of patenting genes, and to the relief of researchers all over the world, the US Supreme Court ruled that "A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated", invalidating Myriad's patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but, crucially, leaving room open for patents on gene products that had been manipulated to create something not found in nature. Legal and ethical battles rage on and will have much to say about the direction and speed of progress in genetics.
Whilst Creation is, on the whole, a great, fun and informative read, splitting it into two ostensibly separate books, having the book flip over as we move from the origin of life to its future, quite literally marking the turning point turning for the discipline of biology, for me, just doesn’t really work. I doubt there are many people who will start with The Future of Life, without having read The Origin of Life first. Treating them as independent books means that much of the beginning of Future chapter peppered with re-treads of what was already written or Origins, or footnotes pointing to where it was covered in more detail. Just as with evolution, the future is built on the past and Creation would have been much the better for it if it had embraced this continuum; a minor criticism of what is an excellent book.(less)
Placing any limitations on what people are allowed to say makes us collectively weaker and stupider is the core argument of Bjørn Stærk’s compact and...morePlacing any limitations on what people are allowed to say makes us collectively weaker and stupider is the core argument of Bjørn Stærk’s compact and thought-provoking book Ytringsfrihet. Stærk argues that freedom of speech allows us to think clearer, get closer to the ‘truth’ and ensure that conflicts remains a matter of words and not bullets and gas chambers.
Like Stærk, I’m an idealist when it comes to free speech. I think that all ideas, whether we like them or not, should be allowed to be expressed.
Censorship actually makes us weaker, because we can’t develop arguments against ideas that we don’t know exist. Complete freedom of speech, on the other hand, makes us stronger, as we are forced to think about and develop arguments against things we don’t agree with. Instead of sending extremists to the dark corners of closed internet forums, where they fester unchecked, we should open all ideas up to the harsh light of criticism. This means that if someone wants to say that the holocaust never happened, or that women are the weaker sex, or that god hates gays, or that man-made climate change isn’t a thing, that’s fine. It’s up to us to prove them wrong with reason, logic and evidence. The difficulty with this idealism is that, as Jonathan Swift wrote, “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired...”
Contained within this principled stance for freedom of speech is the proviso that we are talking solely about ideas. It is important to understand that attacking ideas is one thing and attacking individuals is another. In an ideal world, opposition to the suggestion that a woman, Jane Austen, should be featured on the next British £10 note, would use reasoned, non-threatening arguments for alternatives. In reality, opponents led a coordinated attack of misogyny and rape threats against feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP, Stella Creasy, perpetrated by men from all walks of life. Rape threats are not covered by freedom of speech. However, as Tanya Gold points out, whilst both are utterly despicable, there is a difference between the rhetorical ‘I think you should raped’ and the threat‘I am going to rape you’.
Today, incidentally is #twittersilence day, in protest against online misogyny. I respect those taking part in the protest but think it is misguided. It's a self-censorship that silences those whose voices need to be heard, rather than the trolls who spout hate. I’m a fan of #shoutingback.
Twitter is now rolling out a report button as a response t othe problem, but not everyone, myself included, is convinced that technological solutions are what is required to tackle entrenched societal misogyny. I recommend reading Padraig Reidy’s excellent writings over at Index on Censorship regarding what can/can’t, should/shouldn’t be done about abuse on Twitter, without undermining freedom of speech.
As with the internet forums on which Stærk faced neo-Nazis in the mid-90s, social networking hasn’t directly been responsible for an increase in racism, sexism or homophobia, or any other prejudice – it’s just given people a platform to share those views. It’s the same platform that has given people the chance to share many more good things too.
Absolute freedom of speech can lead to the problem of false equivalency and the idea that all opinions deserve to be heard and are as valid and legitimate as each other. That is obviously not the case. As Stærk outlines, we enact a form of censorship by controlling the level of exposure that different ideas get based on practical limits. There is obviously a degree of selection when it comes to opinions expressed on prime-time TV and in articles in the mainstream press and those consigned to blogs and internet forums with niche audiences. This practical curb on freedom of speech only becomes a real problem if there is a systematic selection against a particular group or idea, something which conspiracy theorists often play up.
Those who believe they know the Truth, typically the religious, are much more likely to want to protect it from scrutiny, than those who believe the world is made up of smaller truths, which are our best approximations of the reality we find ourselves in. The problem is that those who have ideas they wish to protect, often, perhaps even deliberately, confuse criticism for persecution and hide behind the shield of blasphemy laws, the very antithesis of freedom of speech. Blasphemy laws putatively protect minorities from being persecuted and increase tolerance, but they don't. The reality is that these often vague laws are used to persecute minorities.
Stærk’s book does not just argue for the importance of free speech, but also argues the reader to think through why freedom of speech is important and your reasons for where you think, if any, limits should be placed on what people are allowed to say. Stærk uses simple hypothetical problems as a way of forcing the reader to think about their points of view and the consequences of following through with that idea. You can’t just say something is silly, or wrong, or a sacred good; you have to know what the person is talking about have good reasons to explain why you think it is silly, wrong or good. Saying ‘it just is’ or ‘everybody knows…’ is worse than meaningless and is actually damaging because it puts you on the back foot in an argument.
A question that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, posed as an aside in the book, is whether freedom of speech should be limited in terms of the damage that may be inflicted on the weakest or in terms of the opportunities it gives to the strongest (under the understanding that I think very few limits should be imposed all). It’s a good question to ask yourself as a starting point for where you yourself stand. Idealist or pragmatist, liberal or conservative, (in the general outlook, not just in the political sense), it is important to have reasons for what you place value in – it’s how we can argue our way to a better world.
Stærks’s book is the first in a new series, Pro et contra, from the Humanist Forlag, which aims to examine contemporary ethical issues and serve as a guide for provoking reflection and discussion. Books on genetically modified foods and criticism of religion are in the pipeline. If they’re half as thought-provoking as Ytringsfrihet, they should be an excellent read.(less)
Skepsis – Guide to kritisk tenkning* is an introduction to skepticism compiled by Mona Hilde Klausen and Kjetil Hope, two especially active members of...moreSkepsis – Guide to kritisk tenkning* is an introduction to skepticism compiled by Mona Hilde Klausen and Kjetil Hope, two especially active members of the skeptical movement in Norway and until recently committee members for Foreningen Skepsis, Norway’s national skepticism association. Split into two sections, the book first gives a general overview of the scientific method, cognitive psychology as it relates to the reliability, or otherwise, of our perception and memory, and argumentation and logical fallacies https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/home. The second section contains a discussion of pseudoscientific staples such as alternative medicine, psychics, aliens and conspiracy theories, each chapter written by a different author.
First a caveat/disclosure: I am someone who is slowly settling into life in Norway and sticking my fingers in lots of skeptical pies, including Foreningen Skepsis, and can consider myself an acquaintance of both the editors and most of the contributors. I have tried to ignore this and judge the book on its own merits and done my best to be good skeptic, by, just as the book advises, being critical and trying to avoid things like confirmation bias. I get that it's weird to review the book English but I'm good not good enough to write in Norwegian. I can now understand (most) of the vocabulary subtleties of the language but generating it is a whole different matter. Given that most Norwegians have a better grasp of English than me anyway, I don't think it's too much of a problem, but I will switch to writing in Norwegian about Norwegian things as soon as I can.
As a guide to critical thinking, the book starts from the bottom up, with clear explanations of what counts as science and the strength and value of the scientific method. It might have something to do with the fact that I am familiar to some degree with most of the material, but it’s worth saying that as a non-native speaker still getting to grips with the language, and particularly the idioms, I was able to understand the definitions and explanations without losing track or getting bogged down. This is quite a feat considering I have read many a book in English that try to explain, for example, logic and argumentation – and fail miserably. There is a lot of ground-work covered in the first section, with an impressive breadth, but this breadth does mean that it may well take multiple readings for all the different definitions, types of scientific studies and fallacies to sink in and make sense.
As an aside, it was a really interesting exercise keeping track of how words and phrases in the sphere of science and skepticism were carried over from English and how and when their translations to Norwegian worked. For some phrases, like ‘cherry-picking’, the literal translation ‘kirsebær-plukking’ work well, others, like ‘kald-lesing’ for ‘cold-reading’, just don’t conjure up the same imagery and meaning. In this case, ‘tenke-fisking’, meaning ‘thought-fishing’, was used, which is so good I think the same phrase should be adopted in English.
I found the second section of the book, which applied the principles outlined in the first section, a little patchier, but still very good. The chapters on alternative medicine and vaccines are good for being open and even-handed. To the question of whether alternative medicine works or not, the answer given is that we just don’t know because there is so little research, and the research that has been conducted is of such poor quality. That’s not to say that that is a wishy-washy look at alt-med; physically impossible and patently absurd ideas like homeopathy are put firmly in their place. The even-handedness comes from acknowledging the limits of ‘proper’ medicine, particularly in the excellent section that breaks down common arguments against conventional medicine, such as doctors not treating the whole patient and that they’re under the thumb of Big Pharma. For a more in-depth analysis of alternative medicine I would thoroughly recommend Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment (Bløffeller behandling in Norwegian), and Ernst’s blog for its frequent and consistently excellent articles.
I picked this chapter to single out especially because of its importance: I’ve come to see that alternative medicine and anti-vaccine movements have a depressingly strong hold in Norway. Critical thinking and understanding evidence is vitally important with medical matters because lives are literally at stake, making discussions about ghosts, UFOs, corn circles and aliens feel rather trivial in comparison.
What I most enjoyed about the book, and my strongest reason for recommending it, is the clear question and answer format adopted across all of the chapters. For seasoned skeptics it serves as a starting point to thinking about the answers to give to those questions when confronted with them in everyday conversations, for others they are a good way to critically analyse what they themselves think about something they had previously done or believed unthinkingly.
With pro-alt-med, ghosts, aliens and parapsychology continuing to pop up in the Norwegian news with depressing regularity, and infamous conspiracy theory hive Nyhetsspeilet continuing to be one of the most visited Norwegian websites, the need for a book like Skepsis – Guide to kritisk tenkning, which makes skepticism accessible to a wider audience of Norwegians, is obvious. (less)
I’ve done it a little backwards as I read Darryl Cunningham’s Science Tales, which I absolutely loved and reviewed for Argument, before I read his fir...moreI’ve done it a little backwards as I read Darryl Cunningham’s Science Tales, which I absolutely loved and reviewed for Argument, before I read his first graphic novel release, Psychiatric Tales. Whilst Science Tales was a more straight-forward piece of science communication, Psychiatric Tales is a personal and often emotional account of Darryl’s experiences working within the psychiatric care system, told using an earlier form of his inimitable, subtle black and white drawings.
Those working in mental health have made a concerted effort to create a shift in the public from calling someone ‘schizophrenic’, to ‘a person with schizophrenia’- a subtle but important step.
The need for understanding rather than judging, stigmatizing or ignoring those suffering from mental illness are powerfully reinforced by stories spiked with tragic accounts personal revelation, patients coping with both their mental illness and the misunderstanding and prejudice of the society around them. A chapter on famous sufferers of mental illness, including Churchill, Brian Ferry and Spike Milligan provides examples of how mental illness is not necessarily a barrier to greatness, but even there, Cunningham shows careful thought, emphasizing that genius and talent very often comes despite, not because of, the mental illness.
The style of drawing may not be for everyone, but don’t like the simple-looking artwork fool you. There are layers of subtlety in the presentation that magnify the impact of the story being told in ways unique to the medium. More than a couple of times, Cunningham uses the effect of zooming in or out through a sequence of panels, cleverly mimicking the disorienting and nature of mental illness and powerfully magnifying its isolating and inward nature.
The last chapter, which I won’t spoil, comes as a complete surprise, and adds a whole new layer of understanding and emotion to the rest of the book. I’m wary of sounding patronizing but I can’t think a word other than ‘brave’ for the way Cunningham illustrates his own story with such honesty and insight.
Psychiatric Tales won't take more than half an hour to get through (an hour if you read it cover-to-cover, back-to-back, like I did) but it’s packed with powerful mental health advocacy and is an important and engaging reminder that there is always a person behind the illness.
From the looks of his blog, Cunningham’s working on Psychiatric Tales Two, delving into some other mental illness, such as Alzheimer’s. I can’t wait to read it.(less)
Doppler is the second novel I have read in Norwegian, and happens to be the second novel I’ve read by Erlend Loe. It’s also the second time I have tri...moreDoppler is the second novel I have read in Norwegian, and happens to be the second novel I’ve read by Erlend Loe. It’s also the second time I have tried to read this book. The first time round, my Norwegian was nowhere near good enough and it was just an exercise in frustration.
As I’ll come to later, the humour in the story may not be for everyone, but for those learning Norwegian, I can’t recommend this book enough. Short, snappy sentences make it easy to read, even for a novice, and there’s the added bonus of learning lots of new and creative swearing along the way, too.
Falling off his bike one day, shortly after this father’s death, Doppler has a revelation that leads to him denouncing modern life to go live in a tent in a forest on the outskirts of Oslo. The story follows Doppler, told through his dry, black-as-the-countryside-night humour, as he survives in the forest and eventually survives the burdensome company of others.
There is something of Forrest Gump to Doppler, in that he is a man-child whose simple outlook hones in on some deep truths. Doppler is relatable in a way that Gump’s cloying naivety (both in the books, and especially in the film) sometimes isn’t, but Doppler’s selfish qualities, which he hides behind the excuse that ‘people don’t like him and he doesn’t like people’, make him an uncomfortably sympathetic character.
A love of nature and comfort with his own company may lie behind Doppler’s self-imposed exile, but it’s clear that the real motivation is quite simply that he has come to hate the responsibility that comes with having a job and a mortgage and a wife and children that are obsessed with Lord of the Rings and Bob the Builder, something we’ve all felt at some time. It isn’t true that he doesn’t get on with people, because Doppler makes friends easily enough, including the man who catches him trying to steal a giant Toblerone, and later the man trying to rob his house in middle of the night. Early on in his exile, he befriends an elk calf, orphaned after Doppler puts a knife through its mother’s throat, using the meat to trade for milk in the local supermarket. He and the calf, whom he christens Bongo (after his father, except his father wasn’t called Bongo), become the best of friends, sleeping and eating together, and putting the world to rights in decidedly one-sided conversations (just the way Doppler likes it).
Loe uses Doppler to cock a snook at modern consumerism, but the book is also about absent fathers (dead or in self-imposed exile). Dusseldorf, the owner of the over-sized chocolate, distracts himself from reality by burying himself in making a model recreation of his German father’s death in Ardennes during the Second World War. Doppler does the same by fixing his attention over many months on building a totem pole as a monument to his father. Gregus, Doppler’s young son, misses having his father around and chooses to join him the forest, riding around on Bongo and annoying Doppler with inconvenient questions.
I finished reading the book whilst staying at my in-laws cabin near Sjusjøen, where there actually lived a recluse, Lambert Olestadengen, better known as Ludden. He moved up to the mountains and lived as a hermit from 1915 to 1955, living off the plentiful berries and what he could fish and hunt, trading the surplus in the nearest town for everything else. His hut still stands as a tourist attraction, maintained by the Brøttum History Society, as does his fish hut, which stands on a small island in the middle of the lake near our cabin, Kroksjøen.
As I read Doppler, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with Ludden. Then I came across this quote from Ludden, which I think sums up Doppler’s philosophy too: “What people call civilisation is creeping ever further into the mountains… So be it – I don’t want to shut the mountains off to anybody. I just move further into the mountains as modern times approach.”
Both Ludden and Doppler, for similar reasons at very different times, indulged in an escapism that many may occasionally dream of, but few have the guts or the selfishness to follow through. Ludden’s hermit adventure ended with his death in 1955, Doppler’s (along with Bongo’s and Gregus’) continues in the sequel, Volvo lastvagnar, which I am very much looking forward to reading.(less)
The Where, The Why, and the How, compiled by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, is an exciting project bringing together artists and wor...moreThe Where, The Why, and the How, compiled by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, is an exciting project bringing together artists and working research scientists to match fantastically quirky art with descriptions of 75 currently unsolved scientific questions.
The ‘wondrous mysteries of science’ explored fall largely within the realms of physics and astronomy, geology, and plant and animal biology; the choices of topic feel a little obscure, but that just adds to the chances that you won’t have come across it all before.
The book starts with a genuine ‘wondrous mystery’: What came before the Big Bang (or should it be just the Bang?), the answers to which will fundamentally change the way we understand ourselves and the universe around us. The book moves on to comparatively trivial questions (and not really ‘wondrous mysteries’ if you ask me), like why pigeons’ heads bob when they walk (answer: it's actually their bodies that moves backwards and forwards, this stabilises their heads to compensate for their inability to move their heads and eyes side to side and their lack of real binocular vision, which then allows them to detect the motion of things around them) and ends on the smallest scale with a discussion of the potential health effects of nanoparticles.
For what is essentially a coffee table pop-science book, there are one too many ‘posits’ scattered around for my liking, but using no more than a couple of hundred words, the problems currently puzzling scientists are snappily and engagingly described.
The science is only half the fun of the book, however. The illustrations accompanying each mini essay range from the literal to the very obtuse, and whilst the scientific themes occasionally overlap, each piece of art, be it modern print, comic strip, cartoon or traditional Japanese style, playfully captures some essence of the problem being discussed. It’s just as much fun trying to get inside the mind of the artists as much as the scientists and if ever the artwork is released as full-size I will certainly be the first in the queue to snap them up.
Whilst some phenomena, such as with the pigeon, are on the verge of being explained by scientists, many of the answers lie on the exciting (and frustrating, if you’re the research scientist) ‘we have no idea’-end of the scientific knowledge scale.
The purpose of the book is to inject a little more wonder into our lives and remind us that we don’t have all the answers – yet. The editors’ advice in the book’s introduction are certainly worth following: 'Remember that before you do a quick online search for the purpose of the horned owls horns, you should give yourself some time to wonder.'
The Where, the Why, and the How is one of the most accessible, and definitely one of the prettiest, science books that I’ve read in a good long while.(less)