New year, new batch of reviews! 13 books from P like psychology to P like population genetics. Let’s go:
50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Lynn, John Ruscio & Barry Beyerstein
The main issue I have with the book is that it takes 50 theories about human psychology — some batshit crazy, some plausible and some, as far as I can tell, still hotly debated among professional psychologists — and throws them all in the same point, thereby giving the impression that they should be taken about equally serious. I did not think it was particularly enlightening, by which I mean that I found myself agreeing with most of what they said. But I would imagine someone who disagrees with their views not to be overly impressed by the sometimes rather shallow myth-busting the authors are engaging in. Oh, and contrary to their insinuations, I don’t think it was a great design choice to close every chapter with a list of statements of the form “Myth: X causes Y. Fact: X does not cause Y” (they claim that only stating the myth would have readers continue to believe in it, which may itself be a candidate for myth #51).
Animal Liberation, Peter Singer (Reread)
More than much anything else I’ve read since and before, Animal Liberation had a truly transformative and lasting impact on me. I’ve been a vegetarian ever since I finished the book at age 18, so I was curious to see how well it would hold up after so many years. The verdict is decidedly….mixed.
My first surprise was how much of it is investigative reporting, rather than philosophical arguments. Singer, who is without a doubt the world’s preeminent utilitarian theorist alive today, spends remarkably little space fleshing out the moral case for not eating, mistreating and otherwise abusing non-human animals. Instead, he almost takes it for granted that causing serious pain to obtain minor pleasures is morally wrong, and then proceeds to show the many ways in which our usual behavior towards animals violates this norm on a daily basis. This will no doubt disappoint those with a preference for philosophical rigor, but my hunch is that this was just the right balance, especially back in 1975 when the book first came out. Today, when one can no longer reasonably claim to be unaware of, say, the horrific circumstances of (mass) veal production, such a focus might be much less justified.
There are a few more points in which the book feels dated, or at least myopic. In my mind the section on animal testing seems overly dismissive regarding the very real benefits (some) of those experiments bring, and even the much more recent, revised version doesn’t discuss the cultured meat revolution. He also fails to engage with the (often rather disingenuous) claims that vegetarianism might actually cause greater harm to animals than meat diets. I don’t think any of this does much damage to the core message of the book — that we ought to care much more about non-human animals and adapt our behavior accordingly — , but it is certainly no longer the most comprehensive work on the topic.
The Art of War, Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu says that in order to succeed in war, always camp in a sunny place. He also says that each aspect of warfare can be neatly divided into a bunch of categories, which yield themselves to succinct one-line analysis. When facing your enemy on the pitch, always play downhill! In the end, all of warfare is based on deception, except of course if your army far exceeds your enemy’s. In which case, why fight at all — isn’t the greatest victory that which requires no battle?
Atomic Adventures, James Mahaffey
Argentina in the mid-20th century certainly was a funny place. Amidst frequent army coups, foreigners will mostly remember the presidency of Juan Peron — who, socialists credentials notwithstanding, showed considerable admiration for fascism, and likely played a personal role in harboring Nazi war criminals in the country. These in turn helped to attract a number of scientists from the Old World to Argentina. One of the most colorful characters among them was Ronald Richter, who somehow convinced Peron that he could secure the countries growing energy demands by developing industrial-scale nuclear fusion, leapfrogging the rest of the world — if only given the resources and authority to get going. It’s stories like this and other hard-to-believe exploits in nuclear research, that make for an entertaining read. Combined with Mahaffey’s dry wit, it’s an excellent collection of largely unrelated incidents: If you’re looking for an overarching theme, you’re mostly out of luck. Nothing in there is exactly earth-shattering, but the vignettes make for useful trivia during your next cocktail party!
The Basics of Bitcoins and Blockchains, Antony Lewis
I’m sure there are better books about cryptocurrency out there, but I just naively went with one that had earned lots of positive reviews on Amazon. Maybe the fact that it’s undeniably very accessible was the chief factor here? Because in all honesty, it reads like something a college students scrambled together last minute. To make it more meaty, Lewis liberally cites Wikipedia and random bloggers (random at least for someone who has no idea what the crypto ecosystem looks like). Worse yet, the quotes are often just bloat, rather than delivering any actual insight, which he tries to remedy by also including lots of trivia that frankly I couldn’t have cared less about. Not to mention the overall organization, which is very confused, or the chapter on the history of money, which doesn’t justify its own existence at any point.
Now if you, like me, have little more than a superficial understanding of cryptocurrencies and blockchains, you will still learn a lot. Talking here about things like the purpose of hashing, what it means to mine, how the blockchain is build etc. I thought the section on smart contracts was underexploited — they sure seem to have more potential than the narrow use cases Lewis discusses here. If you skim heavily, this may be a decent introduction.
The Climate Casino, William Nordhaus
Long before his rise to prominence via the 2018 Nobel Prize, Nordhaus has been on the forefront of researching the impact of climate change from an economic perspective. If you are familiar with public choice analysis and do not fall in the camp of those who think climate change is either a hoax or will not require any kind of collective action, there is little that’s earth-shattering in here. It has drawn the ire of the usual suspects, who accused him of putting a price tag on things that have no dollar value, rational actor assumptions and pretending to know better than the scientists who work on global warming, but the framework seems basically correct to me. And much as you may quibble with individual points, this is essentially the approach that other expert panels such as the IPCC have followed.
Possibly the most interesting — and arguable most frustrating — part is his analysis of mitigation strategies and their drawbacks. Past agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol often suffered from a good intentions mentality, where lofty words mattered more than tangible outcomes. Coordinated action among all nations — which he thinks would be the ideal (i.e. least costly) solution — is elusive, so thinking hard about second-best solutions with actual enforcement mechanisms will be one of the most important challenges going forward. Realistically, this implies a strategy that consists of mitigation, adaption and technological advances, which will no doubt create conflict, winners and losers. Be cautiously pessimistic.
Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
A terrific (and apparently at least semi-biographical) plot wasted on an unfortunately not quite so terrific writer. I really wanted to like it, but alas Cutting for Stone is a case study in trying too hard. The dialogues suck, frankly, and the many metaphors that sprinkle the pages are so contrived it hurts (I recall something along the lines of “his bamboo stick wouldn’t stiffen”, WTF!). Now, Mr Verghese is a physician first and foremost, so maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh on him in that respect — but then again, it’s hard not to get the impression that he’s compensating for that fact, and so makes up for the lack of stylistic ease by means of jargon. The same thing, of course, could be said for most of academic publishing.
Part of the truth is also that I gave up about halfway through (maybe the best was yet to come?) after one too many episode whose characters seemed to be, not flesh-and-blood human, but some altogether alien species.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Peter Drucker
Against the notion of the entrepreneur as a fountain of free-flowing creativity, a visionary genius blazing their way against all odds, Drucker claims that any successful company — at whichever stage of its lifecycle — is one based on principles of sound management, which Drucker himself has helped shape into a science of sorts. In other words, we tend to get caught up in newsworthy stories about this venture or that business that rose to the top due to (or in spite of) its brazenness, unconventional thinking and risky moves, while the real driver behind the vast majority of great companies is boring old diligence and strategic foresight. Indeed, chances favors the prepared mind, as Pasteur is often quoted saying, and innovation can (and has to be) planned for.
The book itself doesn’t get too much into the weeds, but hey — he wrote 25 more that probably do. This HBR article is as good an introduction to his thinking as any, if you need to make up your mind whether you’d like to dive deeper.
The Meaning Of It All, Richard Feynman
What is the equivalent of muzak when it comes to audiobooks? Pleasant, yes, but ultimately nothing stuck. And the marginal benefits are very low if you’ve already been through one of his non-scientific books.
On Human Nature, Edward O. Wilson
Writers of all ages have pondered what it means to be human, but at the same time, the term “human nature” has drawn a lot of ire among certain classes. Although this is unlikely to be the last word on the subject (first published in 1978, after all), it is a splendid work and still very readable many decades after. Sociobiology — the discipline with which Wilson’s name will forever be intertwined — gets a bad rap even among biologists for being reductionist and lacking a deeper understanding of social realities, but I think this little volume is much more nuanced, and contains more fascinating insights, into the forces that shape us and our surroundings. Probably my favorite for this quarter.
The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Historical fiction, but (at least up until the 1939 elections) so closely tied to actual events that it’s occasionally hard to disentangle the real and the imaginary, unless you are very familiar with Lindbergh’s vita. As far as I can tell, biographers are still divided over the question whether America’s most famous aviator was an actual Nazi sympathizer or just politically naïve, and Roth captures this ambiguity rather well. I’d be curious to see how much inspiration it draws from Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (which I haven’t read — yet). I don’t think there’s any way events could ever have played out as envisioned by Roth in his work, but the very gradual erosion of rights and liberties that the novel’s protagonists, a Jewish lower-middle class family from Newark, is an excellent illustration how those who see the writings on the wall will typically be viewed as lunatics until it’s too late. (The group of people whose predictions of imminent doom didn’t bear out is undoubtedly much greater.) I still think the Swedish Academy’s decision not to award a Nobel to Roth is a serious indictment of the esteemed institution.
The Precipice, Toby Ord
Thinking about scenarios that could put an end to sentient life as we know it is tough, and I’m glad we’re seeing more and more efforts going into grappling with this issue. The overall idea that Ord presents in The Precipice — we’re not investing enough in existential risk, i.e. events that could wipe out humanity — strikes me as fundamentally sound, even unsurprising given what we know about human nature. There’s a good entry-level discussion of known existential risks, both natural and man-made, although I think it’s mostly a rehashing of Bostrom and Cirkovic’s Global Catastrophic Risks. Furthermore, I appreciate that he often qualifies evidence in favor of his theory, and explains why it may at times be weaker than it seems.
All of that is nice and fine, but there’s a part of the book — maybe even the central theme — that strikes me as utterly, irredeemably crazy. Ord seems to be convinced that right now is the most important time in the history of humanity, and the choices of people alive today will, in a sense, well be the most important event in the history of our species, if not the entire universe. He seems to think that there’s a way to lock us in on a path that guarantees we won’t face the risk of extinction in the future — achieving “existential security”, I believe he calls it. Hence the metaphor of the precipice humanity is standing in front of, and from which we should retreat to return to the lush meadows. And that’s after arguing page after page that many of the potential existential risks we face today weren’t even known a mere hundred years ago! I’m not sure of this is the result hubris, a secular version of millennialism, or of spending too much time with fellow Oxford philosophers, but it drastically lowers my confidence in anything else that’s said in the book.
And even ignoring this oddly contorted lens, the book suffers from notable weaknesses. The first is related to the question whether we discount the future too much. What do we owe the future? And there’s a case to be made that from a moral point of view, we put too much emphasis on present generations. But I don’t think he manages to deal adequately with the staggering uncertainty about what will happen centuries, or even just decades from now, and this puts a hard upper limit on how much we can reasonably be expected to care about. True, there are ways we could end the human story here and now by literally (or figuratively?) blowing up the earth, and to do our outmost to prevent such a thing from happening is probably just common sense. But once we start taking second-order effects into account (as he surely does when he talks about the dangers posed by AI), things get very messy quickly. How can we have any confidence that we can predict what impact our actions and choices today have on people’s lives one hundred years down the road? Is it inconceivable we’ll invent a technology that seems to have nothing but upsides but will reveal itself to be a Pandora’s box to future generations?
The second point is me wondering if all of this is actually consistent. I believe his framework would actually require much more drastic action, but instead he hides behind statements like “let’s first spend more on X-risk than on *insert activity you consider trivial* and then take it from there”. I assume it’s because people wouldn’t be taking him seriously if he went for more radical proposals, but it makes me wonder how much faith he puts in his own arguments. Like, he estimates that unaligned AI poses a 10% risk of resulting in an existential catastrophe over the century, and yet all he recommends to lower this number (analogies to Russian roulette are apt here) is a bit more money to research the alignment problem? It just doesn’t seem to add up.
Who We Are and How We Got Here, David Reich
Everyone has a favorite theory of what the deep history of human societies looked like, and what it implies for our present-day social order. Could our debates about contemporary problems be more fruitful if we managed to reduce the uncertainty that’s due to the first part of the equation, such as: How violent were our ancestors? Are restrictive gender norms a fairly recent invention? How was surplus value distributed within the community? I would tentatively answer “yes”, and so the already controversial revolution in population genetics that Reich (a luminary in the field) presents, for the first time, to a lay audience, might well turn out to be more explosive still. All quiet on the Western front…
My main takeaway is that we are moving quickly from a somewhat haphazard understanding of pre-history, based on courageous extrapolation from a few remaining artifacts and radiocarbon dating, to a much fuller picture of the past, of how people migrated, mixed and interbred based on genomic traces. Much more is yet to come, but my impression is that few people are even aware of how sophisticated our techniques have become. This book is certainly the best place to get started on the subject, and I’m glad the author doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the more controversial implications of his research, most obviously around race. (Of course, this earned him an open letter, which, as so many open letters, rather makes the point for him.)