Cro-Magnon, Brian Fagan

2012 Book 93: Cro-Magnon, by Brian Fagan (6/24/2012)

Categories: Science

Reason for Reading: Interest in the evolution of humans

My Review 4/5 stars
Cro-Magnon, by Brian Fagan introduces what is currently known (and speculated) about Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. Fagan spices up his narrative with imaginative vignettes of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons as they may have lived. I imagine such vignettes would appeal to most everyone in the general public, including teens, though they may be a little irritating to a hard-core scientist who isn’t interested in imaginative speculation (just a guess…I loved them!). Another excellent feature of this book is that it has incorporated historic scientific discoveries about prehistoric peoples with modern science like mitochondrial DNA tracing. Again, this feature would be of interest to most of the general public, but isn’t meant for experts–there are a lot of simplifications for the sake of clarity. I think this book is an excellent introduction to prehistoric peoples that could be enjoyed by both adults and teens (even precocious pre-teens).

Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer

2012 Book 92: Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer (6/24/2012)

Categories: Other

Reason for Reading: Science, Religion, and History group read with the 75ers

My Review 2/5 stars
The intent of this book is to use anthropology and cognitive science to “explain” why religious beliefs developed (and are still common) in humans. I started reading this book with the expectation that it was intended as popular science; but it assumed that the reader already had a background in anthropology and cognitive science. Boyer made his explanations using terminology that was unnecessarily complex; and although the meaning could be discerned from the context, it made the narrative into very heavy reading. Furthermore, he made many bold statements without providing evidence, possibly because he figured his readers had a background in this area and knew where he was coming from. The examples he did provide often fell short for me as a scientist–I felt there were too many obvious loopholes to the experiments described, and it was unclear whether these loopholes were addressed. Overall, I think this book may be interesting to someone who has already read a lot of literature in this field, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone with a casual interest, nor as introductory material.

Guns Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond

2012 Book 74: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond (5/11/2012)

Reason for Reading: This has been on my reading list for years—since before I watched the documentary.

My Review 4/5stars
In this Pulitzer Prize winning book, Diamond attempts to answer the question of why the Western Civilization rose to power instead of other civilizations. His answer is that they lucked out on geography and ecology. Western civilizations were better able to domesticate animals and plants due to the varieties that they had available, and were therefore able to develop larger farming societies, allowing for development of crafts and “scientific exploration.” Also, because they were in larger groups, they were exposed at low levels to many germs, and developed immunity. Because of these factors, they were able to harness the power of guns, germs, and steel in their pursuit of world power. This was a fascinating book, and definitely worth reading even after watching the documentary (reviewed here). It’s just packed full of information, the writing is smooth and articulate, and the research is extensive.

Thoughts on God in scientific research

In The God Issue of New Scientist, there was an article by Stenger which claimed that because science has not proven that God exists, God must not exist. After reading this, I pouted. I felt that it’s not very good science to claim that because experiments designed to prove the existence of God yield non-significant results, these non-significant results prove God doesn’t exist. I’ve had plenty of experiments with non-significant results. If that proves that the opposite is true, then I’ve made some pretty awesome negative discoveries! I’d better get those published!

The next few weeks have had many letters-to-the-editor about The God Issue. Mainly, they seemed offended by the articles which did not firmly proclaim God’s non-existence–few of them had any problems with the article by Stenger. So I laughed when I saw this letter about the article that annoyed me:

Stenger confidently states that prayers have not been shown to have been answered. For some time now, I have been praying for other people’s prayers not to be answered. Could this explain these findings?
                -From Les Hearn; London, UK

I am so thrilled that I’m not the only one who found this article ridiculous!

In his article, Stenger’s main “proof” that God does not exist is that a study to determine whether intercessory prayers help recovery of surgery patients had non-significant data. Like the writer of the letter, I was amused that Stenger came to such strong conclusions based on non-significant data from one study. This is not good science. I was even more amused because the first time I heard about this study was in a book called The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard (reviewed here). Beauregard claimed the same exact studies were indicative that God DID exist. He pointed out that there was a (albeit non-significant) data trend, and talked around experimental design and data analysis jargon to make himself sound more convincing. Isn’t it amusing that two scientists find their own personal beliefs so important to them that they take exactly the same study and (unconsciously) twist it to help them prove contradictory points?

Because of human errors exactly like these, I have long felt that science was rather like a religion—perhaps it is impossible for emotional humans to stick rigorously to the scientific method? Here are elements that science has in common with some of the oft-criticised aspects of organized religion:

Indoctrination/faith: scientists start out learning and accepting a set of “facts” laid out by those older and wiser than us (teachers/professors). Sometimes these “facts” are rather difficult to stomach—like an object that can move from point A to point B without moving anywhere in between??? (electron tunneling)

Ideology: Scientists (hopefully unconsciously) twist the experimental design or data analysis in order to fit our personal hypotheses. We ignore or discard data which is contradictory to our hypotheses (usually with a rationalized reason). We see what we want to see. This type of interpretation is unfortunately natural to humans and generally not a purposeful act, but it happens more often than we’d like to admit.

Heretics: Scientists ostracize other people from the scientific community if they suggest a hypothesis or provide data which is contrary to widely accepted (dogmatic) beliefs. These people sometimes turn out to be right, but generally after it’s too late for their ruined careers.

I like to be aware of these issues so that I can avoid falling into traps in my own work. I also think it’s a good idea to be cautiously skeptical of dogmatic beliefs, and to accept that perhaps they could be wrong–entirely, or partially. I am also skeptical of models, whether they be quantum physics models or cell signaling models. Although I appreciate the amount of work scientists go through to develop these models, and I also appreciate the fact that these models can accurately predict the physical world most of the time, I think it’s good to recognize that these really are just MODELS for the real world. The real world is almost always more complex than we could ever fully predict.

Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin

2012 Book 67: Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin (4/25/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 4/5 stars
In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin describes how her autism helps her discover how animals perceive the world. She compares an autistic person’s perceptions with animals’ perceptions, and contrasts them with how non-autistic people think. She also gives her own ideas about how domesticated animals can be treated/trained in order to provide them with the best environment possible. Overall, a very interesting book…It changed my perception of how autistic people and animals think.

The Genesis of Science, by James Hannam

2012 Book 34: The Genesis of Science, by James Hannam. (2/21/2012)

Reason for Reading: 75ers group read

My Review 3.5/5 stars
Hannam makes the argument that the development in philosophical thinking and study of the natural world in the middle ages is the cornerstone on which science was built during the later “scientific revolution” and that the role of the Catholic Church and medieval philosophy in the development of science is undervalued today. Hannam is a fantastic writer, in that he provides an engrossing history of the middle ages—especially providing interesting biosketches of the important philosophers of the time. Therefore, I recommend this book to popular readers of medieval history, history of science, or church history. However, Hannam’s book is not thorough enough to be considered a good academic history. He tends to provide the most interesting stories, ignoring the fact that some of his stories are controversial. Hannam also has a slightly defensive tone about the role of the Catholic Church during the middle ages. To most popular readers, I think the shortcomings of this book can be ignored, since it is a smooth and interesting read.

Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku

2012 Book 27: Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku (2/12/2012)

Reason for Reading: Because it was there

My Review: 3.5/5 stars
Physics of the impossible explores common themes in science fiction, and explains in simplified physics whether such things are possible soon, or far in the future. Kaku has an engaging writing style, and his physics is basic enough that most popular readers would be able to follow. However, I don’t think people who follow physics regularly would enjoy the simplified science. I enjoyed this book, though I have one major complaint: Kaku would give examples of science fiction phenomena from popular novels. Apparently assuming that everyone has read all of these books, he almost always tells the ending of the book. I hadn’t read several of these books and was quite annoyed since telling the end of the book did not add any merit to his own arguments. The book lost star-points because of this problem.