“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. This oft-misattributed quote highlights a persistent problem in our world. Why do false ideas spread so easily? Sure, blame people’s ignorance or stupidity, but philosophers Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall write that the problem is far more insidious. Through a combination of case studies and modelling work, they convincingly argue that the same social dynamics by which truth spreads are inherently vulnerable to exploitation. But first, some vegetable lamb.
The word “robot” will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary, as it was coined in 1920 by Czech writer Karel Čapek. But humanity’s fascination with self-moving devices, or automata, is far older. Classicist and science historian Adrienne Mayor here surveys the many living statues, robotic warriors, and artificial devices that populated Greek mythology to show the deep roots of our fascination with beings “made, not born”.
If you do not like the idea of reading a book review of a self-help book written by an author who hates self-help books. Or if you cringe at expletive-laden language. Stop. Seriously, move on. If that is not you – author, thinker and popular blogger Mark Manson is back with another book full of counterintuitive wisdom, razor-sharp observations, and vulgar humour. I imagine most of my readers will have an academic background, or at least value critical, logical thinking and a healthy dose of scepticism. Manson’s writing might just be for you. Why? Because scientists are people too.
In popular discourse, the theory of evolution has become a victim of its own success, reduced to sound-bites such as “survival of the fittest”. Biologists will of course quickly point out that this is an oversimplification, though philosopher Daniel S. Milo takes things a few steps further. Good Enough is a thought-provoking critique of the dominance of adaptationist explanations. He argues that, while natural selection is important, it is not the only, possibly not even the default mechanism, in evolution. No, Milo claims, the mediocre also survive and thrive.
The subtitle of this book points to an observation that most biologists will anecdotally agree with. Looking at the long sweep of evolutionary history, there is indeed a clear overall tendency for life forms to become more diverse and complex. Daniel W. McShea and Robert N. Brandon, the one a biologist with a secondary appointment in philosophy, the other a philosopher with a secondary appointment in biology, here declare it the Zero-Force Evolutionary Law or ZFEL. But is this a law of nature? And does it really differ from stochastic processes or even entropy?
In a time of fake news and alternative facts, being able to separate the proverbial scientific wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff is vitally important. But seeing the wide acceptance of a lot of dubious ideas, critical thinking does not come easily. So, how, then, do you tell science from bunk? Updating his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts, evolutionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci once again attacks this problem from many sides. Going far beyond cheap potshots at pseudoscience, I found a book that takes an equally serious look at the more insidious phenomena of think tanks and postmodernism, with a healthy side-serving of history of science. The result is a readable introspection on what science is and how it is done.
Long-term readers of this blog will be aware that the proliferation of pseudoscience and anti-scientific sentiments disturb me deeply. As someone with a scientific training, my concerns are foremost academic. But as the contributors to this edited collection wish to show, these anti-intellectual trends also impact democracy. This is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the USA and Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy is therefore appropriately US-centric. It is also rather academic and scholarly in tone, more so than other works aimed at a general audience.
In the minds of most people, the words “Ice Age” will invoke images of mammoths and sabertooth tigers. But historians use the phrase “Little Ice Age” to refer to a particular period in recent history when average temperatures dropped for a few centuries. The impact this had on societies was tremendous. In Nature’s Mutiny, originally published in German and here translated by the author, historian Philipp Blom charts the transformations that resulted and shaped today’s world. It is also one of the most evocative book titles I have seen this year.
Of all the threats to free scientific enquiry, there is one that is perhaps not put on the foreground as much as it should be: the pressure of scientific findings to have immediate, practical applications. In the current climate of chronic funding shortages and anti-scientific sentiments that flourish in both society and politics, it is a problem that is overtaken by more urgent concerns. But just as the delay in developing new antibiotics due to the costs of R&D will cause severe problems in the long term, so this intellectual straitjacket will have long-term consequences that are not immediately apparent. This slim volume shows these concerns are far from new. In fact, they were at the roots of the founding of a remarkable institute.
So, quick question for you. What is life?
Sorry, that’s a trick question, for the answer to this is anything but quick. The mind-boggling complexity that is life, even something as “simple” as a bacterium, somehow arises from atoms and molecules. And yet, physics and chemistry as we currently know it seem incapable of answering how life’s complexity emerges from its constituent parts. With The Demon in the Machine, well-known physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies takes a stab at it, saying we are on the verge of a breakthrough.