Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science, Stuart Ritchie
I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and happened to pick it up this week — just a week after doing a course on pharmacoepidemiology in the age of COVID, which involved a lot of discussion of how to evaluate papers, and responsible study design. I’m also studying biostatistics and epidemiology this year, of course, meaning that I understand more about statistics than I care to — which means, all in all, that this book slotted in admirably, though quite without meaning it.
The issue the book discusses is a serious one: through the current system of “publish or perish” and the way grants are awarded, tenure is granted, etc, poor science is becoming the way to do things. It’s more important to produce a positive result than to produce a correct one, and even good scientists are lead astray by the rush to publish impressive results from underpowered studies with small sample sizes and implausibly large effects. There are a fair number of innocent mistakes being made, along with the fraud, bias and hype, but it all adds up to a bit of a crisis. As students we’re taught all about how to recognise faulty studies and how to build good ones — but the scientific world we enter into, if we choose research, doesn’t build on those foundations.
The book is surprisingly readable, and I would recommend it to both laypeople and scientists. It offers some very good analyses of what can go wrong, and some suggestions for how we can fix that, move on, and create a better, more open scientific community. It’s possible that if you’re a scientist you’ll wince and recognise that you yourself fell prey to this — the temptation to report positive results and shelve the negative ones, perhaps — but the point isn’t that one should always have been perfect, just that we all have to hold our hands up and work to make things better.
Plus, for a layperson, you’ll gain a better understanding of when to be sceptical, and what the warning signs are.
Shelf Respect is a nicely presented little book which is more of a stocking filler for the bibliophile in your life who you don’t know very well than an in-depth read about how to curate your bookshelves. In the end, it amounts to a collection of observations, lists and quotes about reading. There’s a weird tendency to believe that people who love books are morally superior, and parts of this book indulge jokingly in that. All a bit hyperbolic and for a particular sort of reader for whom “being a reader” is an identity, a part of being “not like the other girls” or “the clever one” or whatever.
That last part is something that I’ve struggled with, lately. I do think of myself as “a reader” as fundamentally as I consider myself a person, and I’m not sure it serves me well. At the very least it’s important to note that many amazing people do not read, and that doesn’t make them less intelligent or more morally suspect than the next person — and we’re saying something pretty horrible about ourselves as readers when we make those assumptions
It’s fairly fluffy and benign, as a book, but that undercurrent bugs me.
Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, Rebecca Wragg Sykes
That’s a pretty big title, particularly as it includes concepts that people doubt applied to Neanderthals (like love and art). Nonetheless, Wragg Sykes lives up to it, painting a picture of the current state of the art in understanding Neanderthals, their lives, their relationships to each other… and their relationships to us. I lost count of the number of times I just had to share a snippet or an image from this book with my wife, because it’s just so cool what we can know about these people, from the way they ate to their technology level.
One example: their technology level, since we’re speaking of that, was higher than you’d think — for example, they were creating a sort of glue from resin. Pine resin was the best, but other resin when mixed with beeswax gained similar properties, and they knew that and used it! There are multiple levels of technology there, from getting the resin out of the bark (which required a low-oxygen fire) to mixing it to applying it to attaching spearheads to hafts, etc.
I knew some of the things mentioned in this book, of course, particularly when it comes to how Neanderthals are related to us. But much of it was new, or more detailed than I thought, and Wragg Sykes’ interpretation of the evidence is fascinating. Even if you don’t go all the way with her in attributing complex thought and planning to Neanderthals (though I think the evidence tends in her direction), the evidence is astounding enough to keep your attention.
This is actually that rarest of things: a popular science book which I will keep, even though I probably won’t read it again, because I enjoyed it so much and I would like to have it to hand to refer to in the future.
The Restaurant: A History of Eating Out, William Sitwell
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this survey of eating out through the ages covers Britain most heavily, especially toward the end of the book. Which somewhat makes sense as a strategy, given the scope of the theme “eating out”, but the subtitle doesn’t really make that clear. In the end, I don’t know a lot about food, so I can’t say much about the accuracy of the actual information, but Sitwell writes clearly (if not always with sparkling prose) and introduces the important points well, developing his theme about the fact that British food isn’t really that bad after all, and that we have our own food-wizards.
Like I said, though, it’s not always sparkling prose, and I did drift off a bit. It’s actually a nice source for a story I want to write, so it served its purpose, but… to put it another way, it’s not the kind of non-fiction where I turned to my wife to ask “did you know? did you know?” — nor the kind of non-fiction I read compulsively, eagerly, regardless of the topic. (And there are certainly books that fascinate me about topics that don’t; Richard Fortey can make me enthused about geology, for goodness’ sake.)
So, interesting, but not special, I guess would be my summary.
This book is about the importance of sleep: the functions it fulfils for us, how that changes throughout our life cycles, and the consequences of not getting enough. It has a wealth of citations, and most of it was unsurprising to me, suggesting it’s a reasonable synthesis of the current state of our knowledge.
However, and this is a really big but, I lost count of how many times Gregory proclaims something and then admits in the next sentence or a footnote that it was a ‘small study’ and hadn’t been replicated in other studies, especially when she says it hasn’t been replicated in larger studies. The fact that she made it sound like these things were facts, when actually it was that shaky, gave me pause about more or less everything she said.
You can’t make big claims from small, underpowered studies. That’s just not how it works. They can be a testing ground, a starting point, but there’s no way you should be presenting them as fact in a pop-science book where people might actually think these are tried and tested facts, even if you explain the study is small. People just don’t grasp the significance of that (or rather, the fact that it’s probably not significant!).
I’ve also definitely had more engaging pop-science reads lately; Sue Armstrong comes to mind. Sleep can be a fascinating topic, but I found myself nodding off over Nodding Off.
The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, Barbara Burman, Ariane Fennetaux
Focusing on 1660 to 1900 (a very precise time range!), this book uses the tie-on pocket as an ‘in’ to dig into women’s lives via the historical records, including the physical records (pockets which have ended up in collections and museums), writing and court records. It’s a fairly academic book — lots of “meaning resides in the blahblahblah” type language — and also serves as a pretty comprehensive repository for photographs of extant pockets and their details, but it’s accessible enough if you have enough of an interest, and there’s a lot of fascinating detail.
What really surprised me was how long the tie-on pocket lasted, and the wealth of evidence the authors were actually able to show about how they were used, made, obtained, bought, bartered, pawned and gifted. They really do make a good entrée for the history of women’s lives; I thought one of the most interesting parts were the court records, giving us a glimpse into what women carried in their pockets and why.
Not the most riveting read, even for non-fiction, but the photographs are beautifully done and in full colour, and the subject is fascinating enough that I found it well worth the slightly dry and academic approach.
A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Emma Southon
I worried from the title and first few pages that this might prove too flippant and shallow from me, but I was wrong to worry. I quickly settled into it, and it’s obvious that Southon knows her stuff, takes deep joy in it, and knows where she can skimp on explanations a bit in order to get to the meat of things. She gives a lot of context without getting too bogged down in it, while telegraphing that the point is coming; if you really hate comments like “bear with me, we’re getting to the good stuff”, then it won’t work for you… but mostly, I thought she did a really good job.
The idea of a book about murder in Rome gave me a bit of pause, since I didn’t think they really had such a concept… and indeed, I was right, and Southon acknowledges that it’s a very modern way to interrogate these sources, and that in many of the cases described, no one batted an eyelid (the murder of slaves, particularly). As she says, though, the deaths and the attitudes to those deaths still tell us a lot about Roman society and the place of various people within it.
I was intrigued by the topic, but didn’t expect to find it a pageturner; that it was says something about how engaging Southon’s writing was. I found it deeply enjoyable — particularly as it was one of those books that had me turning to my wife to delightedly ask ‘did you know?’ and read bits out or wave my hands excitedly as I connected up bits and shared the fun.
Another book read to review on Postcrossing’s blog eventually! This book delves into the history of addresses: we take them for granted now (especially on Postcrossing, where I spend some time every day verifying people have put their addresses in as a standardised format recognised by the UPU), but they’re a relatively recent innovation — and surprisingly powerful, shaping a number of areas of your life. Access to healthcare, benefits, job opportunities, credit, personhood… and of course, the state’s ability to find you when you’ve done something illegal or discouraged (it’s not all positive!).
Mask digs through examples of the uses of addresses for things like epidemiology (the famous map revealing the cholera outbreak centred on the Broad Street Pump… and the less famous story of the recent cholera outbreaks in Haiti), examples of vanity addresses, and instances where the names of streets reveal our history, biases and politics.
I felt like I learned a lot, when I put this down, but right now it’s hard to summarise, partly because it’s pretty wide-ranging. The recurring theme is identity, though, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things about addresses that I’d never considered in that light.
A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles, Ned Palmer
This one is exactly what it says on the tin: a history of the British Isles which follows the lot of cheese, cheesemakers, affineurs and cheesemongers. It touches on a surprising amount of history, getting further into things that you might expect. Armies march on their stomachs, which are partly full of cheese, for a start.
It isn’t, of course, just pure history: there’s also a lot of speculation, from what ancient cheeses might have tasted like to who might have made them and why, and I wouldn’t exactly cite it as a source for something because it’s chatty and speculative, using experience to pry into parts of history we just can’t see. For example, he mentions at one point that the monks in a monastery can’t have been the ones to make the cheese, because they couldn’t leave the grounds and the herds would have been elsewhere… and you need to start the process right away. He speculates that they probably acted as affineurs, aging and storing the cheeses once made.
I don’t always love history when it’s speculative, but Palmer’s expertise about cheese is obvious — and he gets onto more solid ground with sources to refer to as well, with the later parts of the book. I love eating cheese, but it’s obvious I need to try more different kinds of cheese… and I had no idea of most of the details of how cheese is made, how different cheeses are ripened and different effects are produced. Palmer’s enthusiasm makes all of that interesting, and his book is riveting.
Honestly, I could’ve picked this up just for the title, which I thought was clever. But of course, carbon is an intensely important element for life, so it ties in very much with my interest in biology — no carbon, no us! — and it didn’t seem like it’d be too far off the random path of my current interests. Which proved to be mostly true: I found it harder going than a book about biology, my preferred science, but Hazen’s enthusiasm for his subject carried me along to a great extent.
Often enthusiasm gives life to writing, but I did find that there were bits of this I got a bit stuck on just through not getting involved enough… and knowing that e.g. Richard Fortey can get me excited about rocks with the way he writes, that I do put down to a certain dryness in the writing. Oddly enough, it was the parts on biology I yawned through; I don’t need the facts to be new to me, but if you’re explaining to me about why carbon is the ideal element for life, I need you to make it more exciting than my textbook. (This may not be fair, as I find certain aspects of my textbooks very exciting. The membrane attack complex is a marvel! No, friends who have been subject to me exclaiming about the MAC — I’m not over it yet! Biology is amazing!)
Anyway, if you’re interested in carbon, in the history of how we understand carbon as well as the current state of the field, it’s not a bad read. It’s lacking in tables and images that can really talk people through the data rather than just explaining like a story, so it’s very pop-science in that sense, so I’m not sure how much of it will stick for me. The symphony conceit got old for me/didn’t always feel like the right way to balance/organise the material, but I learned some new things and cemented some others in my mind, and really, that’s all I ask.