Six books that politicized a science writer

August 14, 2010

People who’ve known me for more than a few years can attest that my thinking about life, the universe and everything has changed a lot in the past 18 months. I’ve gone from a reluctant liberal to an eager, even radical, leftist. This post will recap the books that provided much of the influence along the way. And yes, I’m aware that my list is biased heavily toward middle aged white guys. It couldn’t be helped.

1. I Am a Strange Loop | Douglas Hofstadter

One of the least obvious choices on the list, this is the book that convinced me that our identities are shared and, in so doing, started me thinking along more humanistic lines.  I Am a Strange Loop is partly an Idiot’s Guide to Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter’s sprawling, idiosyncratic meditation on the idea that minds arise from self-referential physical systems. As other reviews have noted, the added value of the book comes largely in the second half, in which Hofstadter explains how he processed his wife’s death. He makes a strong argument that his wife’s consciousness – her “Carolness” – quite literally lives on in him. Brains are set up to encode minds, our own and those of the people we come to know. (See Dunbar’s number.) So as Hofstadter’s hopes, dreams and fears became intertwined with his those of his wife during their relationship, what happened was his mind/brain gradually built up a representation of the patterns of thought and behavior that defined her. So even though she died, he still houses her desire, for example, to see their children grow up, and he feels a version of her loss at being unable to experience it directly. I Am a Strange Loop gave me a way to make sense of the feelings I experienced after my father’s death. It had political ramifications because I came to see both him and myself as products of a racist, misogynistic culture, and my goal became to do my small part to change that culture.

2. The Parable of the Sower | Octavia Butler

I didn’t think of this book as very radical when I read it, but it’s become so the more I’ve reflected on it. Octavia Butler was a Black lesbian science fiction writer. (Oddly, my dad, the science fiction buff, never mentioned her work to me. See above.) Parable of the Sower tells the story of a young Black preacher’s daughter named Lauren Olamina, who lives in a gated community in Los Angeles. The US is on the brink of anarchy. Olamina sees it coming and begins to develop what Wikipedia calls “a benign philosophical and religious system” called Earthseed. Her mantra is to be prepared for change, because it always comes. She also possesses “hyperempathy,” which means she literally feels the pain of other people. She’ll defend herself by force if she has to, but doing so incapacitates her because of the reflected pain, which makes her dependent on being part of a secure community. When the shit finally goes down, Olamina begins gathering such a community around her, offering Earthseed as their guiding system. The more I think about climate change, the more I hope we don’t realize a similarly dystopian future, and the more I see a need for our own Earthseed.

3. Don’t Think of an Elephant! | George Lakoff

George Lakoff is the progressive answer to Steven Pinker. Both men are influential cognitive scientists whose scientific beliefs deeply inform their politics. But whereas Pinker positions himself as an unbiased defender of objective truth, which simultaneously normalizes and conceals his conservative political agenda, Lakoff precisely articulates his progressive politics, connecting the clash between conservatism and progressivism to a difference in the underlying “frames” that define them. Conservatives interpret the world through a “strict father” frame, whereas progressives interpret it through a “nurturant parent” frame. These frames are more fundamental than facts, because they determine which facts get through our cognitive filters. That’s why you’re unlikely to persuade a conservative he’s wrong about an issue, even if you present him with “the facts.” He will simply choose to focus on other facts. (Note that Pinker fundamentally misunderstood Lakoff’s related book, Whose Freedom?) In Don’t Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff explains that conservatives have been better at articulating their values and spinning out talking points that reinforce the strict father frame. Until and unless progressives learn to articulate their own values and frame them successfully, they will end up simply reacting to the conservative talking points, which allows conservatives to set the terms of debate on essential issues. The lesson for journalists is (to me) clear: learn to frame your values.

4. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind | Julian Jaynes

This book has spawned a cult following, and for good reason: “Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by people with schizophrenia today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or the gods.” In other words, people were like Sims, easily distracted but kept on task by the occasional auditory hallucination from the relevant God or God-king. Hence the importance of totem poles and shrines; they triggered auditory hallucinations. Jaynes argues that ancient Egypt and the Mesamerican city states were strict hierarchies maintained by this mechanism. In the Western tradition, he gives the example of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. Achilles becomes enraged at the Greek general Agamemnon for taking away his woman, and he refuses to fight for the Greeks any more. Torn up by rage, the goddess Athena finally appears to him and tells him to get it together and keep fighting. Under Jaynes’s interpretation, Achilles hallucinated Athena’s voice because he lacked the self-reflectiveness to decide for himself what to do. (Compare with Hamlet, the paradigm of Western self-reflectivity, who is similarly torn between his desires but manages to formulate a plan of action.) So what’s political about all this? Well, if true – and I’m no historian, so I can’t judge – it means that language and metaphor shaped our consciousness in a deep way, which leads one right into Lakoffian territory (see #3 above).

5. A People’s History of Science | Clifford Conner

The history of science is usually presented in terms Great Men: Newton, Einstein, Watson and Crick. A People’s History of Science balances out that narrative by focusing on the ways that workers, native peoples and other marginalized groups – or miners, midwives and “low mechanicks,” as the book’s subtitle puts it – have contributed to the vast body of knowledge we call science. Jonathan Weiner may have damned this book by faint praise in his Times review, but he says rightly that the early chapters are the most interesting. For example, we learn in chapter 2, “Prehistory: Were Hunter-Gatherers Stupid?”, that Pacific Islanders developed a whole system of navigation based on the positions of the stars and the pattern of ocean swells. If the swells were very faint, male navigators would use their testicles as sensitive balances to detect tiny motions of the boat. But my favorite cocktail party tidbit from the book would have to be the debunking of Edward Jenner’s supposed discovery of smallpox vaccination in 1796. In the US, Puritan minister Cotton Mather first promoted the idea of inoculating people with fluid from smallpox victims during an outbreak in Boston in the 1720s. Mather had learned about the practice years before from from a slave of his named Onesimus, who said it was a common African practice. In Europe, Turkish peasant women had hit on the same concept. It may have even earlier roots. Although Edward Jenner gets credit for the idea of vaccinating people with fluid from cowpox sores, a farmer named Benjamin Jesty beat him to it in 1774. Jenner goes down in history because (to his credit) he was the first to successfully defend the practice to the highly skeptical scientific elites of the day. The message: be skeptical of scientific elites, and be more sympathetic to Jenny McCarthy.

6. Why I Am Not a Scientist | Jonathan Marks

A book about people behaving badly in the name of science. Racists. Frauds. Creationists. From the publisher: “Science, Marks argues, is widely accepted to be three things: a method of understanding and a means of establishing facts about the universe, the facts themselves, and a voice of authority or a locus of cultural power. This triple identity creates conflicting roles and tensions within the field of science and leads to its record of instructive successes and failures.” The failures – in particular, scientific racism – are what make Marks hesitant to call himself a scientist. (In his earlier book, What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee, he called himself a “molecular anthropologist.”) The nugget that sticks in my mind is Marks’s anthropological definition of science as “the production of convincing knowledge in modern society.” Like I said on True/Slant: “Then the question one has to ask oneself is, ‘Who benefits from modern society? Who loses out?'” We know there are people who lose out in our society. Why do we assume that the institutions of science are any more sacrosanct — any less in need of radical reform — than those of politics or business? The whole gamish needs shaking up.

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5 Responses to “Six books that politicized a science writer”


  1. What a great bunch of books. I’m currently reading (as in right at this very moment—it’s sitting on my lap) Gödel Escher Bach. I don’t know if I have it in me to read all of his books, but the new preface to the 20th anniversary edition of GEB proves what a fantastic representative of his own work Hofstadter is.

    I’m also a big fan of George Lakoff, another intense thinker and prolific writer. If you haven’t read The Political Mind, you might want to pick it up, too. It’s at once thrilling and disturbing and sounds like a newer version of Don’t Think Like an Elephant. (I’m in the midst of writing a post referencing Lakoff, myself—a post currently open on my computer. Eerie.)

    I look forward to investigating the other books and writers you mention. And perhaps someday debating with you the idea that the rational arguments made in books don’t change mindsets as much as the personal emotional connection we make with them does.

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Thanks, Carla. I read GEB in high school and the point of it was totally lost on me. And speaking of Lakoff, I think he would disagree with the formalist thrust of Hofstadter’s argument. He’d probably say it fails to capture the embodied nature of consciousness.

    Re: rational arguments vs. emotional connections, I don’t think there’d be much of a debate, but I’d love to hear your take on the subject when you get around to it. Looking forward to your Lakoff-related post.


  3. I find your journey intriguing.

    When Lakoff’s “Metaphors We Live By” came out, I thought it was brilliant and profound. “Philosophy in the Flesh” by Lakoff and Mark Johnson was extremely clever and interesting I thought, a manifesto for a neurophilosophy before the term became usurped by the more reductionist thinkers like the relentless and ingenious Paul Churchland.

    When Lakoff started writing about metaphors in politics I began to feel like he was driving off the road a bit, making trivial use of his own former ideas and had lost his edge.

    Maybe it’s just a bias, but my life experience has led me to the principle that Ed Tufte eloquently phrased as “pitching out corrupts within.” Tufte made me think about the nature of thinking as much as anyone, although he is best known for his work in technical graphics.

    I think it’s often laudable to take a political stand, but because it leads to moral action, not because it makes our thinking particularly clear or precise.

    The two: clear reflective thinking, and decisive action, are in some ways opposing objectives and tend to corrupt each other when we take then out of balance. Just my experience.

    Political and social activism seem to reliably corrupt serious inquiry in nearly every arena I’ve been involved with in my life. I envision nearly all of the failures of inquiry cited by Marks for example to be corruptions of inquiry by people with misguided activist motives rather than what I think of as honest curiosity with how the world works.

    Some other books that strongly influenced my own way of thinking especially regarding science, fwiw:

    Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate – Susan Haack – a delightful collection of clear thoughts on various subjects around science, culture, and academia, from a brilliant logician and pragmatist philosopher. Her style of thinking and of writing inspires me.

    Representing and Intervening – Ian Hacking – an argument for experiment taking precedence over theory, very thought provoking.

    Man, Beast, and Zombie – Kenan Malik – some deep reflection on human nature and what science can and can’t tell us about it.

    Fact, Fiction, and Forecast – Nelson Goodman – Goodman really makes me think about the boundaries of science with arts and humanities.

    Proofs and Refutations – Imre Lakatos – some deep insights into the dynamic nature of mathematics, in contrast to any simple accumulation of facts.

    The One Culture – Jay Labinger – for me it’s fascinating to see defenders of scientific logic and its cultural cynics engaging in a dialog and sometimes piercing the fog with real insights. This book showed me how much work it is to accomplish that, and encouraged me that it is still a worthwhile endeavor.

    Who Rules in Science? – James Robert Brown – a book about science, and its intersection with politics, to me this books exemplifes both taking a stand on the politics of science and describing how politics and science interact, a difficult dual objective to do well.

    Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method – Henry Bauer – this book blew my mind when I first read it. This was the first author that managed to persuade me that the idea of a scientific method is not necessarily as straightforward as we assume in school and to provoke me with a realistic alternative way of thinking about science.

    The Golem – Collins and Pinch – This is a very brief collection of stories of scientific discovery, misdiscovery, and rediscovery. It illustrates the very memorable metaphor of the Golem of science turning to face different directions in different times, focusing on some things and ignoring others, shaping the way we understand the world in a less than linear logical way. Wonderful recounting of worm running and other complex experimental directions that led to different insights at different times.

    Real Science: What it is and what it means – Ziman – A lot to think about regarding the intersection of science, philosophy, and psychology.

    The Systems View of the World – Ervin Laszlo – Laszlo gives a clear presentation the formidable concept of seeing nature in terms of systems of interaction rather than independent physical laws, and he was the first author to persuade me that this was a more important idea than I had imagined.

    And on topics of complexity and systems, I was most engaged by Stuart Kauffman (Origins of Order, At Home in the Universe, Investigations, Reinvention of the Sacred), and Peter Corning (Nature’s Magic, Holistic Darwinism), who paint remarkable pictures of the evolution of science toward a larger vision.

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    That’s an intense list, Todd. Thanks for the recommendations. I think the trick with fusing activism and science is to ask the right questions. As I’ve been reading a little more into the math gap, I’ve already seen that my way of framing the question – culture vs. biology – is simplistic and not necessarily helpful. I expect to write a post about it soon.

    I’m not sure I agree that the trends Marks identified were all cases of activist science. Scientific racists think they are simply explaining how the world works when they chop up humans into arbitrary racial categories. Marks’s point is that scientists have a cultural background that can taint their science without them realizing it.

    I love Harry Collins, btw. See this Q and A I did with him: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=scientists-know-better-than-you


    • I use “activist” mostly because I was trying to stay within the terms of your story. Personally I think of it more in terms of something like epistemic virtues.

      We don’t always see motivated cognition and other trends in thinking explicitly, and this sort of thing affects everyone’s thinking when we deal with abstract reasoning I suspect. So there are virtues in thinking that we aspire to in compensation for natural biases.

      This is especially important I think when we are trying to reason about shifting complex concepts like human nature, purpose, thriving, all of which become “Necker Cubes” that look different from different angles but generally only look one way to a given person at any given time and situation.

      Thanks for the Collins article!

      Todd


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