Review: The Dueling Neurosurgeons (Sam Kean)

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I originally intended The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons for epistemic spot checking, but it didn’t end up feeling necessary.  I know just enough neurobiology and psychology to recognize some of its statements as true without looking them up, and more were consistent enough with what I knew and what good science and good science writing looks like; interrogating the book didn’t seem worth the trouble.  I jumped straight to learning from it, and do not regret this choice.  The first thing I actually looked up came 20% of the way into the book, when the author claimed the facial injuries of WWI soldiers inspired the look of the Splicers from BioShock.*

[*This is true. He used the word generic mutant, not the game-specific term Splicer, but I count that under “acceptable simplifications for the masses”.  Also, he is quicker to point out that he is simplifying than any book I can remember.]

At this point it may be obvious why I think fans of this blog will really enjoy this book, beyond the fact that I enjoyed it.  It has a me-like mix of history (historical color, “how we learned this fact”, and “here’s this obviously stupid alternate explanation and why it looked just as plausible if not more so at the time”*), actual science at just the right level of depth, and fun asides like “a lot of data we’ve been talking in this chapter on phantom limbs about comes from the Civil War.  Would you like to know why there were so many lost limbs in the Civil War?  You would?  Well here’s two pages on the physics of rifles and bullets.”**

[*For example, the idea that the brain was at all differentiated was initially dismissed as phrenology 2.0.

**I’m just going to assume you want the answer: before casings were invented, rifles had a trade off between accuracy and ease of use.  Bullets that precisely fit the barrel are very hard to load, bullets smaller than the barrel can’t be aimed with any accuracy.  Some guy resolved this by creating bullets that expanded when shot.  But that required a softer metal, so when the bullet hit it splattered.  This does more damage and is much harder to remove.]

I am more and more convinced that at least through high school, teaching science independent of history of science is actively damaging, because it teaches scientific facts, and treating things as known facts damages the scientific mindset.  “Here is the Correct Thing please regurgitate it” is the opposite of science.  What I would really love to see in science classes is essentially historical reenactments.  For very young kids, give them the facts as we knew them in 18XX, a few competing explanations, and experiments with which to judge them (biased towards practical ones you know will give them informative results), but let them come to their own conclusions.  As they get older, abandon them earlier and earlier in the process; first let them create their own experiments, then their own hypotheses, and eventually their own topics.  Before you know it they’re in grad school.

The Dueling Neurosurgeons would be a terrible textbook for the lab portion of that class because school districts are really touchy about inducing brain damage.  But scientists had a lot of difficulty getting good data on the brain for the exact same reason, and Dueling Neurosurgeons is an excellent representation of that difficulty.  How do we learn when the subject is immensely complex and experiments are straightjacketed?  I also really enjoyed the exploration of  the entanglement between what we know and how we know it.  I walked away from high school science feeling those were separable, but they’re not.

You might like this book if you:

  • like the style of this blog. In particular, entertaining asides that are related to the story but not the point. (These are mostly in footnotes so if you don’t like them you can ignore them).
  • are interested in neurology or neuropsychology at a layman’s level.
  • share my fascination with history of science.
  • appreciate authors who go out of their way to call out simplifications, without drowning the text in technicalities.

You probably won’t like this book if you:

  • need to learn something specific in a hurry.
  • are squeamish about graphic descriptions of traumatic brain damage.
  • are actually hoping to see neurosurgeons duel.  That takes up like half a chapter, and by the standards of scientists arguing it’s not very impressive.

The tail end of the book is either less interesting or more familiar to me, so if you find your interest flagging it’s safe to let go.

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