How to Handle Bad Examples in Texts?

How harshly should you judge when a scientific work gives a bad example of its point?

For example, I am reading Interaction Ritual Chains (Randall Collins), which focuses on emotional energy during stereotyped interactions between people (this is the scientific sense of stereotyped, meaning rigid or strongly patterned, not racist).  IRC believes that interaction is important and irreplaceable, such that people will shun much more “efficient” solutions to their official goal in order to get interpersonal interactions.  Unfortunately it uses terrible examples to illustrate this.

For example, on page 63 he claims that online shopping will never replace brick and mortar stores, because going to the store amidst other people is an energizing ritual.  At the time the book was published (2004) this was obviously untrue to me, but I can see how it wasn’t in every segment of society.  So while this is a bad prediction, it’s not a factual error.

He also claims that television has had no impact on sports attendance because people want the in person experience so much (p57).  To the extent that is true, it’s because leagues has gone to a great deal of trouble to make it not true, by imposing blackout rules such that you can’t broadcast a local game unless it has sold out.  It’s only since 1973 that the NFL had an exception for sold out games- previous to that, the only way to see a game played in your market was to be there.

How much should I reduce my confidence in Interaction Ritual Chains, given that it made this error? Or two false predictions?  Is it even fair to score them as false? In person stores still exist, although malls are having a hard time of it.  Maybe blackout rules were preemptive strikes and attendance would have stayed high without them.  But this gives me qualms about learning examples I know less about- even if the author is being accurate, if I’m drawing incorrect conclusions.

Epistemic Spot Check: The Demon Under the Microscope (Thomas Hager)

Description

How much would it suck to be the guy who invented sulfa drugs? You dedicate your life to preventing a repeat of the horrors you saw in the war, succeed in that and so much more, and then 10 years later some idiot leaves a petri dish open and completely replaces you as the father of man’s triumph against bacteria.  Actually he left the lid off before you found your thing, but ignored the result until you hit it big because everyone knew you couldn’t fight disease with chemicals, until you proved you could.  It’s the ultimate silver medal.  The Demon Under the Microscope is the tale of that guy.

It’s by the same author (Thomas Hagen) as The Alchemy of Air.  It’s also set in the same corporation, and about field that was transforming from science to industry.  The writing style is similar.  I originally didn’t intend to fact check this book very hard because I already knew what to expect from the author (a little too invested in the subject but basically accurate), but the habit is too ingrained at this point and I couldn’t keep reading until I’d checked out the first few chapters.

 

Evaluation

Claim: “Domagk [the researcher] had the ability to see. He watched everything, noted slight variations, quietly filed it all away.”  (p. 18).

The wounds themselves he accepted as the results of war. But the infections that followed—surely science could do something to stop those. He focused on the bacteria, his personal demons, “these terrible enemies of man that murder him maliciously and treacherously without giving him a chance.” “I swore before God and myself,” he later wrote, “to counter this destructive madness.”  (p. 20).

Who knows but it’s pretty.  Someone in the same position as thousands of others (in this case a WW1 medic), caring more , and going to fix it (via sulfa drugs) is my moral aesthetic.  Of course there could be another surgeon in the same place with just as much care and potential who got blow up or gassed.  The Alchemy of Air prioritized poetry over provability, so I don’t entirely trust this, but I like it.

Claim: Cholera was a big problem for German soldiers.

This would be a weird thing to make up, but I’m a little confused.  There had been a cholera vaccine for over 20 years by that point.

Claim: Gas gangrene is bad.

True.

Claim: Sir Almroth Wright created a typhoid vaccine that was deployed during WW1, saving may lives.  During WW1 he established a laboratory researching wound infections.

True.  He was also prescient enough to foresee the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.  Of course he also thought that bacteria were associated with but not the cause of disease, and that scurvy was caused by poorly preserved meat.  Being right is hard.

Claim: Doctors at the time thought that a dry wound was more resistant to infection; however dryness inhibited white blood cells and thus ultimately increased infections. They also thought wounds needed to be completely covered to prevent reinfection, but this created the ideal environment for anaerobic bacteria like Clostridium perfringens (which causes gas gangrene).

True. I was surprised to find ideal wound moistness still isn’t entirely settled, but the book’s description seems essentially in good faith.  Demon goes on to say that by the 1920s, doctors believed they were basically powerless and their job was to get the body’s own healing systems a pillow and some tea.  They took this so far that:

“A physician doing drug research was a physician taken away from patient care. There was an unsavory aspect to a physician’s developing a drug for money. There were ethical questions about testing drugs on patients. Developing new drug therapies smacked of a return to the discredited age of bleedings and purgings.”

 

To repeat: researching new treatments was considered distasteful at best and morally outrageous at worst.  And brain differentiation was once considered phrenology redux.  I just don’t think we’re very good at seeing where medicine is going (p40).

Claim: Section on Leeuwenhoek. 

True but missing time data.  Given that everything discussed so far happened in the range of 1890-1920, I would have have explicitly mentioned I was going 250 years into the past.  As it was, the only reason I noticed was that I recognized some of the names on the list of Leeuwenhoek’s contemporaries. The kindle edition may have made this worse.   But everything Hager actually says on Leeuwenhoek’s work in inventing the microscope seems accurate.

Claim: [crickets] (no page)

There’s no false statements, but I found the absence of discussion of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic puzzling.  Demon’s narrative is that seeing the horror of infected wounds in World War 1 drove Domangk to dedicate his life to preventing them.  Spanish Flu killed 5% of the entire world over the course of three years, and had a massive effect on troop movements and training in WW1.  From a military perspective it might have been more important.  We know now that the flu is really hard to vaccinate against, but at the time they didn’t even know it was a virus.  If you were a motivated medic looking for something to care about, Spanish Flu was a really obvious choice.  Demon mentions Spanish Flu in passing but not as an influence on Domangk, and that feels incomplete to me. Why gangrene in particular, when there were so many horrors happening at the time?

Claim: Streptococcus is the cause of everything bad.

True.  I knew it was possible to die from a scratch, but reading about everything strep causes really made me appreciate how few technological innovations are between us humans and mass die offs.  Strep causes childbed fever, St. Anthony’s Fire, meningitis, scarlet fever, pink eye, necrotizing fasciitis… Strep is the cockroach of human-infecting bacteria.  And for a while, all we had to do was take a pill and it was completely harmless.

Of course now we have MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) (whose natural habitat is the hospital, just like strep).  And multiply resistant gonorrhea.  And tuberculosis resistant to most known antibiotics.  The bad old days are on our heels, is what I’m saying.

One weird thing is I finished this book with the vague impression that sulfa drugs had saved a lot of lives but not actually knowing how many.  This article estimates that sulfa drugs led to a 2-3% drop in overall mortality, which translated to a 0.4-0.7 year increase in life expectancy.  That only covers up until 1943: presumably it had a bigger impact as distribution increased, or at least would have if penicillin had not taken over.

Overall Verdict

Pretty good, with some oversights.  Like Alchemy of Air the beginning is the best part, and if you find your attention flagging I’d just let it go.  I found the subject matter more innately interesting than Alchemy of Air but the writing a little less so.  Demon spends less time on the personal lives of the scientists, which was a selling point for my roommate but a disappointment for me.

This post supported by Patreon.

Review: The Dueling Neurosurgeons (Sam Kean)

If you like this blog, you might like…

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.

This post supported by patreon

World War Technology

[Content Warning: both World Wars, the Holocaust]

I have a very vivid memory of reading Cryptonomicon, where a character explains that the Allies won World War 2 because they worshiped Athena (technology, strategy), and the Germans worshipped Ares (Brute Strength, physical and moral).

[Some of you may be thinking “But German craftsmanship was better, right?  It took 5/10 American tanks to take down 1 German Tank?”  I thought so too, but apparently no.  To the extent it was true, it was craftsmanship, not technology.]

The Axis did do better in encryption originally, but by the end we were reading much more of their mail than they were reading of ours.  Although it’s important to give credit to this to Polish Intelligence, who broke the Enigma code early on, enabling them to keep up as Germany increased its complexity.  If they hadn’t sent their results to Britain just as Germany invaded, Alan Turing et al. may never have been able to crack it.  That was some high leverage work there.

Anyways, I’m reading The Alchemy of Air (Thomas Hager) now, which is about the history of nitrogen chemistry, which played a much larger role in World War 1 than I would have guessed.  Fritz Haber’s invention of a way to transform atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form, something previously only accomplished by lightning and a handful of bacteria, is estimated to have prolonged the war by at least one year, possibly two. We’ll get into why in a later post.  That’s Athena.  According to the book, a lot of what the Allies wanted in reparations was not actually money, but German technology, especially chemistry.

[I do not entirely trust Hager on the relative important of chemistry and money here.  He’s spent the entire book waxing lyrical about the importance and beauty of nitrogen.  The internet was not terrible helpful; I’ve confirmed that dyes and pharmaceuticals were among goods taken as reparations, but not the amounts.  Some guy on Quora says the US, Britain, and Germany were equally competitive in technology in 1914.]

Even if Alchemy is overestimating German dominance in chemistry, I think it’s safe to say that technology was a major force behind German military power in World War 1.  And by World War 2, it wasn’t.  They made some advances and would have done worse without them, but no one ended the war thinking “man, getting access to this German technology will save us 20 years in research”.  But 60 years later, Germany is again a leader in technology, and has one of the more functional economies in the world.

This was going to be a “me wondering about a mystery” post, but once I thought about it the answer to “what changed?” is obvious.  Germany exiled or killed 25% of their scientists.  Fritz Haber, the guy who added years to the war with one invention and went on to pioneer chemical warfare?  Jewish  “Germany hurt itself while killing several million people” is not exactly news, but I think it’s important to note individual stories of how.

Although this puts me in the weird position of honoring the guy who more-or-less created chemical warfare.  But that’s maybe okay, because the same process that made Germany gun powder is also feeding half the world right now.  Utilitarian morality is complicated.

 

 

Epistemic Spot Check: A Brief History of the Human Race (Michael Cook)

I was worried my epistemic spot checking project was doomed before it began.  The well regarded Sapiens dismissed a link between cultural and genetic evolution, and Last Ape Standing made two explosively wrong errors in the first chapter.  Neither related to human evolution (one was about modern extreme poverty and the other about cetacean evolution), but I just couldn’t let them go.  I worried that every book was terrible if you actually fact checked it, or maybe just every book on the emergence of homonids?

And then I started A Brief History of the Human Race.  Two chapters in, I cannot find a flaw in it.  There are a few simplifications, and some broad statements he later walks back, but nothing I can point to and say “that is miseducating people.”  Meanwhile there are a lot of things I can point to and say “that is right”, even things I initially thought were wrong.  So I think A Brief History… might be the one.

Here’s a list of statements I checked and their results.  Normally I sort claims into true and untrue sections, but that proved unnecessary in this case because it is a beautiful rigorous snowflake of a book.

Claim: The holocene era has had unusual climactic stability, and is warmer than typical for the planet (page 6).
This checks out, but it’s a little weird that his graph doesn’t label the temperature axes, and it’s a graph of oxygen ratios from a single glacier rather than the wider variety of evidence available.
Cook further claims that this warmth and stability is what let farming, and thus history, start.   There’s some counter evidence to the claim of the holocene as the absolute start of agriculture. but it certainly seems legitimate to say that’s when it really took off.
Claim: there exists art “well over 20,000 years old” (page 9)
I was very surprised by this but if anything he’s underselling it; there’s claims of 50,000 year old art 
Claim: most human DNA is junk DNA that serves no purpose, and mutations have no effect (page 11):
He’s a little behind the times on junk DNA. Even when A Brief History… was published (2003) we knew it that while lots of DNA didn’t encode any proteins, much of it does seem to serve some purpose and mutations in it are significant.  At a minimum noncoding DNA definitely plays a role in the regulation of DNA transcription, the structural cohesion of the chromosome, and protecting coding DNA from degradation.  This is the closest thing to a falsehood I found in the first two chapters.  At the level of genetics this book is discussing I think it’s a forgivable simplification, although an addendum noting the real world was more complicated would have been appreciated.
Claim: humans are inbred (page 12)
Very true.
Page 13: AFAIK this explanation of multiorigin vs out of Africa human evolution hypotheses is correct, and he’s picked the correct winner.
Claim: evidence of human tool use half a million years ago (page 16)
me: there is no way there were tools that long ago.
internet: yes there is.
Claim: early hominid and chimp tool use are both culturally transmitted (page 17)
I’m pretty sure this is correct, and I appreciate the distinction he is making
Claim: it was hard for nomadic hominids to combine their tools in novel ways, because they had so little room. There are exceptions, but they might have been better off sticking with lower technology (page 20).
I am extremely happy to see this guy acknowledge that hunter gatherers had a pretty kick ass life and farming sucked.
Claim: iron is more abundant than copper because of something about supernovas (page 29).
Claim: cattle domesticated multiple times (page 30).
Claim: humans adapt to domesticated animals culturally but not genetically (page 32).
This ignores the co-domestication of humans and wolves but is basically true for everything else.
Claim: humans did not genetically adapt to farming (page 33).
me: ehhhhh….lactose tolerance was a pretty big deal.
p34: exceptions: lactose tolerance and disease resistance.
me: I accept your apology.
Claim: Maori had and then lost the technique for pottery (p36).
Not only is A Brief History… not saying wrong things, it is throwing out tangential facts at about the right rate.  I was never going to look up which molecules supernovas produced.  But now I have a general idea of the concept of “primary elements” and how this affected human history, which makes me happy.
Verdict: A Brief History of the Human Race has passed the epistemic spot check with flying colors, and is enjoyable to read.
This post supported by Patreon.

Dreamland: bad organic chemistry edition

I am in the middle of a post on Dreamland (Sam Quinones) and how it is so wrong, but honestly I don’t think I can wait that long so here’s an easily encapsulated teaser.

On page 39 Quinones says “Most drugs are easily reduced to water-soluble glucose…Alone in nature, the morphine molecule rebelled.”  I am reasonably certain that is horseshit.  Glucose contains three kinds of atoms- carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.  The big three of organic chemicals.  Your body is incapable of atomic fusion, so the atoms it starts with are the atoms it ends up with, it can only rearrange them into different molecules.  Morphine is carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, and that nitrogen has to go somewhere, so I guess technically you can’t reform it into just sugar.  But lots of other medications have non-big-3 atoms too (although, full disclosure, when I spot checked there was a lot less variety than I expected).

This valorization of morphine as the indigestible molecule is equally bizarre.  Morphine has a half-life of 2-3 hours (meaning that if you have N morphine in your body to start with, 2-3 hours later you will have N/2).  In fact that’s one of the things that makes it so addictive- you get a large spike, tied tightly it with the act of ingestion, and then it goes away quickly, without giving your body time to adjust.  Persistence is the opposite of morphine’s problem.

This is so unbelievably wrong I would normally assume the author meant something entirely different and I was misreading.  I’d love to check this, but the book cites no sources, and the online bibliography doesn’t discuss this particular factoid.  I am also angry at the book for being terrible in general, so it gets no charity here.

Review: Volume

I really love physics puzzle video games.   The general pattern for physics puzzlers is that you have a fairly small set of tools that alter some fundamental law, like gravity, and you use them to get to the other side of the room.  The puzzles are quite separate from each other, and there is no metapuzzle.  You walk into a chamber, you solve the puzzle, you walk out.  None of this wondering if you’re did the puzzle wrong or it’s just a tree you walked in to, no metagame (I’m looking at you, The Witness.  Either be a book of mazes or have a story, doing neither is annoying), just a puzzle to solve with a little reward pellet when you’re done.  I have enough things in my day where it’s not even clear if I’m solving the correct problem, I don’t need that from my leisure activities.

The example you’re most likely to be familiar with is Portal.

But my favorite is Thomas Was Alone, a game about rectangles making friends.

Thomas Was Alone uses a couple of my favorite themes, including disparate people (rectangles) bonding together to solve a problem, and entwined moral and practical leveling up.  The puzzle solving of using different rectangles to get them all where they need to go becomes a metaphor for social cooperation in really impressive ways.  It is the first game I ever went through to get the collectibles not because I wanted the reward pellet from getting 100% completion, but just because I wanted to spend more time in the world.  So you can imagine my excitement when I found out the creator, Tom Bithell, had a new game coming out, and by coming out I mean came out a year and a half ago and was in a Humble Bundle, because I am not super up on my video game releases.

Story wise, Volume is no Thomas Was Alone, and I think that’s true even accounting for the facts that I was playing during a truly awful week, and Thomas was Alone‘s story couldn’t have targeted me better if it tried.  If you removed the story from both Volume is clearly the better the game, but part of what made Thomas Was Alone work was the superb integration between story and mechanics, so that’s not really fair.

But Volume‘s gameplay is excellent.  You play a thief playing a AI-driven simulation of stealing  (but are also actually stealing? To be honest I wasn’t paying attention.   Oh, apparently you’re simulating it to show other people how to steal and then they do?  That explains the moralizing at the end) from people who totally deserve it.  If you filmed the results it would look a lot like a wireframe of a Bugs Bunny Cartoons.  Guards can only see in a very prescribed area, so often the best thing to do walk directly behind them.  If you enter their line of sight they will chase you, but if you leave it for long enough they will give up, which led to a couple of really entertaining chases where I ran around columns perfectly opposite them until they gave up.  The game pokes fun at the simplifications it made- “I didn’t have the money to illustrate a bunch of objects so just pretend each of these identical gems is something different”, “Yes, transporters are impossible, but stairs are hard to code please just go with it.”

You’re given a variety of tools to manipulate the guards, like a bugle to create sound far away from you, and a way to generate a ghost of you running away so the guards will chase it (this one is a mixed blessing because it makes the guards more vigilant).  The tools vary dramatically in entertainment value: I found the stun gun was no fun at all, because it removed the need for planning.  Encounter a problem?  Shoot it.  It doesn’t even take that long to recharge.  But the stunning tripwire was fantastic.  Figuring out where to place it so you have as much time to run past the guard to your goal as possible and then lure them to it without getting shot is hard.

Like Thomas Was Alone and unlike every other puzzle game I’ve ever played, I completed Volume without once looking at a walkthrough.  For Thomas this was pretty clearly because the puzzles were easy; for Volume I think it’s at least partly really excellent design.  I didn’t know how to solve everything right away, but I always had more ideas of things to try.  None of this staring at a brick wall wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do (I’m looking at you Fez).

If I had one complaint about Volume that wasn’t about the lack of the magic of friendship, it would be that you don’t get enough time with any one mechanic.  I wish the game had had more confidence that the puzzles were fun and it didn’t need to keep feeding me novelty.  Luckily there is an ecosystem of user-made levels that I can only assume solves this exact problem.

So I heartily recommend Volume.  While I’m at it, if you like this type of game you’ll probably love Swapper, which might be more fun mechanically than even Portal and has narrative/mechanic integration to rival Thomas Was Alone, although this time the narrative is about watching your body die horribly over and over again, which is somewhat easier to represent in gameplay.  And for people like me who will enjoy even mid-tier representatives of the genre, Q.U.B.E is totally adequate.