Book review – Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene

7-minute read

The idea that extinction is a bad thing and diversity a good thing seems self-evident to us. But, by surveying more than two centuries of scholarship, science historian David Sepkoski shows that this was not always the prevailing belief. Rather than a book discussing mass extinction, Catastrophic Thinking is more meta than that, discussing how we have been discussing mass extinction. So, we have an interesting premise, but also an interesting author because – bonus detail – the work of his father, J. John (Jack) Sepkoski Jr., was instrumental in recognizing the Big Five mass extinctions. I could not wait to get to grips with this book.

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Book review – How to Predict Everything: The Formula Transforming What We Know About Life and the Universe

6-minute read

How do you predict something that has never happened before? That is the question heading this book. And as it so happens, there is an app formula for that. Purportedly a book about Bayes’s theorem, author William Poundstone quickly latches onto the doomsday argument and whizzes the reader through a mishmash of thought experiments and philosophical puzzles that try to answer the question how long humans will survive.

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Book review – Fraud in the Lab: The High Stakes of Scientific Research

6-minute read

To outsiders, the idea that scientists would forge results might seem counterintuitive. After all, is science not supposed to be about inching ever closer, through endless iterations, to a truer picture of our world? Having worked in academia for ten years I know that the truth is a bit more nuanced. Even so, Fraud in the Lab, written by French investigative journalist Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis, was a shocking, damning and eye-opening exposé.

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Book review – Rage Inside The Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All

7-minute read

There is an amusing and slightly acerbic acronym that has stuck with me from my days working at a computer helpdesk for an international oil firm: PICNIC. Short for “problem in chair, not in computer”, my colleagues used it as code whenever an employee rocked up at our helpdesk with a complaint or problem that was due to human clumsiness rather than malfunctioning hardware. “Did you check that the printer was plugged into the power socket?”

Nevertheless, says Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher Robert Elliott Smith, our blind faith in computers and the algorithms that run them is misguided. Based on his 30 years experience working with AI, the aptly titled Rage Inside the Machine takes the reader on a historical tour of computing to show how today’s technology is both less amoral and more prejudiced than we give it credit for.

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Book review – Rates of Evolution: A Quantitative Synthesis

7-minute read

The question of the tempo of evolution cuts right to the heart of evolutionary theory. Emeritus professor in evolutionary biology (and a list of other disciplines) Philip D. Gingerich here takes an empirical stab at quantifying how fast evolution happens, something which has not been done very often. The resulting Rates of Evolution is a technical monograph for an academic audience that contains thought-provoking ideas.

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Book review – Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Second Edition)

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.

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Book review – The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How To Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake

If the design of the cover didn’t already give it away, the instruction to NOT PANIC on the dust jacket makes it clear this book is riffing on the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And just as Douglas Adams’s book was intended to be an indispensable guide to navigating the galaxy, so The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is an indispensable guide to navigating a world gone mad with pseudoscience, alternative medicine, fake news, and conspiracy theories. Don’t let the book’s bulk put you off, this is an incredibly engaging read with a most humble outlook on life.

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Book review – Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity

Ask most biologists about the history of genetics and they will likely mention Watson and Crick’s 1953 discovery of the double helix structure of DNA or the work of the monk Gregor Mendel that showed a simple form of trait inheritance. Professor of History Theodore M. Porter contends that there is another, largely forgotten side to this story. Long before words such as genetics and genes had been coined, the fledgeling discipline of psychiatry was recording details of patients in mental asylums, collecting vast amounts of data on human heredity. Genetics in the Madhouse is a deep dive into the archives to reveal this little-known history.

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