Monday, April 25, 2011

Reading is sexy XLIV

(image credit: Ramon Casas- Decadence 1899) Wow, I have been woefully neligent of reporting on my reading. I've also been reading a bit less, but the main problem was my response to a certain book (see below). I felt so strongly that a proper review required re-analysis of data, charts and maps (undoubtedly a surefire way to diminish my imaginary, book review audience to vanishingly small size and/or make it come to question my sanity) and then never found the time to do so. Of course, the solution is to post some brief reviews with a pointer to a future planned post where I explain that those of us with a facility with numbers are not mean, arrogant, ogres to be avoided, and we may even have incredibly useful data-analysis skills which we would be willing to share with people who are not self-righteous jerks or glorying in their innumeracy as if that made them culturally superior collaborators in other fields.

4. Heavenly Intrigue - Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History's Greatest Scientific Discoveries by Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder This was great. You should read it. I read a lot of history of science, and sometimes when you read a book like this you think perhaps the history of science books should be left to people who aren't scientists. I am a big fan of Tycho Brahe. The Danish sixteenth century astronomer not only found a supernova, but his excellence as an experimentalist and insistence on repetability of measurements literally provided a definition of the modern scientific method. He does not get enough credit. That's partially because he had one biographer who disliked him (as the Gilders convincingly show) and he was painted as a hot-head, who lost his nose in a duel over a woman of questionable reputation (which is quite unfair, and also fails to express the sheer commonplace nature of dueling amongs the Danish nobility of the time). Further, Tycho lived his life in the open, including his devotion to his life-long, common-law wife and his efforts to ensure his offspring could inherit, so it's not so surprising he had a metal nose made and got on with it. Without Tycho's data Kepler would not have been able to calculate his three laws of planetary motion (and come within a hair's breath of Newton's law of Universal Gravitation). It would have been very easy to erroneously assume orbits were circular, not ellipses (as the orbits are damn near circles) but Tycho's data was too good for this and included estimates of accuracy. Tycho often gets a lot of flack from theorists for failing to entirely accept the Copernican heliocentric model of our solar system. The Tychonian model has the planets rotating the sun, and the whole kit n' kaboodle circling the Earth. This is often explained as his reticence to make that 'paradigm shift'. The Gilders put the lie to this idea. They show that he would have accepted the model, except the notion that the Earth rotates around the sun would lead any good astronomer to deduce that there would be stellar paralax. (Hold your index finger up and look at it with alternating eyes closed - left-right-left-right. The finger appears to move because of binocular paralax. As we trace out our orbit through space, we expect the stars' observed positions to change through the same effect. This does in fact happen, but because the Universe is many many orders of magnitude larger than Tycho knew, the effect is so small, it was not observed till the 20th century. So, like a good experimentalist, he was unable to accept a theory which was counterdicted by the data.) I've read previous (disappointing) biographies of Kepler. This biography certainly paints him in an unflattering light, though the assessments from his diaries are self-assessments. The authors produce a convincing argument that Tycho Brahe was murdered (an expert experimentalist and alchemist/pharmacist, he was poisoned) and then establish a motive, a rather bizarre and anti-social character, opportunity for Kepler that they use to argue that .... guess who did it? While a using forensic science to solve a murder from 1601 will by necessity require some circumstantial evidence (I am convinced of the poisoning but not entirely of the poisoner), they tell a good story. Further, since they go back to the primary sources, they avoid the mistake of far too many scientists, of re-telling legends. It's good to know that one does not in fact die from neglecting to relieve one's bladder at a royal banquet. I'm sure some guests of this week's upcoming nuptials will be relieved.

5. Natural Experiments of History. Edited by Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson. Now, I read this because the journalist brought home the uncorrected page proofs, as newspapers can not store these free books from publishers indefinitely. So, it's not impossible a couple of the more eggregious statements were removed by a sensible person at the Harvard University Press before the final version was put to press. One can only hope so, though I doubt they will bother re-plot the data, unfortunately. I was intrigued. The editors point out that any field of study involving the past cannot be directly investigated with experiments, however some "natural experiments" can often be drawn from amongst events which have occured which can allow us to draw insight from comparative case studies on one end of the spectrum through to quantitative analysis. I think this is great, and fairly obvious to an earth scientist - someone trained with all the numerical tools of a physicist to study the earth where natural changes happen over geological time. I read the chapters on a variety of subjects which would not normally cross my path (Polynesian cultural evolution, parterns of boom and bust in settler societies of the 19th century, development of new world banks and the relationship to government, ecology and inter-island comparisons in Polynesia or intra-island comparisons between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the present-day economic consequences of slavery on Africa, land tenure and public good in India, the spread of the French revolution in conquered regions of what is now Germany). These were very interesting and for the most part convincing - partially because the analysis of numerical data was so shallow and claims so small that they had to be convincing (i.e. x and y are positively corrolated, when with some no-how it would have been posible to establish far more significant claims.) The attitude of the editors, Diamond in particular, was rather unfortunate. I should have guessed when I read in the Prologue that the inability to make controlled and replicated laboratory experiments "misleads laboratory scientists into looking down on fields of science that cannot employ manipulative experiments" that perhaps this was not to be a book which celebrates scholarship without petty inter-disciplinary biases. The comparisons to science are neither helpful nor accurate and the comments about statistics are downright rude. By the time I reached the Afterword, and read the scorn-drenched sentence, "Mathematicians and physical scientists who have never tried to measure something as important as urbanization or happiness often sneer at the efforts of social scientists to operationalize these concepts, and they quote examples of operationalizing pulled out of context to justify their scorn," I wondered about the burden of carrying around such a chip on ones shoulder and whether that was what blinded them to the possible benefit of seeking some advice from "mathematicians and physical scientists" - you know they sort of people who have known about the importance of error analysis since Tycho Brahe, when handling messy data. I will say what I do think is dreadful: Diamond's own chapter actually states that he and co-author aren't staticians so they hired one and these are the results (without any sort of evidence whatsoever... unless you count the advice to go read the article they wrote with the aid of the stastician elsewhere). That would not pass the peer review in science. It's simply inconceivable. I doubt that there's anything wrong with their models, but have the respect to share them with your audience rather than say, this is the right answer, trust me. Further I am saddened that a dataset which strikes me as downright heroic (imagine gathering the records of all slaves exported from Africa for centuries) is not used to its full potential (and I indent to show what I mean by this in a further post). Lastly, there are entire paragraphs written to explain the unexpected "trends" in voter turn-out versus nature of land tenure in India when is obvious that a random-number generator could produce an equivalent plot. THERE IS NO TREND. Basic hypothesis-testing, which is something taught to undergraduates in say, biology or statistics could have avoided these needless errors. Some of these articles could have been vastly improved if the authors learned to judge the quality of a linear fit by looking at the chi-squared per degrees of freedom. Pity they took more time taking cheap shots at the numerate, and too little time to learn why and how we apply numerical methods. These words and attitudes really taint what otherwise would have been a fascinating book.

My desire to read any of Diamond's other books has plummeted.

6. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
. This gothic novel set in Franco's Spain (well, Barcelona, which thinks of itself as Catalonia) is a wonderful read. We have the romance of books, the intrigue of noir tension of life in the dictatorship, love stories, loss, families, tremendous characters, and real suspense. It's also a love letter to a wonderful city. Read it.

7. Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno. I really enjoyed these bittersweet, occasionally surreal or magical stories illustrated by some of my favorite illustrators (kozyndan, Caroline Hwang, the little friends of printmaking, Jay Ryan, Rachell Sumpter...). They really are beautifully crafted. Plus, it raises funds for literacy programs, so go ahead and buy it. The Swedish bankrobbers in 1973, the wife who turned into a cloud, the tragic miniature elephant, the imaginary Iceland and the city in the heart will be with me for a while.

8. Why work? Liam Gillick I picked this up at the Biennale at Auckland because I could, and the title amused me, and I liked the Medieval woodblock prints. I can't say I fully understood the turgid prose. Someone might suggest that grammar is useful when trying to communicate effectively, and introduce Mr. Gillick to the concept of the apostrophe. Just sayin'

{Series so far: books read, more books read, books read, books read continues, more books read, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII,XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV, XXXV, XXXVI, XXXVII, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XL,XLI, XLII, XLIII}


Marissa Buschow said...

That's sad & a bit unexpected about Diamond & Robinson's book - I know Diamond has his roots in ornithology/ecology, and I like to think us bird scientists have at least basic knowledge of stats. Maybe as he's shifted into his money-making "here is the science behind the history of the world" spiels, he's decided fiddling with numbers is unimportant.
All I can say about his books is whooo-eee, they are long-winded! Interesting ideas, but golly does he go about explaining them for 100s of pages too long.

minouette said...

Yes, I agree.

I didn't know that! I thought he was a geographer, but I too would think that anyone in geography or ornithology or ecology would have a bit more knowledge of and respect for statistics. I got the impression he must have tangled with some mathematician or physical scientist who was derisive of his work, but I don't think that's an excuse to make biased comments against entire fields of study or to neglect the numerical analysis.

I was interested in his books previously. Sometimes people really need a good editor! (In this case the editors needed a good editor, hence the problem).