Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Spook by Mary Roach

I am feeling a little tired of Mary Roach's books. I think this is the fourth I've read, and I'm starting to get the same feel from many of them, and it is this: she finds interesting stories, but she doesn't do enough with them, just plops them down in front of the reader like her job is done with the anecdote, and without delving more deeply into the issues that really interest me.

For a while, I was just thinking that this was what popular writing was like, and then I started The Ghost Map, and realized that, no, this is what Mary Roach is like, because The Ghost Map is immediately a more thoughtful popular history book than this is a thoughtful popular science book. She's a messy writer, and doesn't follow through on provocative questions. That's fine for a while, but eventually, I just want an editor to tell her to sit down and come up with a stronger throughline for her books. Nonfiction does not mean no direction.

At any rate, as usual, she digs up some interesting stories in this collection of what science has made of the various claims of life after death, including seances, the weight of the soul, reincarnation, and near death experiences. As usual, they tend to be entertaining, although in this case, they verge on the sneering at some points. Some of them are definitely sneer-worthy, but sometimes, it comes off as snide and uncomfortable with uncertainty.

That was one of my major "wait, what?" moments, near the beginning, when she was saying that science can get rid of uncertainty and figure things out, and I was sitting there thinking, doesn't all science at least start with uncertainty? And a desire to figure things out in laboratory conditions that may, and this is the big point, may not give you anything conclusive? Scientists don't go around knowing all the stuff, all the time. In theory, if they're acting honestly, they're trying to figure out uncertainties that they may have been the first to perceive.

And so, despite this being all about science, Roach falls preys to at least one logical fallacy that drove me nuts. She'd look into one aspect of her topic (which has certainly attracted its share of nutbars), and find someone whose results she can't adequately evaluate, for whatever reason. At that point, instead of saying that and leaving it, she'd say something like "I can't tell whether this data is good or not, but here's someone who is definitely off their rocker who believes something similar!" As though the fact guilt by association of ideas is a logical thing to do.

It isn't. It's a basic logical fallacy. So if we're setting out to do the science, let's not fall into those, okay?

Those are the complaints. Many of the stories she finds are interesting. But after reading three other of her books, they just feel so surface. It feels like there are more interesting connections to be drawn, more interesting thoughts to be thought, deeper depths to be delved. I get this is popular science. But I'm not convinced that means that this is all we can ask for.

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