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Friday, November 5, 2021

Steven Pinker, Steve Sailer and the Cousin Marriage Conundrum part 2

There is, sometimes, science & nature in "the best 
science and nature writing" of 2004
(Tatania Maslany as clone
Cosima Niehaus in "Orphan Black")

As noted in part 1, in the introduction to "The Best American Science and Nature Writing" of 2004, Steven Pinker discussed his science writing criteria:
The best science writing delights by instructing. A good science essay, like any good essay, must be written with structure and style, but the best science essays accomplish something else. They give readers the blissful click, the satisfying aha!, of seeing a puzzling phenomenon explained...

...Good science writing has to be good writing... its first priority, clarity.
I was thinking about these criteria as I read through the book. Many pieces do not meet these standards.

The first piece, "Genesis of Suicide Terrorism" by Scott Atran, originally published in Science uses an excess of words for the very basic point Atran seems to want to get across: suicide bombers are usually neither uneducated, insane nor poor. The essay is bloated because although he is an anthropologist, he seems far more interested in pure politics than anything that looks like anthropology to me, although by the end of the essay he suggests we might do some anthropology: "Study is needed on how terrorist institutions form and on similarities and differences across organizational structures, recruiting practices, and populations recruited."

Apparently science writing does not need to be about science itself for inclusion in this volume. Pinker seems to admit that in the introduction: "the passionate eccentrics who call themselves scientists are good grist for gossip and character studies." He's referring to Jennet Conant's profile of James Watson, "The New Celebrity" in the now-defunct Seed

I will give Pinker this much: in "The New Celebrity" I did have an aha! moment. I said to myself: "aha! James Watson was an insufferable asshole long before he declared himself a huge flaming racist."

Ronald Bailey's "The Battle for Your Brain" is a long essay arguing against Francis Fukuyama and "for neurological liberty," originally published in Reason, and it was well organized and sufficiently science-oriented, I suppose, but I couldn't get interested in any argument between Quillette author Fukuyama and a Koch man and skimmed through it. 

Philip M. Boffey's very short "Fearing the Worst Should Anyone Produce a Cloned Baby" originally from the NYTimes, is so limited on the topic of clones in comparison to the series Orphan Blackbut it's not Boffey's fault he wrote nine years too soon.

The New York Times Magazine's "The Bittersweet Science" by Austin Bunn is one of the book's most successful pieces. It's about the discovery of insulin with the focus on a diabetic girl, Elizabeth Hughes and the radical carbohydrate-free diet regimen invented by Dr. Frederick Allen to treat patients like her. The diet would have probably killed Hughes eventually, but it allowed her to survive long enough to benefit from the discovery of insulin. It is a classic damsel in distress narrative, with scientific discovery as the hero, so a real page-turner.

"The Mythical Threat of Genetic Determinism" from The Chronicle of Higher Education by Daniel C. Dennett is basically a strawman rant against Stephen Jay Gould, who was conveniently dead by the time Dennett published, and therefore no longer capable of making fools of Dennett and Pinker in the New York Review of Books.

"We're All Gonna Die!" by Gregg Easterbrook, originally in Wired mocks various 2003-era anxieties. I wouldn't exactly say it delights by instruction or provides an aha! moment, but it has a solid structure: it sets up the premise that many people who should know better are promoting fear about various things they shouldn't, then the various things are listed (germ warfare, killer asteroids, supervolcanoes etc), and Easterbrook explains why they aren't so threatening or probable.

Garrett G. Fagan's "Far Out TV" originally in Archeology is a solid piece bemoaning "pseudoarcheology" on TV, giving examples of same, then giving an example of a TV show that presents good archeology, Helike, the Real Atlantis.

"A War on Obesity, Not the Obese" by Jeffrey M. Friedman in Science is very interesting, in that Friedman asks, not why so many people are obese, but rather, given the increased availability of food, how so many people manage to stay thin. It makes an interesting contrast to Steven Pinker's own flippant attitude towards weight loss, evident in the NYTimes review of his book Rationality.

Atul Gawande's "Desperate Measures" is from the New Yorker, which means it's well-written and also that I read it when it was first published in 2003. It focuses on the sometimes pioneering work of Dr. Francis Moore. It's quite long but a satisfying read.

"The Stuff of Genes" by Horace Freeland Judson, from Science, is a brief professional piece on the world of genomics circa 2003.

"The Bloody Crossroads of Grammar and Politics" by Geoffry Nunberg in the New York Times is notable mainly for its hyperbolic title and as a precursor to the contemporary reaction by the Right against pronouns.
Illustration by Slug Signorino

Mike O'Connor's "Ask the Bird Folks" originally in The Cape Codder
is basically The Straight Dope except just about birds, not as funny and sans illustrations by Slug Signorino.

Another example of not exactly science and nature writing is in the New York Times Magazine, where Peggy Orenstein asks "Where Have All the Lisas Gone?
Answer: baby name fashions change and Lisa went out of fashion. But it could come back.

I suppose you could make a case that Virginia Postrel's short piece "The Design of Your Life", about aspects of contemporary design, originally in Men's Journal, is connected to science and nature by the sentence "We are by nature - by deep biological nature, visual, tactile creatures," says Dan Brown." 
But it would be a stretch.

"Caring for Your Introvert" by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic is also stretching it, since it's more an attempt at humorous personal essay than anything else, but he does mention Carl Jung, a couple of education experts and a self-help book called "Why Should Extroverts Make All the Money?: Networking Made Easy for the Introvert," so, I guess...

"All the Old Sciences Have Starring Roles" from the Boston Globe, but no longer available online, seems to be part of Chet Raymo's "Science Musings." The most interesting bit comes in the first paragraph in which we are informed that back in Chet's day boys did physics, girls did biology and only nerds liked chemistry.

"Sex Week at Yale" by Ron Rosenbaum at the Atlantic can be summed up as: "those dreary academics and their boring sex talk. Susan Block. Al Goldstein. King Lear." 

"Bugs in the Brain" by Robert Sapolsky was indisputably about science and nature. It's about parasite strategies and discusses rabies and toxoplasmosis. So pretty gross but short, well-organized and to the point.

"Through the Eye of an Octopus" has two bylines: Jennifer Tzar and Eric Scigliano in Discover, but in the book only Scigliano gets the byline. How odd. Anyway, a well-written piece about the possibility of octopus personalities.

The very brief "Captivated" from Natural History is an account by Meredith F. Small, anthropologist, of watching snow monkeys at the Central Park Zoo.

"Parallel Universes" by Max Tegmark explains the multiverse concept in Scientific American. 

That leaves three more articles in the collection: the one by Steve Sailer and two by Nicholas Wade, which I will discuss in part 3.

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