- Michael Wolff on Edward Jay Epstein’s new book about the Kennedy assassination and Warren Commission Report
- Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (1991)
- Peking University expels liberal economist (via Marginal Revolution). Plus China’s Nobel Prize in science prospects.
- Paleo bakery in Amsterdam. A friend compared this to dehydrated water, but I am less sure that there were no sweets in Paleolithic diets.
Archive for the 'books' Category
Edward Jay Epstein has just published a new book called The JFK Assassination Diary based on the diary he kept when he wrote Inquest. It is available on Kindle, Nook and as an Itunes ebook. It will soon be available in paperback.
He wrote me about it:
As you know I was the only person to interview the Warren Commission as well as its staff and liaisons with the intelligence services. I did these interviews as an undergraduate at Cornell with no credentials as a journalist, scholar, or author. My interviews also produced a revelation that shook the journalistic establishment, which had been blithely reporting until the publication of my book Inquest that the Commission had left no stone unturned in an exhaustive investigation. In fact, as I showed, it was a brief, sporadic, and incomplete investigation. Indeed one in which the senior staff lawyer in charge of the crime scene investigation quit after two days, and the young lawyer who took his place, Arlen Specter, was never able to view the single most crucial piece of evidence — the autopsy photographs. The Commission was never able to obtain them, nor other pieces of evidence, because Robert Kennedy blocked it. For the same reason, the Commission was not provided with any information about a parallel plot to kill Castro in 1963. The Commission could not connect dots to which it was denied access.
I had no problem getting this information. Many of the young lawyers on the staff were furious with the way the investigation had been handled and the time pressure imposed on them. So they gave me FBI reports, payroll records and their memos, without me even asking. This raises a question. As these lawyers and Commission members were not bound by any secrecy agreement, as amazing as that might seem nowadays, why had not journalists from major news organizations sought the same information from them? After all, in 1963, the Kennedy assassination was the crime of the century. Fifty years later, I still cannot answer this question.
A very good question. Why weren’t journalists from major news organizations more . . . enterprising? It is another variation on The Emperor’s New Clothes, where a Cornell undergraduate manages to see what many much more experienced and credentialed experts failed to see, or avoided seeing. I would answer Epstein’s question like this: The experts were disinterested in gathering evidence that might contradict their world view. That world view included a belief in the competence of exceedingly important government commissions. They didn’t want to gather evidence that might make them uncomfortable. I see this every year at Nobel Prize time. No journalist ever questions the claims in the press releases that accompany the prizes.
- How little is known about tinnitus
- Michael Lewis on Greg Smith’s book. Published months ago. “The dystopia often imagined in the world of artificial intelligence—in which computers somehow take on a life of their own and come to rule mankind—has actually happened in the world of finance. The giant Wall Street firms have taken on lives of their own, beyond human control. The people flow into and out of them but have only incidental effect on their direction and behavior.”
- The price of admission to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Businessmen seeking ministry contracts learned of Zhang’s nomination and offered to help. . . . Zhang, using a slush fund provided by the businessmen, cloistered 30 experts from mostly ministry-affiliated universities and research institutes in a hotel for 2 months, during which time they churned out three books on high-speed rail technology that were credited to Zhang.”
- Why was Matthew Shepard killed? I have not yet read this book (I will) but it sounds so good I am happy to publicize it before that. It is being ignored. It supports a theme of Ron Unz and this blog, that lots of what we are told is wrong.
- Someone leaving graduate school at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne explains why he is leaving only a few months before finishing his Ph.d. His complaints about professional (academic) science resemble mine — for example, the dominant role of will this help my career? in all decisions.
Thanks to Joyce Cohen and Allan Jackson.
Part 1 of this interview about Leaf’s book The Truth in Small Doses: Why We’re Losing the War on Cancer — and How to Win It was posted yesterday.
SR You say we should “let scientists learn as they go”. For example, reduce the need for grant proposals to require tests of hypotheses. I agree. I think most scientists know very little about how to generate plausible ideas. If they were allowed to try to do this, as you propose, they would learn how to do it. However, I failed to find evidence in your book that a “let scientists learn as they go” strategy works better (leaving aside Burkitt). Did I miss something?
CL Honestly, I don’t think we know yet that such a strategy would work. What we have in the way of evidence is a historical control (to some extent, we did try this approach in pediatric cancers in the 1940s through the 1960s) and a comparator arm (the current system) that so far has been shown to be ineffective.
As I tried to show in the book, the process now isn’t working. And much of what doesn’t work is what we’ve added in the way of bad management. Start with a lengthy, arduous, grants applications process that squelches innovative ideas, that funds barely 10 percent of a highly trained corps of academic scientists and demoralizes the rest, and that rewards the same applicants (and types of proposals) over and over despite little success or accountability. This isn’t the natural state of science. We BUILT that. We created it through bad management and lousy systems.
Same for where we are in drug development. We’ve set up clinical trials rules that force developers to spend years ramping up expensive human studies to test for statistical significance, even when the vast majority of the time, the question being asked is of little clinical significance. The human cost of this is enormous, as so many have acknowledged.
With regard to basic research, one has only to talk to young researchers (and examine the funding data) to see how badly skewed the grants process has become. As difficult (and sometimes inhospitable) as science has always been, it has never been THIS hard for a young scientist to follow up on questions that he or she thinks are important. In 1980, more than 40 percent of major research grants went to investigators under 40; today it’s less than 10 percent. For anyone asking provocative, novel questions (those that the study section doesn’t “already know the answer to,” as the saying goes), the odds of funding are even worse.
So, while I can’t say for sure that an alternative system would be better, I believe that given the current state of affairs, taking a leap into the unknown might be worth it.
SR I came across nothing about how it was discovered that smoking causes lung cancer. Why not? I would have thought we can learn a lot from how this discovery was made.
CL I wish I had spent more time on smoking. I mention it a few times in the book. In discussing Hoffman (pg. 34, and footnote, pg. 317), I say:
He also found more evidence to support the connection of “chronic irritation” from smoking with the rise in cancers of the mouth and throat. “The relation of smoking to cancer of the buccal [oral] cavity,” he wrote, “is apparently so well established as not to admit of even a question of doubt.” (By 1931, he would draw an unequivocal link between smoking and lung cancer—a connection it would take the surgeon general an additional three decades to accept.)
And I make a few other brief allusions to smoking throughout the book. But you’re right, I gave this preventable scourge short shrift. Part of why I didn’t spend more time on smoking was that I felt its role in cancer was well known, and by now, well accepted. Another reason (though I won’t claim it’s an excusable one) is that Robert Weinberg did such a masterful job of talking about this discovery in “Racing to the Beginning of the Road,” which I consider to be the single best book on cancer.
I do talk about Weinberg’s book in my own, but I should have singled out his chapter on the discovery of this link (titled “Smoke and Mirrors”), which is as much a story of science as it is a story of scientific culture.
SR Overall you say little about epidemiology. You write about Burkitt but the value of his epidemiology is unclear. Epidemiology has found many times that there are big differences in cancer rates between different places (with different lifestyles). This suggests that something about lifestyle has a big effect on cancer rates. This seems to me a very useful clue about how to prevent cancer. Why do you say nothing about this line of research (lifestyle epidemiology)?
CL Seth, again, I agree. I don’t spend enough time discussing the role that good epidemiology can play in cancer prevention. In truth, I had an additional chapter on the subject, which began by discussing decades of epidemiological work linking the herbicide 2-4-D with various cancers, particularly with prostate cancer in the wheat-growing states of the American west (Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota). I ended up cutting the chapter in an effort to make the book a bit shorter (and perhaps faster). But maybe that was a mistake.
For what’s it worth, I do believe that epidemiology is an extremely valuable tool for cancer prevention.
[End of Part 2 of 2]
I found a lot to like and agree with in The Truth in Small Doses: Why We’re Losing the War on Cancer — and How to Win It by Clifton Leaf, published recently. It grew out of a 2004 article in Fortune in which Leaf described poor results from cancer research and said that cancer researchers work under a system that “rewards academic achievement and publication over all else” — in particular, over “genuine breakthroughs.” I did not agree, however, with his recommendations for improvement, which seemed to reflect the same thinking that got us here. It reminded me of President Obama putting in charge of fixing the economy the people who messed it up. However, Leaf had spent a lot of time on the book, and obviously cared deeply, and had freedom of speech (he doesn’t have to worry about offending anyone, as far as I can tell) so I wondered how he would defend his point of view.
Here is Part 1 of an interview in which Leaf answered written questions. (more…)
- Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers, and Rebels by Alissa Quart
- Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists that Changed our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio
- Fate of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity by Meredith Whitney
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, might set the record for largest value of letters in author’s name (21) minus letters in title (10) = 11
- proofreading part of a new book by Edward Jay Epstein, described as a “Kennedy assassination diary”
- Titanium implants cause bad headaches
- Honesty in dermatology
- Edward Jay Epstein: 5 best books on unsolved crimes
- podcast with Greg Pomerantz about his salt-intake self-experimentation
- An English-language website about America (bad) and China (good), purporting to be by “a visiting professor at Fudan University” (in Shanghai) who “has lived in many parts of North America and Europe”. The blog entries are undated.
Thanks to Phil Alexander and Casey Manion.
The publisher sent me a copy of Give and Take by Adam Grant after I sent several emails asking for a review copy. I expected it to be the best book about psychology in many years and it is.
The book’s main theme is the non-obvious advantages of being a “giver” (someone who helps others without concern about payback). Grant teaches at Wharton, whose students apparently enter Wharton believing (or are taught there?) that this is a poor strategy. With dozens of studies and stories, Grant argues that the truth is more complicated — that a giver, properly focussed, does better than others. Whether this reflects cause and effect (Grant seems to say it does) I have no idea. Perhaps “givers” are psychologically unusually sophisticated in many ways, not just a relaxed attitude toward payback, and that is why some of them do very well. (more…)
- Washington Post covers evidence for the hygiene hypothesis
- Renata Adler answers audience questions (video)
- Mother Jones criticizes probiotics
- Rating prisons on Yelp. Quantified Institutions.
Thanks to Bryan Castañeda.
- Nigerian fermented foods
- I point out that certain results in the BMJ are impossible
- Big increase in ADHD diagnoses
- Preface and Chapter 1 (Abraham Lincoln) of Edward Jay Epstein’s new book, Annals of Unsolved Crime
- How to taste umami (very good)
- No mortality difference between vegetarians and non-vegetarians (2009 study). This is evidence against the new TMAO theory of heart disease (carnitine in meat is converted by bacteria to TMAO, which causes heart disease).
Renata Adler’s two novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1988), have just been reissued by New York Review Books. I was pleased to see a recent New York article about her. Here is my two cents:
1. Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker (2000) is one of my favorite books. It can be summed up like this: Genius corrupts. I first came across it in the Berkeley Barnes & Noble. I couldn’t stop reading it. When I left the store hours later my scooter had a parking ticket.
2. Her libel lawsuit is described here.
3. She wrote a book about the Bilderberg Group called Private Capacity. It was announced then cancelled.
4. During a panel discussion televised on C-Span, she took a phone call. It appeared to be from her daughter.
5. For several years she taught journalism at Boston University. A student said she told great stories.
6. In a book review, she said that Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat was made up. Apparently she was wrong about that.
8. When her article about Kael came out, a friend of mine said, Now she’ll be known as the person who attacked Kael. My friend was wrong. She is better known as the person attacked by eight articles in the New York Times when Gone was published. One short non-best-selling book, eight negative articles from the most powerful pulpit on earth.
9. Gone and some books by Jane Jacobs were the only books I took to China. I also adore Totto-Chan but I suppose I have memorized it. I mostly read books by men, so I am puzzled that all my most favorite books are by women. A Chinese friend of mine stayed in my Beijing apartment while I was gone. Her English isn’t very good but she praised Gone, which she called Lost.
- Low pay at Weight Watchers. “The $18 base rate for running meetings has not increased in more than a decade. . . . The restlessness over low pay extends across the weight-loss industry to Weight Watchers’ rivals, including Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem.”
- At Berkeley I told undergraduates: “Do as many internships as possible. Take as few courses as possible.” Salman Khan (of Khan Academy) has a similar view and suggests that college should be built around this idea.
- The Umami Burger empire
- The Positive Deviance Initiative
- Michael Wolff on Edward Jay Epstein’s Annals of Unsolved Crimes
- Another teacher who stopped grading. “It has honestly been the best thing I have implemented in my career.”
Thanks to Bryan Castañeda.
This book review of Spillover by David Quammen is quite unfavorable about Laurie Garrett, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning science journalist. Several years ago, at the UC Berkeley journalism school, I heard her talk. During the question period, I made a comment something like this: “It seems to me there is kind of a conspiracy between the science journalist and the scientist. Both of them want the science to be more important than it really is. The scientist wants publicity. The science journalist wants their story on the front page. The effect is that things get exaggerated, this or that finding is claimed to be more important than it really is.” Garrett didn’t agree. She did not give a reason. This was interesting, since I thought my point was obviously true.
The book review, by Edward Hooper, author of The River, a book about the origin of AIDS, makes a more subtle point. It is about how he has been ignored.
When I wrote The River, I did my level best to interview each of the major living protagonists involved in the origins-of-AIDS debate. This amounted to well over 600 interviews, mostly of two hours or more, and about 500 of which were done face-to-face rather than down the phone. Although the authors of the three aforementioned books (Pepin, Timberg and Halperin, Nattrass) all devote time and several pages to The River, and to claims that I definitely got it wrong, not one of them bothered to contact me at any point – either to challenge my findings, or to ask me questions. However, I have been contacted by someone through my website (a lawyer and social scientist) who asked me several questions, to all of which I responded. Later, this man read the first two of these three pro-bushmeat books and contacted the authors of each by email, to ask them one or two simple questions about their dismissal of the OPV hypothesis [= the AIDS virus came from an oral polio vaccine]. His letters to Pepin, Timberg and Halperin (which he later forwarded to me) were courteous and non-confrontational, and in two instances he sent three separate letters, but apparently not one of the authors could be bothered to reply to any of these approaches.
In other words, there is a kind of moat. Inside the moat, are the respected people — the “real” scientists. Outside the moat are the crazy people, whom it is a good idea to ignore. Even if they have written a book on the topic. Hooper and those who agreed with him were outside the moat.
Hooper quotes Quammen:
“Hooper’s book was massive”, Quammen writes, “overwhelmingly detailed, seemingly reasonable, exhausting to plod through, but mesmerizing in its claims…”
I look forward to the day that the Shangri-La Diet is called “seemingly reasonable”. Quammen and Garrett (whose Coming Plague has yet to come) write about science for a living. I have a theory about their behavior. To acknowledge misaligned incentives (scientists, like journalists, care about other things than truth ) and power relationships (some scientists are in a position to censor other scientists and points of view they dislike) would make their jobs considerably harder. They are afraid of what would happen to them — would they be kicked out, placed on the other side of the moat? — if they took “crazy” views seriously. It is also time-consuming to take “crazy” views seriously (“massive . . . exhausting”). So they ignore them.
Amy Chua wondered if all the pressure to practice (piano, older child, violin, younger child) she put on her two children was worth it. But then there were moments like these:
In a glass-windowed room overlooking the Mediterranean, Sophia played Mendelsohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, and got bravos and hugs from all the guests.
Which I found the most chilling sentence in the whole book. Her daughter’s recognition (“bravos and hugs”) made Chua very happy. But did it make Sophia happy? Chua doesn’t answer that question. She doesn’t follow the sentence I’ve quoted with “I could see how pleased she was” or “Years later she would say what a good time she had”. Nope, the chapter ends there.
The title comes from Andrew Montford’s new book Hiding the Decline (copy given me by author) about Climategate. From an introductory section:
When the figures were published the extraordinary lack of data underlying the blade of the Yamal hockey stick caused a minor sensation. In fact the high point at the end of the graph was shown to have been based on only four trees, and only one of these had the hockey stick shape. McIntyre dubbed it ‘the most influential tree in the world’.
Most of Hiding the Decline is about the inquiries that followed Climategate. I enjoyed reading about smug powerful people making fools of themselves and the fairy-tale-like consternation created by two unlikely events: 1. A non-scientist (Steve McIntyre) gets involved in the global warming debate. As in a fairy tale, McIntyre is free to speak the truth. In particular, he is free to question. Professional climate scientists cannot speak the truth for fear of career damage. 2. The release of the Climategate emails. As in a fairy tale, a sudden burst of truth about bad behavior previously hidden. (more…)
Do you know how dangerous prescription sleeping pills are? I didn’t, and I do sleep research.
I came across Dr. Daniel Kripke’s book Dark Side of Sleeping Pills while finishing yesterday’s post on undisclosed risks of medical treatments. I had written an almost-complete draft a year ago. One line in the draft said “undisclosed risks of sleeping pills” with no additional information. I couldn’t remember why I’d written that so I googled “dangers of sleeping pills” and found Dr. Kripke’s book. I was unaware the evidence was so strong. I asked Dr. Kripke to tell the story of how he came to write it. He replied:
It is almost a life-long story.
As a young psychiatrist, I learned that the American Cancer Society had done a questionnaire survey of a million people which showed mortality related to long and short sleep. [People who sleep less or more than average have higher death rates.] In 1975, I asked if they would collaborate with me on a more complete analysis of the data on sleep length and insomnia. As a control variable, we included analysis of their one question about sleeping pill use. To my surprise, it looked like sleeping pill use was a strong predictor of early death, while insomnia was not (if you controlled for sleeping pill use by insomniacs). (more…)
- Nassim Taleb makes a good point about treating high blood pressure. Only when systolic blood pressure is above 180 is there a big increase in risk of death. Giving people lower blood pressure dangerous drugs could easily do more harm than good.
- The Annals of Unsolved Crime, forthcoming book from Edward Jay Epstein
- Should you go to graduate school in literature? by Ron Rosenbaum
- Steve Levitt’s 50-year-old sister dies of a rapidly growing brain cancer. His father, a doctor, “was shocked at how impotent — and actually counterproductive — her interactions with the medical system turned out to be.” In a hospital, she was prevented from sleeping.
Thanks to Dave Lull.
Immortal Bird by Doron Weber, a program director at the Sloan Foundation, is about his son, Damon, who had a rare medical condition, and his son’s heart transplant operation (cost = $500,000) at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Damon died after the operation. The post-operative care was so bad his father sued. “Three years into the lawsuit, the medical director [of the hospital] claimed Damon’s post-op records couldn’t be located,” said the New York Times.
How can such tragedies be prevented? To find out, I interviewed Doron Weber by email. (more…)
In order of quality (best first):
1. The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (published 2011) by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. The best book about political science I have read. A leader always needs supporters. The essential difference between dictatorships and democracies is how many. Full of data and examples that this view — the whole theory is a bit more complicated — explains. Econtalk interviews.
2. Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder by Nassim Taleb (copy sent me by author). Full of original ideas. It may be unprecedented that a serious thinker so anti-establishment has so loud a voice. Much of the book is about a generalization of hormesis, the observation that a small amount of Treatment X can be beneficial even though a large amount of Treatment X is deadly. For example, a small amount of smoking is probably good for you. Taleb goes beyond this to say that in some things, the hormetic benefit (the benefit from small amounts) is much larger than in other similar things. You can fulfill the same function (governance, banking, science) with a system where the entities benefit a lot from small shocks (which Taleb calls “anti-fragile”) or a system where the entities benefit not at all from small shocks. Systems where small shocks cause benefits tend to suffer less when exposed to large shocks. In my personal science, I have benefited a lot from day-to-day changes in my life (e.g., it led me to discover that butter improves my brain function and flaxseed oil improves my balance). In large science, day-to-day variation is only harmful. The core idea is that hormesis-like dose-response functions exist outside of the drug/poison/mice/rat/health experiments in which they were discovered.
3. Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor by Hugh Sinclair (copy sent me by publisher). By “microfinance” he means microcredit. Sinclair convinced me that the belief that microcredit is a wonderful thing for poor people is one of the big delusions of our time. It is a wonderful thing only for the institutions that give it out (at exorbitant interest rates, usually). Sinclair sums it up like this (pp. 217-8): “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Give a woman a microcredit loan to buy a fishing boat, and the CEOs of the MFI [microfinance institute] and the microfinance funds will eat for a lifetime.” Sinclair continues: “There is too much at stake [for the CEO's] to allow any genuine scrutiny.”
- Experiments suggest flu shots reduce heart attacks and death. Huge reduction: 50%. The new report (a conference talk, not a paper) is a reanalysis of four earlier experiments. I was surprised to learn that the CDC uses heart attack outbreaks to locate flu outbreaks, implying that the new finding is not a fluke — there really is a strong connection. I already knew heart attacks are more common in the winter, which also supports a connection with flu.
- Une histoire des haines d’écrivains by Boquel Anne and Kern Etienne. Published 2009. About literary feuds. One of my students was reading a Chinese translation.
- Correspondences between sounds and tastes.
- Report on fraudulent Dutch research. “The 108-page report says colleagues who worked with Stapel had not been sufficiently critical. This was not deliberate fraud but ‘academic carelessness’, the report said.” I doubt it. Based on my experience with Chandra, I believe Stapel’s colleagues had doubts but did nothing from some combination of careerism (doing something would have cost too much, for example a lot of time, and gained them nothing), ignorance (not their field), and decency (they saw no great value in ruining someone). I wonder if the report considered these other possible explanations (careerism, ignorance, decency).
Thanks to Tim Beneke.