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This NYT Bestseller book I keep mentioning has been doing a good job of repeatedly getting under my skin, but I am hoping that in the long run I can pull something of merit out of the whole experience of reading the book.* The same sort of thing often happens to professional critics, and also often happens when I am reviewing scientific manuscripts for publication. I have to start from the point of recognizing that another human being put some work into putting words on paper (or computer screen). When there are signs that the work is only half-assed, I then have to make a decision as to whether it is worth investing the time to outline why, and whether to outline methods for improvement. At least with voluntary reading I have the option of throwing this thing at the wall and just moving on with my life.

But I originally wanted to read NYTBB for a reason. I've developed generalized allergies towards books on personality psychology - I think they originated from reading Consciousness Explained and other works by Dennett (a man quite clever with words). Those were the origins of the Philosophy Hangover, too, which is ongoing as well. NYTBB is at least clumsily attempting to discuss the neurobiological mechanisms underlying symptoms that get labeled "introversion," so at least there are some crude and cutesy remarks about how brain anatomy could be linked to people with different kinds of social orientations. The same goes for evolutionary explanations for diversity in social orientation (e.g. groups of people with different types of cognitive strengths able to outcompete less-diverse groups of people).

These superficial treatments of subjects I have learned about in greater depth elsewhere just make me want to ask, why not do a better job of pointing people in the direction of the original work, and come up with some original ideas or synthesis instead of just watering the stuff down? Then again, are mainstream Americans ready for that sort of intellectual depth? Then again, how can I encourage the development of that kind of intellectual depth, when it's clear that the more-successful method (to judge by volumes of sales) is to instead give the American public what they want, the pre-digested version?

Maybe I should read some fiction next.


*The part I struggle with the most is that I can tell this is an East Coast book written by someone caught up in tangles of prestige, privilege, and privilege-blindness. Big Name School, Big Name Famous People, gratuitous, thoughtless expenditures. I find the name-dropping irritating. There's a difference between name-dropping and referencing (crediting).

Date: 2014-08-27 08:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] twoeleven.livejournal.com
Please define "better job of pointing people in the direction of the original work". :) What are you looking for? A lot of the detailed "popular" books I read have footnotes, marginalia, and/or chapter end notes with citations, clarifications, and/or discussions. That's about as much as I expect from anything that isn't a scholarly work (ie, a "legitimate" secondary source meant for professionals in the field).

Then again, are mainstream Americans ready for that sort of intellectual depth?
My general feeling is that creative types™ (authors, movie makers, etc) constantly underestimate the sophistication of the American people, and recent successful popular but somewhat "brainy" entertainment (Chris Nolan's Inception and a bunch of TV shows) have showed what's possible.

Then again, how can I encourage the development of that kind of intellectual depth,
The usual: lead by example, talk about what you like. You're good at that already. :)

when it's clear that the more-successful method (to judge by volumes of sales) is to instead give the American public what they want, the pre-digested version?
I'm very cautious about "what they want" vs "what they can get"/"what they know exists". There's a virtuous (or perhaps vicious, depending on your point of view) cycle that somewhat popular things tend to become more popular because people talk about them (ie, network effects &c).

There are also pretty big buyer effects from the large chain stores: if their buyers stock a particular book (or not) people see it on display (or not). Some of that is pure guesswork, other parts are selling what's sold before.

So, I'm far from convinced that the market for slightly more stimulating reading is anywhere close to well-served. On-line booksellers and reviews help, but I'll admit I'm often in the dark about stuff I'd like to read even with them.

Date: 2014-08-27 09:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rebeccmeister.livejournal.com
Many of the more interesting book recommendations I've received in recent years have come from academic friends and colleagues. That led me to wonder out loud on Social Media Site, Brand F, if anything such as "goodreads" exists for more academically-oriented audiences (I got zero answers there). It also led me to write up that list of insightful academic books (although that list is admittedly targeted to a fairly narrow audience).

The author of NYTBB does mention the names of the famous people whose work she is paraphrasing, but if she's including citations, those are almost completely buried. I see no signs of endnotes or footnotes, but I also haven't flipped to see what's in the back of the book (yet).

I really should update this list in the literary category, and by adding on an additional academic category. I'd still stand by the books on the "Future Library" list, but have a number of others to add from things read over the past decade or so.

Date: 2014-08-27 10:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] twoeleven.livejournal.com
Hie thee to Kuhn! :) Along with Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery, it underlies a lot of how we think science works. I really don't think modern scientists can "do science" without having at least a nodding understanding of both.

Kuhn is much shorter than Popper, and is mostly a fast read, but he's got a couple of dense chapters. Also, IMHO, Kuhn and Popper frame the ongoing philosophical dialogue about what science can do -- Kuhnian model-builders vs Popperian logical positivists -- so reading one without the other tells only half the story.

I tend to think Kuhn is closer to the truth in terms of the how of scientific discoveries, but I'm a postitivist at heart, so I think he's unusually pessimistic about discovering The Truth.

Date: 2014-08-27 10:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rebeccmeister.livejournal.com
I should take a look at Popper.

You should take a look at The Dialectical Biologist. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think you should. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on it. That's one book that needs to go on the updated list.

And then, further discussion.

Date: 2014-08-27 11:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] twoeleven.livejournal.com
I should take a look at Popper.
Oh, you really should. Popper's pretty long, and dense in places, but he knew how to write an opening chapter. He takes off like a rocket with "everything you think you know about science is wrong!", and unlike some wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, he made it stick. Since we're both used to Popperian falsifiability as the way you do science¹, it's sometimes hard to grok the extent to which he turned science on its head.

1: I mean, a sketch of a publishable set of experiments looks like: validation of Desired Hypothesis, test(s) that could falsify Desired Hypothesis, non-trivial Alternative Hypothesis that we're trying to falsify, and Trivial Alternative Hypotheses (positive and negative controls) that we'd better falsify or other scientists will point and laugh. :) All orthodox Popper. Edit: ...and mostly kicking over other sand castles and trying to kick over our own, because that's what Popper says makes a good sand castle, on which we can plant a flag that says "Truth?".

You should take a look at The Dialectical Biologist. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think you should.
OK. Why?
Edited Date: 2014-08-27 11:24 pm (UTC)

Date: 2014-08-28 07:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rebeccmeister.livejournal.com
The Dialectical Biologist is a collection of essays written by the evolutionary biologists and Richards Levins and Lewontin. They touch on cultural and historical aspects of biological thinking that don't get covered by many other science-philosopher types - I'm thinking especially of their chapter on Lysenkoism, which does not receive much air time in general.

But at this point, their work partially reminds me of what has happened, culturally, with concepts of group selection. Levins and Lewontin have both been in the trenches on these topics for a long while and are good thinkers.

Date: 2014-08-29 12:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] twoeleven.livejournal.com
Sounds plausible. :) Somewhere I read a serious defense of Lamark to the effect that he was wrong but not stupid, and there were perfectly good reasons to think he might be right, given the evidence at the time. Ditto the idea of phlogiston, which had good explanatory power up until the point that Laviosier brought Galilean rigor to chemistry.

Anyway, I have two shelf-meters of unread books already, so what's another couple of centimeters, right? :P

Date: 2014-08-27 09:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] annikusrex.livejournal.com
if i have figured out the book you are referring to, my guess as to why the author is not attempting original ideas or synthesis is that she doesn't really have the training to do so. that said, it can be useful to have someone who knows how to write translate the findings and research of people less skilled in the vernacular (not all science types can be RMCs!).

Date: 2014-08-27 10:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rebeccmeister.livejournal.com
That's my conclusion as well (lack of training).

And, indeed, it can be quite useful to have someone who knows how to write do these things. ;-)

I suspect we will all be somewhat relieved when I finish this book.

Date: 2014-08-27 10:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rebeccmeister.livejournal.com
I also have to question the editors involved in this one. It seems to me that a top-notch editor could have helped transform this book into something of a much higher quality.

Date: 2014-08-28 07:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rebeccmeister.livejournal.com
In a most timely fashion, I have encountered this! Good food for thought.

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