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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming - Paul N. Edwards A few weeks ago, I was on a train heading for Cornwall when a thirty-something guy sat down next to me. He was reading this book and making notes. We got talking, and he told me he was a meteorologist and that he'd agreed to review it for a meteorology journal.

It was evident from the title that the book was about the climate change debate, though he said that was partly a marketing tactic: in fact, most of it was about the process of gathering and interpreting climate data, the treatment was historical in nature, and it was only in the last couple of chapters that the climate change debate per se became an important topic. He showed me the key sections.

The presentation seemed very balanced and even-handed. The author said he was alarmed at the emotional tone the debate had assumed, particularly in the US, and appeared to be bending over backwards not to get emotional himself. One detail, however, I did find rather striking. Edwards explained that there was a spectrum of approaches in any science, that could be categorised by the level of certainty required before the researcher in question was willing to accept a result. You had cutting-edge people who went chasing the new stuff, but were forced by lack of data to publish things even when the evidence wasn't compelling, but only suggestive. And then you had more and more conservative types who required harder and harder evidence. The author said that, under normal circumstances, this was natural and healthy, and the different approaches complemented each other. Sometimes the speculative stuff panned out, sometimes it didn't, and it was very good that there were people who were willing to take the time to check it carefully.

What he didn't like was the fact that large business interests now appeared to be systematically exploiting this pluralistic approach, and creating scientists who were in effect professional sceptics who offered themselves for hire. He said there were researchers who methodically followed the relevant controversies, fighting statistical rear-guard actions for as long as possible to delay general acceptance of results which were already established to high standards of certainty. A few of these people had migrated through as many as four quite separate areas, starting with links between smoking and lung cancer in the 60s and ending up in climate change today.

Isn't scientific ethics complicated? I instinctively feel that a scientist who chooses that career path is doing something terribly wrong. But it's hard to find a clear argument to back up the feeling.