Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book Reviews: the good science, the bad science, and the ugly

Inspired by Science Bear's epic book review post, here are three very overdue book reviews of my own!

The Good Science

Dry Store Room No.1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, by Richard Fortey.

I first visited the Natural History Museum in London when I was 16, and it was love at first sight. It's a beautiful building in its own right, and full of geeky pleasures ranging from stuffed dodos to videos describing chromosomal recombination and meiosis. I've since been back several times, to the bafflement of my sister, who lives in London and doesn't understand how I can spend all day in the museum (and neighbouring science museum - both free! Thanks, Tony Blair!) while she's at work. (What can I say, I had to see the new Darwin Centre when the first phase opened - I did a tour with a group of other tourists, and when they made us put on lab coats, everyone else giggled and did up all the buttons and took photos of each other, while my own coat flapped open as I walked about hands in pockets, and bugged the tour guides with questions about whether they could extract RNA from the pickled lizards).

It was actually my sister who bought me this book, a behind-the-scenes view of the museum from the resident trilobite man (and now I know how to pronounce trilobites! Bonus!) I was in heaven as I read about the dusty store rooms with their hidden treasures, and the crazy characters who populate the museum's back rooms. There were times when I felt the book went into too much detail, but overall it was a very enjoyable read. I highly recommend it if you're a fan of natural history museums in general, and the London version in particular.

8/10

The Bad Science

Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre

This is one of the best, and definitely the most important, of the books I've read this year. Everyone should read this book. EVERYONE!

If you've read Ben Goldacre's blog of the same name, you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the book - a dissection of the dubious science reporting that drives us all crazy. The author's disdain for the quacks and journalists who spread inaccuracies and outright lies is clear - but the book manages to be funny at the same time!

Well, at least towards the beginning. The early chapters rip apart the more benign incidences of bad science - the detox footbaths and homeopaths of the world. As the book progresses, the targets get larger and more important - think big pharma and the anti-vaccination movement - and the tone understandably gets more serious.

As you might expect from a British author, there is a focus on the British press - for example, the anti-vaccination chapter focuses on the media frenzy around the MMR vaccine, which went largely unnoticed in North America, where people chose to panic about mercury instead. But, as Goldacre says, the fact that there were different frenzies in different countries is yet further evidence for the hollowness of anti-vaccine arguments; if there was any genuine link between vaccines and ill health, you would expect people to claim the same link all over the world. (Apparently in France the worry is that the Hep B vaccine causes MS - but who in the UK or North America has heard of that one?!)

If, like me, you're already convinced that homeopathy is nothing but overpriced water and that the anti-vaccination movement is intellectually bankrupt, this book obviously won't change your mind. It's still well worth a read, though, to help you understand why so many people have been misled by media and quack practices that range from the dishonest to the downright dangerous.

If you know someone who's not a scientist, and who is on the fence about any of these issues (using homeopathic cold remedies, for example, or (more to the point) trying to decide whether they should get their baby vaccinated), I imagine they would benefit enormously from reading this book. Buy it for them - seriously! The book started quite the conversation when I started reading it at a gathering of my in-laws, several of whom are into homeopathy and associated woo (there was some muttering about the book in the kitchen later, but don't worry, we're all still the best of friends!) And I've passed it on to a friend who has been subjected to some of the anti-vaccine woo and was starting to be swayed by it.

10/10, VERY highly recommended.

The Ugly

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

I was soooo excited to read this book. It's the third in the Jackson Brodie trilogy; the first book is one of my all-time favourites, but I found the second a little disappointing. It breaks my heart to have to tell you that the third book continued the trend of declining quality.

True to form, Atkinson's writing is still wonderful, somehow blending humour with bleak despair,  and with occasional toe-curlingly, grin-at-strangers-on-the-bus moments of linguistic ecstasy. And her characters, old and new, are still amazingly vivid and real - you feel like you know these people.

But.

But, but, but.

Reading the book was like stuffing myself with junk food; pleasurable while it lasted, but ultimately deeply unsatisfying. Atkinson's trademark weaving together of several story threads felt forced and unnatural. Whereas the previous books brought characters together through asthma attacks or car accidents, When Will There Be Good News? relies on murders, kidnappings, and train crashes. It was just too much.

I can forgive my favourite author one bad book; I'll buy the next one for sure (although I'll probably wait for the paperback, rather than pre-ordering the hardback like I did with this one). But if the law of diminishing returns continues, I may have to cut my losses and stop reading before I pollute my feelings about some of my all-time favourite books.

9/10 for the writing, 4/10 for the actual book.

4 comments:

  1. Hm. Thanks for this post. I want to read Bad Science, now, if for no other reason then to argue persausively with friends who are caught up in alternative 'medicine' (I always find it curious that the so called miracle pills are often money in the pocket for the prescribing homeopathic doctor, although I do know that can happen with MDs as well;)(I'm not butting in; they ask my opinion and then get upset when I express doubt). As for the Kate Atkinson book; I read that not too long ago and thought it was so-so, but somehow didn't realize it was part of a trilogy. I'd have to agree with your general rating; but whereas before I would have given up on the author, now I think I will go find book 1.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ha! I do the same with my in-laws - I only give my opinion on the woo if they ask for it!

    Case Histories, the first book in the Jackson Brodie trilogy, was fantastic. My other favourite Kate Atkinson book is Behind the Scenes at the Museum (I reviewed it here).

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the suggestions! I just checked out your first recommendation from the University library. :)

    ReplyDelete

I promise to respond to all respectful non-spam comments! Don't be shy! Oh, and please don't type my surname in your comments; I know you all know what it is, but I'd prefer Google to rank other pages before this blog.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.