Read Recently — May 2015 — Nonfiction — The Rest

Bullspotting: finding facts in the age of misinformation by Loren Collins

Collins is a lawyer and a descendant of many generations of southerners. In his relative youth he decided to defend the presence of the Confederate flag on his state flag by looking up the original documents of the Confederate leaders to show how they were really fighting for states’ rights. You can imagine how he felt about what he found. From there, he went on to running a website devoted to debunking the Obama-birther conspiracy, which he calls, “one of modern politics more bizarre conspiracy theories.”

The concept behind the book is to teach how to spot and argue against fallacies. There’s an entire chapter devoted to how to spot false quotations, for example, leading off with the quote attributed to MLK that was going around when Osama bin Laden was killed. The final chapter, “What’s the Harm?” is devoted to the question of why we should care. It’s a well-written, thoughtful book, and as usual my main complaint is that the people who need to read it, won’t.

Highly recommended.

Death By Black Hole: and other cosmic quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My second Tyson book, the first having been the book about Pluto. This is a more general-science/astronomy book; more in Tyson’s own words than the other was (fewer quotes, anyway). The book is divided up into 7 sections, each divided into several chapters (the biggest ones are probably sections 3 (9 chapters, roughly 75 pages) and section 4 (8 chapters, roughly 60 pages). “Death by black hole” is the title of chapter 33, in Section 5 “When the Universe turns bad: all the ways the cosmos wants to kill us”.

Tyson sometimes seems to repeat himself, implying that maybe some of the chapters might originally have been shorter, self-contained articles, or maybe that I am mis-remembering certain uses of facts from earlier in the book, I could believe either. He also once notes that “scientists can only gesticulate what happens next”, which is certainly an interesting image, albeit probably not what he meant to write (I am prepared to blame autocorrect, though whether Tyson’s or the editor’s is the question).

On the more positive side, I was really amused by a point in a discussion about infrared (part of a chapter on electromagnetic spectra) where he writes, “As a child, I knew that at night, wth the lights out, infrared vision would discover monsters hiding in the bedroom closet only if they were warm-blooded. But everyone knows that your average bedroom monster is reptilian and cold-blooded. Infrared vision would thus miss a bedroom monster completely because it would simply blend in with the walls and the door.” I was also impressed with the science, though there isn’t a lot of it that isn’t covered in other pop-science books, and some of it is probably out of date since the book came out in 2007.

Still, Tyson is a warm, personable communicator, and I didn’t catch any errors in the science. For pop astronomy, you could do a lot worse. Recommended.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

A re-read. Original write-up here. Still, perhaps surprisingly, recommended.

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