Friday, December 21, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Massimo Pigliucci, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (Chicago 2010). Brilliant, well written, even humorous assessment of the "demarcation problem," i.e., how to tell real science from junk science, psuedoscience, "almost science," and superstitious nonsense. One of the best books I've read on the issue, except in one respect: it displays a subtle (in some cases, not so subtle) left-wing bias. For example, in his discussion of think tanks in Chapter Five, Pigliucci focuses his criticisms only on right-wing think tanks, despite the fact that left-wing think tanks are just as often driven by ideology rather than data. And his own ideological bent shows through in a couple of places, for instance where he criticizes the Competitive Enterprise Institute's advocacy for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (a policy I personally oppose) in part because "it would [not could, but would] cause a major environmental disaster." Perhaps, for a more balanced view, Pigliucci's book is best read together with Dick Taverne's, The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism (Oxford 2007), which focuses more on the anti-scientism of environmental "fundamentalists."

C. Reinold Noyes, Economic Man: In Relation to His Natural Environment (Columbia 1948). As a big fan of Noyes' first book, The Institution of Property (Longmans, Green 1936), I found his subsequent work hugely disappointing. In Economic Man, Noyes seeks to completely reinvent economics on a new, highly abstract model based on a combination of physics and biochemistry, which in the end tells us little either about human interactions or their effects on the natural environment. I was looking for a precursor for modern law and economics; instead I found a verbose and almost useless two-volume meditation on first principles. The only saving grace (and scant consolation it was) is a single excellent sentence from the second volume: the environment "represents the stage upon which economic life is played."

J.K. Rowling, A Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown 2012). Her Harry Potter books were, of course, filled with big ideas, larger-than-life characters, and lively writing containing many profound, as well as mundane, insights into the human condition. Perhaps in reaction, Rowling's first non-Potter book, A Casual Vacancy, is a small book, not in size (it's nearly 500 pages long), but in scope and tone. The tightly woven story about the small community of Pagford is almost pedestrian in both ambition and execution; virtually all the characters that inhabit it are both ordinary and unlikable, with few redeeming features. If her intent was to write an anti-Potter tome, Rowling succeeded all too well. The book is almost as hard to like as the Potter books are to dislike. It's as if Rowling wanted to write a whole book about the worst sort of Muggles. She remains a gifted writer, but I hope she will not tether her considerable talents to such meager stories of such mean people in future works.

Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton 1977). I started reading this book a few weeks ago, shortly before Hirschman passed away, to gain some insights into how Hume's philosophy (I've been reading his Treatise on Human Nature) relates to works of his contemporaries, such as Montesquieu. Hirschman's is a lovely, concise treatment of some very big issues in philosophy, brimming with confident interpretations of enlightenment era thinking, which paved the way for, among other things, the displacement of mercantilism with (relatively) free markets.

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