Third Culture Books; Perceptions and Reality

Today’s three topics: A new Michael Shermer book I missed when it came out last October; How magenta is a color that doesn’t exist on the spectrum; Public perceptions of the economy.

There are authors I’ve followed for years, both in science fiction (of course) and in general science, alert for when their new books are out, buying to read eventually if not immediately, my shelves filling up with their works. This is easier done with SF than with science; for decades, ever since discovering Locus (in, um, 1973), I’ve followed their reviews and forthcoming books lists (which the magazine compiles from lists sent to them by the publishers, often particular editors, in a field where everybody knows everybody) to know what to anticipate coming on sale in future months. There’s no comparable service for science, beyond Publishers Weekly, which does forthcoming books listings too, a couple times a year. But I’ve never examined those enormous lists for the relatively tiny minority of titles I might be interested in. Traditionally, for decades, browsing bookstores in person worked just fine. But in recent years, as everything became available online, and as physical visits to bookstores became less frequent (for Covid among other reasons), I seldom visit bookstores, let alone discover new books by my favorite writers there.

So I was surprised a few days ago to discover that a new book by one of my favorite writers on science and skepticism, Michael Shermer, published a new book a few months ago, in October 2022, and I’d missed it! I saw it mentioned on Shermer’s own blog, which I happened to visit (along with the blogs of other writers who do podcasts) for the first in months.

The new book is called CONSPIRACY: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational, and of course I ordered it right away, and it’s sitting here on my desk right now.


As always I glance through every new book that I acquire whether or not I plan to read it right away. And so here’s an interesting discovery. Right up front, explaining his approach in the book (“integrative in nature”), Shermer invokes the term “Third Culture books,” inspired by John Brockman’s 1995 book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, which I bought at the time and have glanced through but never thoroughly read.

Further, Shermer goes on to cite examples, beginning with another precedent, C.P. Snow’s THE TWO CULTURES (reviewed here, along with a photo of some of these very books), and other “third culture” books including E.O. Wilson’s CONSILIENCE (which I did three posts about, one, two, three, back in 2016), Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: The Fates of Human Society (which I read in an age preceding this blog, and so have never reviewed here), Richard Dawkins’ THE SELFISH GENE (review here), and Steven Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE (which again I did three posts about, one, two, three), back in 2017.

The thing is, I read the Wilson but only captured notes on the first half. I read the Pinker and have complete notes but they’re so extensive I’ve never gotten around to boiling them down for a blog post.

So I’ve decided that, before reading this new Shermer book, I’ll reread Wilson, finish my notes, about post about it. And I will plan to finish posting about Pinker (both ANGELS and his following book) as well.


Second topic for today: a four-minute video on (that I saw via Facebook).

BBC, video by Archie Crofton, 31 January 2023: Magenta: The colour that doesn’t exist

Again, I’m writing up this blog post not having watched the video; I captured the link this morning for eventual posting. So, before watching it, my anticipational take is that I would think that *lots* of “colors” that humans perceive don’t correspond to exact wavelengths on the EM spectrum, either. Yet another example of how human perception is not an “accurate” (arguably) take on the world.

So: basics here about the EM spectrum. Visible light. The wavelengths we see with our eyes are those that pass through water, and those that the sun emits the most of. (Which is why our eyes evolved this way, *of course*.) Our eyes have three types of cone cells. Blues, greens, reds. Key point: the cone cells overlap in the waves they detect. Thus we see yellow, a combination of the triggering of the two different cones. Screens are composed of pixels, that can display the whole spectrum. Magenta comes from the equal triggering of blue cones and red cones; our brains make up the color. Perhaps for evolutionary reasons. And our brains do this kind of thing all the time; you might be surprised about how much of the world isn’t exactly as it appears.

Well, no, nothing about other colors; but it’s still an example of how our brains interpret the world in ways that are not “real,” in some sense.


Third topic for today, one vaguely political, but playing off the same dichotomy between what we perceive and what’s real.

NY Times, Paul Krugman, 30 Jan 2023: Will Americans Even Notice an Improving Economy?

Imagine that your picture of the U.S. economy came entirely from headlines and cable news chyrons. Would you know that real gross domestic product has risen 6.7 percent under President Biden, that America gained 4.5 million jobs in 2022 and that inflation over the past six months, which was indeed very high last winter, was less than 2 percent at an annual rate?

This isn’t a hypothetical question. Most people don’t read long-form, data-driven essays on the economic outlook. Their sense of the economy is more likely to be shaped by snippets they read or hear.

This goes to how people, or at least Americans, perceive reality through partisan lenses. Bottom line:

At this point we have to assume that as long as a Democrat sits in the White House, Fox News and Republicans in general will describe the economy as a disaster area whatever the reality.


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