Nonfiction

These are summaries of some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in recent years, as shown in the photo.

(The photo shows some of what I think are the best nonfiction books of the past 50 years, not all of which I’ve yet read, or that are summarized below. Almost all in the photo are 1st editions, or at least 1st US editions, with the exception of Hofstadter, which is the trade paperback reprint of the 1st edition.)

Recent reads, before the alphabetical list (some not yet posted or summarized):

  • Dawkins, Richard. 1998. Unweaving the Rainbow
  • Wilczek, Frank, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (notes)
  • Klein, Ezra, 2020. Why We’re Polarized. New York: Simon & Schuster/Avid Reader Press. ***
    An examination of the political divide in the US. Broad conclusions: America’s legacy of slavery and racism; the pace of change with non-white immigrants; obsolete aspects of our political systems; and of course modern social media. [longer notes]
  • Sagan, Carl. 1980. Cosmos. New York: Random House. *****
    Sagan’s famous book companion to his 1980 13-part TV series was the best-selling science book of all time, at its time. It’s about what we know about the cosmos — from the planets, to the stars, to the galaxies, to speculations of other intelligences — with explanations of *how* we know these things, many envisioned in historical re-enactments. And concerns about the future of our planet, given environmental threats apparent even back in 1980. (Notes and Quotes)
  • Gottschall, Jonathan. 2012. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013 Mariner). ***
    How humans think of everything in terms of story, from children’s play to adult pop music, daydreams, courtroom cases, TV commercials, even pro wrestling. Stories are about conflict, and are attractive perhaps as rehearsals for situations we will face in real life. Religion conveys history through stories. Our memories are misremembered to make better stories. The lessons here are to acknowledge the power of stories; they’re not wastes of time. Be tolerant of national and religious myths; but beware your inner storyteller locking into the overdrive of conspiracy theories. (Notes)
  • Paulos, John Allen. 2008. Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Hill and Wang. ***
    A slender and breezy book by a mathematician, dismantling the common arguments for the existence of God. The four classical arguments (first cause, design, anthropic principle, ontology) on grounds of logical incoherence and/or statistical implausibility; subjective arguments (coincidence, prophecy, subjectivity, interventions) on statistical grounds; and four psycho-mathematical arguments (redefinition, cognitive tendency, universality, and gambling). With asides about a personal pseudoscience, recursion, emotional need, Jesus and CS Lewis, a dream conversation with God, and the idea of “brights.” (Notes)
  • Duffy, Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything (notes)
  • Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality
  • Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (notes)
  • Hutson, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking
  • Comins, Heavenly Errors (notes)
  • Shtulman, Andrew. 2017. Scienceblind. New York: Basic Books. ***
    Why our naive “common sense” is frequently wrong: we learn to understand the world, as infants, at a scale that applies only locally. The book examines topics of matter, energy, gravity, motion, cosmos, earth, life, growth, inheritance, illness, adaptation, and ancestry, contrasting naive notions with scientific notions. Naive theories are anthropocentric; they’re better than nothing, but scientific theories that get the world right help us thrive. (Notes)
  • Bregman, Rutger. 2014/2017. Utopia for Realists. New York: Little, Brown. ***
    This Dutch thinker outlines ways to make the future a better place, with evidence about why they would work: implement a universal income; abandon the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of social health; try not to obsess about having more and more stuff, or about the dogma of having to work for a living; open the borders to reduce poverty; be open to radical ways of thinking (but beware the cognitive dissonance of conspiracy theories); and keep the Overton Window in mind, how ideas once dismissed as crazy can come to pass. (Notes)
  • Paulos, John Allen. 1995. A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. Basic Books. ***
    A survey of the many topics one finds in newspapers that can be better understood with insights from mathematics, as well as from psychology, including the predisposition of humans to turn everything into stories. Topics include politics (voting schemes, psychological biases, equivocation, coincidences); social issues (gun control, abortion, stock market patterns, lawsuits, advertising); lifestyle issues (celebrity profiles, perceiving trends that don’t exist); science and medicine (clarity vs precision, why reporting is credulous about supernatural claims, category errors); food, fashion, and sports (nutrition info, sports records, top 10 lists, how religious coverage avoids mentioning the absence of evidence for beliefs, obituaries). Always be smart; seldom be certain. (Notes)
  • Harris, Sam. 2004. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Norton. ****
    Harris was the first of the “four horsemen,” public intellectuals who published controversial books about religion in the years following 9/11. He discusses the incompatibility of rival faiths, and of reason and faith; why beliefs should correspond with the world, and be logically coherent; about the sordid histories of Christianity and of Islam; how US politicians pander to the religious; how issues of morality can be addressed through reason (what the ancients thought is irrelevant); and how [this seems to be the book’s flaw, being tangential] “mysticism” or spirituality is something to rescue from religion. (full notes)
  • Gilbert, Daniel. 2006. Stumbling Upon Happiness. Knopf; Vintage tpb 2007. ***
    The Harvard psychologist explores why people aren’t very good about identifying what makes them happy, or even understand what happiness is. The book is blurbed with various paradoxical scenarios that play to this theme, e.g. Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink? Overall nswers: people aren’t good at anticipating the future; and since most people think they are special, they don’t rely on other people to testify about what makes them happy. The answer to the problem is, people *should* rely on the testimony of others. Trust them. (full notes)
  • Rosling, Hans. 2018. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think . Flatiron Books. ****
    The late Swedish educator, cofounder of the Gapminder Organization, discovered through surveys that most people think the world is worse off than it is (poverty, life expectancy, etc.). This is due to various “instincts” [or psychological biases], explored in 10 chapters: about the gap instinct (how people divide the world into “us” and “them”), negativity, the assumption that trends will continue in a straight line, the tendency to jump to the worst possible conclusion, and so on. The book is thus a complement to Pinker’s Better Angels and various books about psychological biases, using less technical language. The key to overcoming these instincts is education, teaching children humility and curiosity, taking businesses global, being aware that journalists will always focus on the unusual and not the common. A specific suggestion is to abandon the split between “developed” and “developing” (or “third world”) nations, but rather a distinction among four levels of income, from $2/day to over $32/day; of the world’s 7 billion people, the divide is roughly 1, 3, 2, and 1 billion in those four levels. (full notes)
  • Sagan, Carl. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House. *****
    Sagan takes on pseudo-science by showing how science is the methodology for determining what’s real and what’s bunk, discussing psychological reasons for why people are attracted to pseudo-science (and religion) and put off by real science, and the ways the ideals of science and democracy align. Memorable chapters concern Sagan’s “fine art of baloney detection” (e.g. reproduced here), his “dragon in my garage” metaphor about supernatural claims that lack all evidence, and a strong discussion of the methods of values of science. A running theme: science is a balancing act between being open to wonder, and being skeptical when drawing conclusions; followers of pseudoscience are open to wonder but lack all skepticism. The book is a tad dated in its focus on pseudo-scientific issues of the ’90s, e.g. UFOs and alien abductions, but its principles remain today as relevant as ever. (full notes)
  • Clarke, Arthur C. 1962..1999. Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry in the Limits of the Possible. 1999 revision UK: Victor Gollancz. ***
    Clarke’s nonfiction book speculating about future technology and science was first published in 1962 and revised three times, the last in 1999. The 1999 version begins with Clarke’s famous “three laws,” the last of which is “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” After chapters on hazards of prediction, “Failure of Nerve” and “Failures of Imagination,” which look back at previous prophecies, Clarke moves on with chapters about various topics: transportation, overcoming gravity, speed, the future of space, time, resources, manufacturing, and so on. Clarke’s most conspicuous miss is his anticipation of Ground Effect Machines, which he thought would revolution global transport and render coastal ports obsolete; the idea survives as only a few hovercraft. The book ends with a “Chart of the Future,” mapping specific inventions and discoveries to specific dates, with a few predictions on the mark, many others overly-optimistic. (full notes)
  • Dawkins, Richard. 2019. Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. Random House. ***
    A book aimed at younger readers, or adults open to straightforward answers, about why one doesn’t need to believe in God (because, which one?), shouldn’t believe in the literal truth of the Bible, how myths evolve, how morality is possible without the Bible, and so on. It’s a series of “But what about?” questions, covering how we decide what is good, why there is no designer, how we evolved to be religious, and how natural explanations supplant religious myths. (There are ideas here from Dawkins’ earlier books The God Delusion and The Magic of Reality.) For anyone open to rethinking their childhood beliefs in the light of humanity’s centuries-long examination of the real world, of the universe, this is a good starting point (along with Grayling’s The God Argument, listed below). (full notes)
  • Rees, Martin. 2018. On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. Random House. ****
    This British astronomer and astrophysicist’s 2018 book is based on a series of 2010 lectures, and was preceded by the 2003 Our Final Hour, which explored various ways humanity might be doomed. This book has a broader scope. Its theme is “The flourishing of the world’s growing population depends on the wisdom with which science and technology is deployed.” He reviews existential threats like climate change and nuclear war, then consider humanity’s future on themes of biotech, cybertechnology, job loss, universal income, and the risk of global networks. Then humanity in a cosmic perspective: Sagan’s pale blue dot; Darwin; a post-human era; SETI. The limits of science: how complexity emerges from simple laws; whether there are things we’ll never know because our brains are incapable of understanding them; issues of God and religious rituals. Finally on the diversity of science, how science is the one culture that’s global, and how threats need to be tackled internationally. (full notes)
  • Tyson, Neil deGrasse. 2019. Letters from an Astrophysicist. Norton. **1/2
    A collection of letters, and Tyson’s responses, in his role as director of the Hayden Planetarium. Throughout Tyson is polite and restrained where he could be confrontational. Topics include aliens, UFOs, pseudo-scientific claims; hate mail and science denial; life and death, tragedy, and belief; his school days, parenting, responses to a flat earther and accusations that liberals are anti-American. And a farewell letter to his father upon his death. (full notes)
  • Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. ****
    Dawkins’ first book and a classic nonfiction book about how natural selection is best understood at the level of the gene, with discussion of replicators and how bodies are “survival machines.” He challenges notions of group selection as expressed in that era, contrasts the survival strategies of plants and animals, describes how kin selection explains aggression, altruism, competition between siblings, and differing strategies of fathers and mothers. How “evolutionary stable strategies” develop to understand how proportions of populations evolve into stability. Finally this book introduces the now common idea of the “meme,” a replicator that’s a unit of culture, that spreads through brains because it serves a cultural function or provides psychological appeal (e.g. the idea of god; patriotism). Genes can disperse in a few generations, while memes, a person’s contribution to culture, can last millennia. (summary)
  • Kinsley, Michael. 2016. Old Age. Crown/Tim Duggan Books. **1/2
    The journalist and Slate co-founder, sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease for 23 years, ponders strategies for dealing with news of a serious illness, the potential of deep brain stimulation (DBS), life extension technology, and stem cells; reflects on Alzheimer’s, reputations, and contrasts baby boomers with the “Greatest Generation” who won World War II, and how American exceptionalism — “the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us” — keep getting us into wars. A collection of chapters first published as magazine pieces, it’s notable for Kinsley’s self-deprecating wit. (summary)
  • Junger, Sebastian. 2016. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Grand Central/Twelve. **
    The author of The Perfect Storm defends tribes, “small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding,” as necessary to our psychological survival. As an example of the appeal of tribal societies, he describes how European settlers in America would often leave their own to join the Indians — and virtually never vice versa. He describes his contact with war, and how, contrary to many catastrophe novels and movies, people tend to cooperate, even inspiring long-term social reforms. Then how PTSD reveals how often soldiers miss war after it’s over. A striking passage is about the dismay soldiers feel coming home to a fractured society. Both liberals and conservatives represent ancient evolutionary concerns. Junger describes a problem in vivid terms, though he doesn’t have a solution. (It’s ultimately about the tension of ancient human nature adapting to a multicultural, global society, as writers like Wilson and Pinker have explored.) (summary)

  • Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York: Harper. ***
    One of the earliest popular books that summarizes various findings of experimental psychology in recent decades that reveal the biases of human nature. Key point: traditional economics assumed that people are rational individuals. But in fact, humans are not only irrational, they are irrational in predictable, systematic ways. [longer notes]
  • Asimov, Isaac. 1997, revised from 1983. The Roving Mind. New York: Prometheus Books. ***
    Collection of essays from 1983, reissued with tributes in 1997 following Asimov’s death in 1992. Asimov displays “methodical, cheerful, bluntness” (my words) in several essays about religious radicals (as much an issue in 1983 as now), dismissing the common arguments of creationists against evolution; replies to the common notion that science fiction authors (and readers) must surely “believe” in flying saucers, telepathy, and so on (they don’t); and has an efficient, logical argument about how, if telepathy existed, the world as we know it would make no sense. [full discussion]
  • Carroll, Sean. 2016. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York: Dutton. *****
    CalTech physicist Carroll describes the perspective we gain from cosmology and science in how we view our world and our place in it: how that understanding is purely materialistic and non-supernatural, and how that’s OK. Carroll avoids the perils of reductionism through the idea of “poetic naturalism” and the notion that we use different kinds of ‘stories’ to describe the world at different levels of complexity or levels of emergence. He discusses how current understanding of physics rules out psychic powers (and life after death), and discusses evolution and the evident lack of ‘purpose’, why we can dismiss various arguments for a god, different ways of thinking [again, Kahneman], morality and meaning of life. He concludes with a list of “Ten Considerations” (rather than Commandments), things to keep in mind while deciding how we want to live. [full discussion, including links to summaries of the book’s six section on the author’s own website, and my own summary and comments on his “Ten Considerations”]
  • Crane, Tim. 2017. The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View. Cambridge MA: Harvard. ***
    Philosopher Crane takes issue with the “new atheist” authors, Harris, Dawkins, et al, in their depiction of religion as only about claims of the supernatural (the existence of God; an afterlife). Rather, religion is about identity, about accumulated cultural wisdom about the way to live one’s life, about the ideas of the sacred and the profane. He advises atheists to accept that religion will always exist, and to tolerate believers. (He does not address, or even denies, evidence that religious faith fades with education, and with prosperity.) [full discussion, with a bit about how these ideas intersect with science fiction.]
  • Ellenberg, Jordan. 2014. How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. New York: Penguin. ****
    How to apply mathematical concepts to everyday situations that are often misunderstood by ordinary “common sense.” Among the many topics: the dangers of simple linear relationships, simplistic trend extrapolations, and proportions (with examples of political claims that illustrate these); the dangers of inference (improbable things happen a lot, in large enough samples); limits of prediction in chaotic situations; how to apply Bayesian inference (e.g. applied to the creation of the universe); the idea of expected values; balance of cost vs. convenience; the flaw of Pascal’s Wager; regression and correlation (it’s not always wrong to be wrong — you can’t wait for perfect evidence to make a decision); problems with opinion polls; various voting methods; and conflicts between what is true and what is right, when no new evidence is allowed. How to be right: try to prove your theorem by day, disprove it by night, and apply to all areas of life. A valuable complement to books about rhetoric and mental biases. [part 1; part 2; part 3]
  • Feynman, Richard P. 1998. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist. Reading MA; Addison-Wesley. ***
    Three essays delivered as lectures in 1963, concerning science, religion, and public credulousness. Science has three aspects: method, results, technology. Some uncertainty always remains. Similarly with values, as he reflects on why most scientists don’t believe, and how moral values are not affected by loss of belief. And about how little most people understand about our scientific age, politicians who have quick answers to complex problems, a lack of understanding of the complexity of the world, of having a sense of proportion. [full discussion]
  • Frank, Adam. 2018. Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. New York: Norton. ***
    A consideration of our planet’s future and reconsidering of the Drake equation, in light of the discovery of thousands of extra-solar planets and our understanding of how civilizations might become sustainable. With a revision of the ‘Kardashev Scale’ about planetary energy use, to a scale that considers how planets exist with their biosphere. [longer notes]
  • Gilovich, Thomas. 1991. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press. ***
    One of the earliest books about how unconscious mental biases influence how people receive and understand information, with discussions of the Lake Wobegon effect, confirmation bias, etc.; how stories are told via ‘sharpening’ and ‘leveling’ to make them serve higher causes than accuracy; how people should develop habits of mind to correct such biases, including the value of a science education with the concepts of control groups, regression, doubt, and uncertainty. [full discussion]
  • Gladstone, Brooke. 2018. The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. New York: Workman. ** 1/2
    “On the Media” radio show co-host’s short book is an essay with themes that overlaps Kakutani’s, considering the existential question about reality and how we perceive it, and considering how Trump fits the criteria for a demagogue in trying to establish his own reality. Conclusion is that self-deception will undermine him, and that we all need to be aware the real world will catch up with whatever personal facts we possess. [longer notes]
  • Grayling, A. C. 2007. Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness. London: Oberon Books. **
    Short essays first published as newspaper pieces, about atheists, humanists, and secularists, the death throes of religion, and the alternative of humanism. [full discussion] Pointed, but not as eloquent as his later book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (2013) [full discussion]
  • Grayling, A.C. 2013. The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism. New York: Bloomsbury. *****
    British philosopher Grayling’s book is a worthy, graceful companion to the relatively incendiary books of the 2000s by “new atheists” Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. He provides a reasoned discussion of the pitfalls of the religion and a defense of the life-enhancing alternative, that of humanism. He dismisses the defenses of religious apologists, and defends humanism as based on the best, most generous, most sympathetic understanding of human reality: How faith is held despite evidence, or despite the faith of those with different faiths, just as we dismiss the myths of the Greeks and Babylonians. The classic arguments for God might as well prove Zeus, as the Christian God. The portion of humanity that is not Christian are not, in fact immoral; they do not depend on the Bible and its commandments to understand what is right or wrong.

    The second half of the book focuses on the positive: the case for humanism. Religion, based on “superstitions of illiterate herdsmen living several thousands of years ago,” deserves no privileged place in society. Humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her own values and goals, and is responsible for living considerately of others. Grayling describes 10 criteria for living a good life, and says the meaning of life is what you make it: loving someone, raising children, succeeding in one’s field; having integrity, being honest. How morality is an objective matter, about our fellow humans, without reference to any deity.

    If I were to recommend one book to believers who have doubts, or to believers who simply want to understand why nonbelievers cannot accept what believers feel to be the obvious truth of their faith, it would be this one.[Quote of first paragraph: “To put matters at their simplest…”; full discussion]

  • Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Penguin Press. *****
    Social psychologist Haidt uses studies into moral sentiments around the world to develop ideas about the ‘foundations’ of morality, especially to expand the standard ‘liberal’ ideal that focuses on egalitarianism, with the idea that morality is all about care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, liberty vs. oppression. These are Western, educated values; in contrast, in other parts of the world, other sentiments are just as important: loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, sanctity vs. degradation. In Western countries, those sensitive to all six are conservative; those sensitive mostly to egalitarianism, fairness, and liberty are liberals. He considers these foundations in terms of evolutionary psychology and group selection, and examines various political issues in their light. Intuition and reasoning are both kinds of cognition [cf. Kahneman], and Haidt explores why our minds evolved this way; discusses group selection, why it went out of fashion, how its problems were solved by the earliest evolution of religion. Religion is about belonging to a group with shared beliefs, and it evolved to discourage selfish behavior (the earlier issue with group selection). Morality is about what works, not necessarily what is right, though as a policy, utilitarianism is as good as any [and thus Haidt aligns with Harris and Shermer]. And so: conservative minds react more strongly to threat and fear; liberals are more responsive to variety and new experiences. He describes the differing ‘Grand Narratives‘ of the left and the right: the struggle for equality and happiness, vs. the struggle to return to a golden past. It is much more complex than that some people are good, and others are evil. Liberalism and conservatism are a yin and yang, complementary, and both necessary.
    [intro; longer discussion; wrap-up, in which I speculate about some issues Haidt does not discuss]
  • Harari, Yuval Noah. 2015. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper. *****
    This is a history of humanity, with focus on the concepts that have allowed our species to grow and occupy the planet; it’s a history of ideas, not of names and dates. The ideas include the cognitive revolution, 70,000 years ago; the agricultural revolution, 12,000 years ago; and the scientific revolution, 500 years ago. Harari is fond of trios, and his perspectives challenges conventional wisdom; e.g. he considers religion, nationalism, and laws as examples of common myths, or ‘imagined realities’, that have enabled human society to grow, though these ideas have no physical basis in the real world. Another trio: money, empire, and religion. I find his takes problematic at times, e.g. considering humanist philosophies (secular humanism, et. al.) simply other kinds of ‘religions’ that worship humanity and not gods. Most striking is his conclusion is that humanity as we know it is about to end. (full notes)
  • Harari, Yuval Noah. 2017. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper. *****
    In effect a sequel to Sapiens. Harari reflects on three problems of human history, famine, plague, and war, and considers what happens next, proposing immortality, happiness, and divinity, and how the ideal of humanism, which as a religion [again, I find his simplistic use of some terms problematic) is flawed. Modern history is a deal between science and humanism, but it can’t go on forever, because of resources, or a collapsing ecology. While there is no serious alternative to the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy, and the free market, some of its presumptions may not be true, e.g. free will. Three ways liberalism might be made obsolete include humans being replaced by robots and thus becoming unemployed, with useless people spending their lives taking pharmaceuticals and playing computer or VR games. What we should be paying attention to: in the short term, immigration and refugees. Over the decades: global warming, and inequality. In the long term: considering to what extent organisms are algorithms and whether intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. As with the first book, this is a fascinating, provocative big picture book taking fresh looks and new perspectives on many familiar ideas. (full notes)
  • Hawking, Stephen. 2018. Brief Answers to the Big Questions. New York: Bantam. **
    Ten essays cobbled from Hawking’s speeches, interviews, and essays. Is there a God? Not in any traditional way. How did it all begin, is there other intelligent life, is time travel possible? With answers about Einstein, black holes, unified theories. Should we colonize space? Yes, to avoid catastrophe or a used up planet. Will AI outsmart us? It might, so we have to be intelligent about using it to our advantage. How to shape the future? Rely on science and technology, curiosity, imagination. [longer notes]
  • Kahane, Howard. 1980. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life. Belmont CA: Wadsworth. (many editions since 1980). ****
    This is a college textbook about the types of fallacious arguments one sees in politics, advertising, news, and textbooks — ad hominem, straw man, false dilemma, begging the question, biased statistics; the list goes on. With many examples from current news and advertising. The point is both to understand where others’ arguments fail, and to try to avoid such invalid reasoning yourself. This was the best text I ever read in college. There have been many editions since; apparently it’s a standard. Relevant now more than ever. [bit longer discussion] Note these rhetorical fallacies pre-exist more modern understanding of the psychological biases that lead people to use them, self-righteously; for those see Gilovich, McRaney, and Kahneman.
  • Kakutani, Michiko. 2018. The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. New York: Tim Duggan Books. *** 1/2
    Long-time NYT book reviewer (now retired) explores how we got to the age of Trump (with only glancing suggestions about how to recover). It’s partly that American anti-intellectualism, the right-wing media propaganda machine, and the internet in general — but also the cultural relativism and post-modernist attitudes from the left in the 1960s that have now been co-opted by the right. (With chapter epigraphs by PKD, Gibson, and Heinlein, among others.) [longer notes]
  • Keen, Andrew. 2018. How to Fix the Future. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ** 1/2
    A breezy book in the Thomas L. Friedman mode as the author talks to various experts around the world who grapple with the problems of high-tech’s effects on society. Contra Silicon Valley’s free market libertarianism, Keen describes, with examples (Estonia, Singapore, Oakland), five tools to make things better: regulation, competitive innovation, social responsibility, worker and consumer choice, and education. [longer notes]
  • Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2014. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt. ****
    Evidence that the expansion of the human race across the planet, over the past couple hundred thousand years, but especially over the past century (with the advent of air travel), is causing a world-wide mass extinction comparable to the five previous such extinctions evident in the fossil record. Each chapter focuses on a particular species, with vivid narratives about the American mastodon (and the very idea of extinction), historical debates about catastrophes vs uniform change over Earth’s history, and climate change and the deaths of coral reefs. As humanity spread across the globe following the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, it killed off the large mammals in Australia and the Americas. Now, with air travel, we’re bringing previously isolated species into contact daily, with sometimes disastrous results. We’re now living not in the Holocene, as traditional geological time-scales name our time, but in the Anthropocene — the era of humanity’s impact on the geological history of Earth. [full discussion]
  • Krauss, Lawrence M. 2017. The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far. New York: Atria Books. ***
    This greatest story is a history of physics of the past few decades, accompanied by anecdotes about Richard Feynman, Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg and others; with the theme of the discovery that the universe is not what meets the eye, and that the reality is greater than the myths and ignorance of past millennia. [general discussion]
  • Levitan, Dave. 2017. Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. New York: Norton. ***
    The author explores a dozen or so kinds of mistakes that are typically behind any politician’s use of the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but…” and illustrates each with several detailed examples. These mistakes include oversimplifying, cherry-picking, demonizing, citing disreputable websites, credit-snatching, flat out fabrication, and so on. While the author says he doesn’t try to attribute motives to most of these, the vast majority of examples are from Republicans, and — my gloss — reveal obvious motivations: to maintain the status quo, protect the interests of big business, promote xenophobic or religious agendas. [longer notes]
  • Levitin, Daniel J. 2016. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age . New York: Dutton. ***
    Complementing Ariely’s book, this summarizes how to think about numerical and journalistic claims with the aim of evaluating the world and know what is likely to be so. With discussions of statistics, surveys, misleading graphs; expertise and sources of information and counter-knowledge; how science works, logical fallacies, and Bayesian thinking. [longer notes]
  • Lightman, Alan. 2018. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. New York: Pantheon. * 1/2
    Essays that ponder science, religion, and the yearning for meaning, with some lovely naturalist writing, but mushy on the author’s desire for “meaning” outside the scientific evidence of the real world. It’s an example of the bias in human nature that searches for a story for the world that doesn’t really exist. [longer notes]
  • Lilla, Mark. 2017. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics . New York: Harper. ** 1/2
    Lilla’s theme, being echoed currently by Francis Fukuyama and David Brooks and others, is that the liberal project is being undermined by identity politics, and how liberals need a new orientation into shared values that can attract voters. He advises focusing on winning elections, citizenship over personal identity, and civic education. [longer notes]
  • Nichols, Tom. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. New York: Oxford University Press. *** 1/2
    Nichols examines the peculiarly American strain of anti-intellectualism, noted by everyone from de Tocqueville to Asimov, that resents expertise and is proud of its ignorance, and how it’s gotten much worse in the age of the internet (with its founts of conspiracy theories and misinformation), the expansion of college attendance, the right-wing spin machine, and the confusion of experts with celebrities; culminating in Trump, who thinks he alone knows everything. All of this is a threat to democracy, and author’s conclusion isn’t optimistic. [longer notes]
  • Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking. *****
    Notes forthcoming
  • Russell, Bertrand. 1927. “Why I Am Not a Christian” (1927 lecture, published in 1957 essay collection of the same title) ****
    Russell explains on two grounds: first, the arguments for the existence of God through reason are easily refuted, as he summarizes; second, he identifies several defects in Christ’s teachings (e.g. claims of an imminent Second Coming that never happened, his belief in the everlasting torment of Hell), and finds Buddha and Socrates more worthy of respect than Christ. He understands that most people believe in God because they have been taught from childhood to do so, and people accept religion on emotional grounds, or upon fear of the unknown. He notes how religion’s supposed morality has led to atrocities throughout history, and how advances in social and moral progress across history have been opposed by organized religion. (Reread Sept 2017; full discussion, with some prime quotes.)
  • Sagan, Carl. 1973. The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective. New York: Doubleday/Anchor Press. ***
    One of the first nonfiction books I read, and foundational in my discovery of astronomy and the perspective of how humanity lives in a vast universe greater than any parochial or religious view. Parts of this, about then-current discoveries in the solar system, are dated, but other chapters, on the 5-billion-year history of Earth, and the motivations for space exploration, are inspiring to this day. Other chapters, about dolphins, seem asides, but later chapters about contact with extraterrestrial life, and classifications of cosmic civilizations, and mankind’s place in a universe of ‘starfolk’, are also as inspiring as ever. [full discussion of my 2015 reread, with numerous quotes.]
  • Snow, C.P. 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. (reprint edition Martino Publishing, 2013). ****
    Two essays. The first is a famous essay about the divide between the scientific community and the literary ‘intellectual’ community that considers it unimportant or even in bad taste to know much about science. Possibly one of the most influential and cited essays of the 20th century. The second is about how industrialized nations are getting richer and how poor nations have noticed and will turn to Russia if the West doesn’t help. [summary here also discusses the development in the past 20 years of a ‘third culture’ exemplified by EO Wilson’s Consilience and the “Big History” movement, plus a passage from Michael Benson’s book about 2001 about how science fiction is a blending of art and science.]
  • Solomon, Andrew. 2012. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. New York: Scribner. ****
    I read just portions of this: the opening and closing chapters, about Solomon’s childhood and his own father, and then about his late-in-life decision to become a father, via surrogacy; and then chapters on autism (e.g. concerning the ‘neurodiversity’ movement; the relationship of autism to creativity) and prodigies (considering here only musical prodigies; parental vs. public support). Solomon is a mesmerizing writer, blending results of studies and research with actual stories of hundreds of people he interviewed over 10 years. [full discussion]
  • Thomas, Lewis. 1983. Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. New York: Viking. ***
    Thomas was a pediatrician and doctor and an essayist whose first book, The Lives of a Cell (brief discussion) won a National Book Award. This third volume of essays collects 24 essays in 168 pages. The title essay isn’t about Mahler per se, but how that music evoked for him imminent nuclear doom (this was the early 1980s), with two other essays about the consequences of nuclear war. Other essays are on various topics, exhibiting Thomas’ insight and wisdom: the age of science; the seven wonders of the natural world; the closing of mental hospitals; ideas about altruism; how the system defeats scientific fraud; and about the “two cultures” and the mystery of music.
    [full discussion]
  • Tyson, Neil deGrasse. 2017. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. New York: Norton. **
    Collection of magazines essays about the earliest moments of the universe, the creation of the elements, the discovery of physical laws, dark matter, dark energy, and other topics. Tyson is no Carl Sagan, or Ann Druyan, but these essays are pleasant introductions to cosmic topics, with reflections of living cosmically. [full discussion.]
  • Weinberg, Steven. 2015. To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. New York: Harper. ***
    The Nobel physicist provides a history of science and a history of the idea of science, from the Greeks to Newton. The key theme is that “The progress of science has been largely a matter of discovering what questions should be asked.” It took centuries to realize that it was never “fruitful to ask what motions are natural, or what is the purpose of this or that physical phenomenon.” The ideas of the Greeks — earth, air, fire, water; ‘atoms’ — were poetical, never tested. There wasn’t much distinction between science and philosophy for thousands of years, and there was much rationalizing with religion (e.g. Aquinas). The breakthroughs came in the 15th and 16th centuries with Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo. The Church, of course, refused to look through Galileo’s telescope and banned his books. The scientific revolution climaxed with Newton, with his insights summarized in his three ‘laws.’ [And in retrospect, we can understand early attitudes toward science as reflecting biases of the human mind– assumptions, never tested, that the universe must be something beautiful or perfect by human standards.] [full discussion]
  • Wilson, E. O. 2014. The Meaning of Human Existence. New York: Liveright. *****
    A concise summary of the great scientist’s views on the big issues of science and philosophy, summarizing themes from the author’s many other books. Meaning is not about intent and design; humanity’s meaning is a summation of the accidents of history that have brought about our existence. This leads directly to questions of to what extent we direct our own future evolution. He reviews the key concept of group selection, and the inherent conflict with individual selection: “risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue”, thus the eternal struggle within every person.

    He revisits the idea of ‘consilience’ between the sciences and humanities; the Enlightenment; the two cultures; how our devotion to stories reflects how the mind works. How the humanities explore the comfort zone of human existence, while science explores continua the humanities cannot perceive (but which some other animals do).

    Science will mature and stabilize; aliens would know the science and be interested instead in our humanities. He discusses super-organisms; speculates on the nature of intelligent extra-terrestrials, and why aliens could never invade our planet (or we theirs); reviews the collapse of biodiversity; and then reflects about human nature, about instinct, religion (built in to human experience; “regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful”; motivating the tribalism behind conflicts in the world), and free will (which he suppose exists at least for practical reasons).

    What is the meaning of human existence? It’s the epic of our species through evolution, prehistory, recorded history, and the potential for what we choose to become.

    With some final swipes at creationism (“a triumph of blind religious faith over carefully tested fact”), Wilson concludes “If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning.” Detailed notes part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

  • Wilson, E. O. 1978. On Human Nature. Harvard. *****
    Wilson’s most famous book, controversial in its time for challenging conventional wisdom that the human mind was a “blank slate,” completely molded by environment, education, and society. (Or conversely, the religious view that humans are dark angels in need of redemption.) Rather, the human brain and mind are entirely biological in origin, and the result of evolution by natural selection, and can be understood especially in the context of other social species.

    Human behavior is genetically determined; evidence (examples) is decisive, including the famous 1945 list of characteristics that have been recorded in every known culture, far different that those on a similar list for, say, insect societies. The explanation of human social patterns by evolution is called sociobiology. The remainder of the book applies sociobiological interpretations to a variety of human behaviors. E.g. the incest taboo, and hypergamy (where females seek to marry men of equal or greater wealth). It begins with discussions of infant development and the development of the brain over millions of years.

    Then chapters on specific topics: aggression (yes, humans are innately aggressive, but we can recognize its rules are obsolete and try to overcome them); sex (humans are moderately polygynous; there are innate differences between the sexes; sexual bonds transcend reproductive activity; natural-law theories of Judaism and Christianity are wrong, e.g. concerning homosexuals, common in all cultures, and how kin-selection explains this); altruism (operating at different levels with different motivations, the ideas of individual and group selection, about the range of ethical behaviors); and religion (likely ineradicable–“most people would rather believe than know”, how there is a cultural Darwinism among religions, how religions coexist with cultures, how scientific materialism has defeated traditional religion, with new explanations for the origin of the universe all the way to the explanation of religion itself).

    Finally, Wilson returns to his two spiritual dilemmas: that humanity has no external purpose, that once we understand the origins of morality, what decisions do we make? With ideas about morality based on reason and evidence, and the synchronicity between disciplines. Many good quotes: Wilson was, and is, an elegant, provocative writer.

    (long summary)

  • Wilson, E. O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: Liveright. ****
    Notes forthcoming.