Dr Ken Thompson was for many years a lecturer in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield. He now writes and lectures on gardening and ecology. His latest book, Where Do Camels Belong? looks at the puzzling realities of ‘alien’ and ‘natural’ species.
I’ve always loved discovering how the world works. There’s no thrill like finding out something new – and thinking that, just for a short while, no-one knows what you know. And without getting too philosophical about it, doing science gives life a purpose, and guarantees your own tiny bit of immortality.
Why this book?
For a long time, I was signed up to the orthodox view of alien species, i.e. ‘the only good alien is a dead alien’, so it’s probably best to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’. But then I found that the more I read, the less convincing the basic science seemed. In short, much of it read like post-hoc justification by people who had already decided what they thought, and just wanted the evidence to back them up. The book is my attempt to persuade you that you should ask the questions before you shoot.
I started out writing gardening books; trying to give people the actual evidence on everything from wildlife gardening to making compost. Recently, I’ve written a couple of popular science books, but maybe I’m due for another gardening book. One day I’d like to combine the two by persuading people that plants are not just vital, but also interesting, and – who knows – maybe even cool.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I’m excited by the Conservation Evidence Project, which tries to collect together the scientific evidence that conservationists need. Whatever you’re trying to conserve, from bees to frogs, the Project will tell you what works, what doesn’t, and what hasn’t even been tried. I’m also excited – but not in a good way – by the way science is misused, or simply ignored. Politicians think they can cherry-pick the science that supports their prejudices, or worse still, ignore it altogether if it interferes with more important things, like getting re-elected. For a textbook example of how not to run an evidence-based policy, look no further than the recent badger cull. We have an Office for Budget Responsibility to stop the government telling too many lies about the economy; maybe we need an Office for Scientific Responsibility too?
I read this book with a mix of responses. One was fascination, the other frustration. The fascination came from the topic, which we catch a glimpse of in the subtitle ‘why we fail to see the solution right in front of us.’ Gordon Rugg, with the help of journalist d’Agnese, gives us a remarkable analysis of how we all – including experts – make errors in our decisions and research. But not limiting himself to saying what’s going wrong, Rugg also provides a method to root out the errors in the ‘Verifier method’, a suite of techniques to pull apart the way we approach, assimilate and make use of information to come to a decision.
The frustration is that the method is seen through a veil of vagueness. We are constantly hearing about this Verifier toolkit, but only get sideways glimpses of what it entails. I would have loved an appendix with a brief description of the contents of the toolkit and a couple of the tools explained in more detail. I appreciate that Rugg and his colleagues probably want to keep the toolkit proprietary (and the danger of having a journalist as a co-author is that they will tend to weed out the detail and weave their stories on people instead). But the book would have been better with a bit more depth.
Having said that, it’s pretty good as it is. The authors take what could be a rather dry topic and give it some life. We see how Rugg started with knowledge elicitation techniques – used, amongst other things, in the attempt to construct expert systems that are designed to provide an accessible bank of expertise. This first requires experts, who often don’t know how they do what they do, to initiate the system builders into their methods and knowledge. From there we move onto looking at the way errors occur in even the most detailed academic study and the gradual realisation that it would be possible to build a series of techniques that would help uncover these errors or, even better, prevent them happening in the future.
There are two major case studies to explore this – the (probably) medieval Voynich manuscript, which for more than 100 years has proved a mystery to all those who have tried to crack its strange script, and the nature of autism. In both cases, making use of the early version of the Verifier method uncovers gaps in expert understanding. While it doesn’t enable Rugg and his colleagues to actually solve the problems, it does provide impressive pointers to where there are currently failings and what should be done next.
All in all, the book will appeal to a very wide market. Whether you are in business (interestingly, the early writing style, before it settles down, is rather like a business book with numbered ‘lessons’ like ‘Experts often don’t know what they know’ in pull quotes) or any branch of academia… or just interested in the nature of knowledge, understanding and human error, there’s a lot here to get your teeth into.
Some of the best popular science books are the ones that change your way of looking at something. They might show you, for instance, that time travel is real, not just science fiction, or that quantum theory is not just for Nobel Prize winners – or, in this case, that our whole attitude to invasive species is down to emotional knee-jerk response, not to real science.
Ken Thompson’s fascinating and highly readable book takes us on a tour of the way that ecologists have made invasive species public enemies without any good basis. He shows how it is very difficult to say whether a species is native or alien, and whether this matters. Often, it seems to come down to whether we like the species or not. He shows how many of the invaders we panic about actually improve species diversity, how it’s a perfectly natural thing for species to move from place to place, and how bad science means that ecologists confuse correlation and causality – a classic scientific error.
While turning the view of invasive species on its head, Thompson also keeps us reading with well-crafted and often drily humorous turns of phrase. Describing the brown tree snake (one of the few genuine baddies in these circumstances) and its invasion of the island of Guam, he comments ‘Small, highly gregarious, white eyes [a local bird] roost together on a branch, shoulder to shoulder, and can be taken one at a time without the others taking flight, in a kind of ornithological kebab.’
This is an important and thought provoking book that deserves widespread exposure. At risk of hyperbole, I’d say it is to ecology what Darwin’s Origin of Species was to evolution. Not because it’s as important as Origin, but because like that book, it shows us a piece of biological theory that is entirely obvious and logical once you see it, yet it’s one that most of the people working in the field simply haven’t acknowledged or noticed.
Highly recommended, and without doubt one of the best popular science books so far in 2014.
I have mixed feelings about this kind of book. Personally I don’t get a lot out of reading them – I would rather have a book that reads through with ‘proper’ text – but a lot of people do like this kind of bite-sized format, with two page articles, the left a couple of hundred words of text and the right an image to support the text.
Frankly, some work a lot better than others, and for some reason, 30-Second Brain is one of the better ones in the series. Perhaps because there isn’t a lot of mathematical depth to the subject, the short essays did build up a rather nice picture of our knowledge of the workings of the brain. I was rather unnerved to see the discredited Freud mentioned, but it was only a passing reference, and wasn’t really supporting one of his top-of-the-head (literally) theories.
Although there’s quite an industry now in debunking claims that something or other is what makes us human, I’ve some sympathy with the slightly different twist in the subtitle of Victoria Williamson’s book: ‘how music reveals what it is to be human.’ You may not have to be human to be musical, but it certainly gives us some interesting insights into our brains.
In a detailed exploration of the psychology of music, Williamson takes us into the fact and fable of claims like the old chestnut that listening to music (particularly Mozart) can improve your child’s intelligence. The simple answer is that listening doesn’t, but learning to play an instrument or sing does make a small difference in some very specific brain functions, like being able to distinguish sounds. However it’s worth pointing out that, unless the real aim is to learn how to play or sing, the amount of effort required is totally out of proportion to the gain. And if children aren’t young enough for our voyage into the capabilities of music, even see if music can influence the unborn child.
Later on there’s an in-depth look at music in our adult life and the relationship between music and memory – including the remarkable factoid that 30 percent of people can correctly identify the name and artist of a popular song after hearing it for only 0.4 seconds, a tiny snippet of sound. Interestingly, though the people tested were young adults, they found it easiest to identify 1960s and 1970s tunes. Williamson suggests (probably tongue in cheek) that music was better then. I’d suggest it might be more a combination of being the kind of music their parents would listen to – so the music the test subjects were brought up with – and an effect of the way that distinctive tunes were more common back then, in an age without sampling, rapping and song-free dance music.
I am reasonably musical – I sang in a Cambridge college chapel choir – so I expected to be absolutely delighted with this book… but though there is lots of lovely material in there, I felt a little let down. In part it is because the style is a little flat – the book felt about twice as long as it really is – but mostly I suspect it is because music psychologists and professional musicians think that music is more important than it really is. Yes, it plays a pivotal role in our teens, but for most of our lives it’s just something to stick in if you are bored in the car or gym or while doing the washing up – or that is very effective at eliciting emotions in the background in films (the music that swells under the ‘Daddy, my daddy!’ sequence in the Railway Children is enough to make me cry without the visuals) – which is immensely powerful, but still not really a of major significance in our lives.
So a brilliant idea, with plenty of really interesting content – and a must-read for anyone that interested in music or the workings of the human brain – but not as enjoyable as I hoped it would be. It’s quite possibly because I was so looking forward to it that it was inevitably a bit of a disappointment – so I do recommend you try it for yourself.