I feel like this weblog is devolving into a book blog, which wouldn't be my first choice. But I don't seem to be inspired with other material much lately, and I've gotten a bit compulsive about blogging books I read. So here I go again.
Here's an update on The Time Traveler's Wife, which I read recently and enjoyed. David has now read it as well, and he liked it, I think, though not as much as I did. We agree that some episodes did not ring true, most notably a bad date Claire goes on as a high-schooler and its aftermath. And David told me, "Another way you can tell it's not science fiction is that she obviously didn't take her research very seriously." He noticed a number of errors in areas he has some expertise or experience in, including computer programming ("You can't write a virus in HTML! It's not a programming language!") and, interestingly enough, the amputation of feet. David knew enough to notice that Henry's doctors performed the amputation at the wrong place anatomically; I had merely been perplexed that Henry, a young and extremely fit man, thought having his feet amputated meant he had to spend the rest of his life crawling around his house and, when leaving the house, in a wheelchair. David's father, who lost both feet to diabetes, learned to walk with prostheses despite his advanced age and ill health.
Normally, I'm highly impatient with flaws like these. But something about The Time Traveler's Wife made me like it despite its weaknesses.
I just read The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. I heard of it in the context of the controversy about it; Lomborg is a statistician who decided to look carefully at the research on various environmental issues, including deforestation, global worming, world hunger, air and water pollution. He takes the media and environmental groups to task for mis-using information, such as carefully choosing the endpoints in a timeline to show, say, an upward trend in cancer mortality rather than the significant decline a longer view shows.
Lomborg is optimistic about both the present and the future. He points out that many measures have improved over time, including air pollution, which was much worse in cities in the 19th and early 20th century than today, and world hunger, which he argues has declined in both absolute and relative terms. But he is careful to also point out--repeatedly--that "improving" does not mean "problem solved," and that "not as bad as the doomsayers predict" does not mean "no need for vigilance or sound environmental policy."
And he has been reviled for his efforts, world-wide.
His critics don't seem to be listening to Lomborg's carefully moderate claims (though he gets a bit free-wheelingly cheery in his conclusion, I'll admit). I tried to read reviews of the book, and most of them struck me as defensive and histrionic. It was clear that many people responding to the book hadn't read it, and that those who had mis-read Lomborg, or saw any suggestion that environmental collapse isn't right around the corner as an attack on environmentalism.
This discouraged me, and reminded me why I so rarely read the mass media or follow popular debate: the level of discourse is so very low. What I wanted was some thoughtful, scientific reactions to Lomborg that would help me evaluate some of my own reactions to him. Much of what he wrote confirmed glimmers I'd gotten from previous reading and from my own observations of the world (I learned a lot about air pollution, for instance, from Smoke Ran Like Water earlier this year, and is it any surprise that statistics are distorted and mis-used?). But I also noticed that Lomborg is sometimes guilty of obfuscation; he was so careful to cite his sources (the footnotes ran into the thousands) and, in the text itself, to explain where information came from, that my ears pricked up whenever he shifted into the passive voice: "It is believed that..." Hmmm. By whom? And why?
Lomborg also treats some things as value-neutral that I'd like to see explored more fully, such as the concentration of populations into mega-cities all over the world.
I'd have liked to see some reasonable responses to Lomborg's arguments, instead of name-calling and hysteria. Lomborg's tone is reasonable. He is careful to admit limits of his arguments, to acknowledge the trade-offs he makes (as when he uses economic analyses to weight costs and benefits of various environmental policies, and admits that this leaves out a human factor that ought not to be ignored). I wish I could have found a response to The Skeptical Environmentalist that was a meticulously researched, thoughtfully presented, and reasonable as the book itself. That would have helped me feel I'd learned something, and would have restored my faith that we are making decisions about how we treat the world based on intelligent response to scientific knowledge. Alas, it is not to be so.Posted by Su Penn at January 17, 2004 06:25 AM | TrackBack