Top critical review
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Good but biased
on 4 February 2003
This is a very good popular science book on a fascinating subject. It's enjoyable and easy to read. It presents a wealth of information and I particularly like the frequent shifts from overview to detail and back. I agree with almost all of the positive comments so far. I also have some particular criticisms of the book which others may find interesting (or boring beyond belief!):-
Like any popular science book, the author takes a certain stance. I found it disconcerting that in writing for a lay audience Matt Ridley avoids making the fact that he has a particular viewpoint clear. There are places in the text where he cites published scientific work followed by a sweeping generalisation/over-extrapolation summarising the cited work. This summary is Matt Ridley's opinion. A lay audience may be unaware that the summary is the author's opinion and be fooled into thinking that it is scientifically established fact.
In terms of sweeping (and erroneous) statements, here's a great example (p92): "Freudian theory fell the moment lithium first cured a manic depressive, where twenty years of psychoanalysis failed." (You can almost hear the author snorting derisively at the end of the sentence). Lithium doesn't "cure" manic depression. It controls some of the effects in some (not all) sufferers. About 40% of users have side effects. Treatment is often lifelong. Prolonged use can cause renal or thyroid failure. It can interact badly with other common drugs. No evidence/reference is given of the "failure of psychoanalysis". (Considering it's postulated "fall" its use seems pretty widespread 50 years on.) In terms of evidence, I think this is one of the main failings of the book. There are countless occasions in the book, where the author appears to be presenting scientific findings yet references are not given. The lack of references, combined with the interspersing of some debateable personal opinions, makes me question some of the material in the book.
In particular, I found the author's stance on nature/nurture which crops up throughout the book positively schizophrenic. At many times in the book, the author presents the "common sense" view that "it's a mix of both" and he uses available information to support this. However, it seems to me that there is a continuous undercurrent thoughout the book as if the author doesn't really believe the stance he's presenting and that he thinks that nature is much more significant - this opinion seems to reveal itself in summarising statements such as.... "The brain is created by genes." (Yes this is true of the 'structure' but a brain without 'contents' is useless). Also (p218).... "Held up as a proof of socially constructed gender roles, [John Money] proved the exact opposite: that nature does play a role in gender" (The "exact opposite" is not proved - in fact there is no "proof" of anything here - a single case study is merely being used by the author to support his view.)
It's also worth noting that the bulk of his nature/nurture argument (chapter 6) seems to be derived from Thomas Bouchard's work on twins. This work has been subject to significant scientific criticism e.g.:- Most of the twins volunteered for a study, which was publicised as one looking at similarities in twins. There is thus potential for huge recruitment bias in his sample. Bouchard has received grants of over a million dollars from the Pioneer Fund of New York which has it's own agenda. Also, and rather strangely, Bouchard will not allow independent assessment or inspection of his raw data.
I thought in the main the book was witty and intelligent, however I found myself getting increasingly bored and irritated by the authors crusade against social scientists. The repeated tirades and jibes seemed unnecessarily provocative, petty, and irrelevant to the subject (and also at times, quite inaccurate). I actually felt that they detracted from the overall quality of the book.
So overall, an enjoyable, interesting, and informative book, however the more I became aware of the authors tendency to dress his own political agenda up as scientific fact, the more I began to question the perhaps misleading perspective on the subject that the book may be giving.
(By the way - In terms of making clear my own personal bias - my background and interests are hard science, engineering and evolutionary theory. I go 50/50 on nature/nurture, and psychoanalysis makes sense to me in terms of neural network theory)