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Customer Review

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Starts well but tails off badly, 5 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Embracing the Wide Sky: A tour across the horizons of the mind (Hardcover)
I really enjoyed Born on a Blue Day and the first few chapters of this book continue in the same vein: a charming and fascinating tour around the brain and its workings, this time looking at "normal" brains as much as Daniel's own, and expanding to include other writers' and scientist's views as well as Daniel's experiences. I have seen a lot of the content elsewhere and in places this book did seem to take claims at face value rather than critically evaluating them if they fitted with the author's world view.

The writing is straightforward and functional rather than inspired, but by no means dull or clunky. The concept of using autistic experiences to better understand non-autistic minds works well and there are some interesting ideas presenting in a simple and accessible pop-sci way.

Where it all started to fall apart for me was around Chapter 8 where the focus moved beyond the brain and started to look at wider social issues. In this section complex issues were addressed from a surprisingly elitist, simplistic and close-minded perspective which made for an irritating and uncomfortable read and ultimately spoiled a decent book. I've never enjoyed being told what to think, particularly where the basis is a gross over-simplification of a complex issue. To usefully understand our shades-of-grey world you need both intelligence, and the ability to tolerate ambuguity, and I think the latter is what is missing from this book and costs it a star or two.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 14 Feb 2010 13:16:08 GMT
This is a quite interesting review. Could it be that what our reviewer 'Mr Smith' is really irritated by (in his last paragraph) is what is actually meant by autism? As an autistic person, I really enjoyed the last few chapters of this book, as, from my perspective, I had found a book that explores some of the same territory that interests me and I recognise it's sentiments.

I have been criticised, in my life, for many of the same criticisms that 'Mr Smith' makes - 'elitist, simplistic and close-minded'. I think that this makes for an interesting list of attributes to assert that someone obtains. Tammet draws our attention to a joint hero of his and mine, namely Orwell, who eshews obscurantism in favour of being plain speaking and direct. Well, in my defence, I would like to suggest that I do indeed look toward the best thinkers that I can find (elitism); I concur with Einstien when he says that when discussing things of importance that we should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler than they are (simplistic). As for close-mindedness, to have, or to demonstrate an opinion (and particularly an unusual one) is, so the suggestion goes, to not have an open mind to those opinions with which you disagree. So be it. All of the stuff about life that people so readily regard as meaningful that I think is nonsense may well come about because their apparatus of experience (their brain) assembles their experiences fundamentally differently from my own - that is why it is called a brain disorder (mine or theirs, it doesn't matter which). 'Mr Smith' might, or might not, like to take a moment to think what it is like to be in the position of having a brain disorder which encourages just the sort of responses that he presents us with.

His 'Mr Smith's' closing sentence expresses exactly the problem and for this, I am in his debt. He says that to usefully understand the world requires (in addition to intelligence) the ability to tolerate ambiguity. This is something that I don't know how to do, nor do I even pretend to understand this sentiment. I cannot think of any circumstance where understanding has been increased by the tolerance of ambiguity. Surely it is the demystifying of ambiguity that allows us to start a real debate on any issue.

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Feb 2010 22:56:30 GMT
Last edited by the author on 18 Feb 2010 23:13:47 GMT
Mr Smith says:
Thanks for an enlightening comment - and fascinating to see it from your point of view. The fact is that if I had tried to write this review as if thinking from the point of someone with autism, it wouldn't have been my review and my experience of reading the book. I'll have a go at answering your comments and explaining my criticisms.

Elitism - perhaps I could have been more explicit here - my real concern was that despite being prepared to challenge the expert view in the context of his specialist area (the brain), Daniel seemed to fall prey to the expert fallacy (arguing from authority) when talking about his world view. The one example that I still remember was Daniel asking how value was added to an article by someone he regarded as an expert (sorry, I can't remember who it was) on the guardian website by allowing anyone to add their own comments. It should be the strength of the argument which is considered, not the perceived authority of the speaker, and by allowing the challenge of other perspectives you are able to better assess the strength of the argument. Similarly, you quote Orwell and Einstein to reinforce your points - Einstein's being broadly a reiteration of Occam's Razor - when I would normally try to make the argument in my own words and rely on the strength of the argument itself. You look toward the best thinkers that you can find. I look towards the best ideas and arguments I can find. I don't care if they come from Einstein or from the postman.

That links to the second point - simplicity. I agree that it is preferable to simplify, particularly if a decision needs to be made or action taken, but the crux of the issue is the second part of the Einstein quote: "not simpler than they are". Many things, particularly in the context of society, are not simple at all. Therefore to address them as if they are breaches Einstein's request, and logic, and results in tabloid news and bad political decisions. As an example, Daniel can't understand why people play the lottery, because logic dictates that it is a poor investment, and it obviously is. But people don't play the lottery as an investment. Ideally, they can afford to spend their pound each week and the impact of that expenditure on them is so trivial that there's no real downside, however unlikely the upside. In a similar context, if you could remove a very improbable but also massively harmful risk to your home or your business, by paying a pound, then you almost certainly would. It may not be purely logical, or technically a good investment, but if the incredibly unlikely event does occur then at least you won't be thinking "if only I'd spent the pound". That isn't a simple thought process.

On ambiguity, I think the ambiguity only exists in our heads. In reality there is no ambiguity: a thing either is, or is not. We see ambiguity where we don't understand things. Removing that ambiguity is a noble aim, but our brains simply aren't powerful enough to demystify all the ambiguity that surrounds us. The world is terrifyingly complex. We can't assume that we understand everything well enough to make the right decisions. Even if we understand one thing, or several things, incredibly well we can't extend that to all things. It is when we say "a thing is as I say it is" without recognition that we might not in fact understand it well enough, that we cause problems, or in this case cause someone to write a negative review of our book. So when I say "tolerate ambiguity" I really mean "recognise that the world is more complicated than I can really understand". I don't think that should stop us debating, but should actually improve the quality of that debate if we accept that there might be something we can still learn.
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