Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mooney, Chris. The Republican war on science. New York: Basic, 2006. 357pp. Revised and updated edition.

The is a fine and necessary book, one that uncovers a lot of history and a lot of current events that I certainly didn't know about. Being a Canadian, however, there was probably a bit more nitty gritty detail about various political maneuverings than I really felt I needed to know. It makes me wish in a way for a somewhat smaller book, say 150 pages of text rather than the 269 presented here (the rest is end notes, index, etc.), maybe titled The Republican War on Science for Canadians, complete with little glossaries sprinkled throughout reminding us that Red is conservative and Blue is liberal rather than the reverse here in Soviet Canuckistan.

Anyways, back to the task at hand. Like I said, I really appreciated the thoroughness of this book, the way it tackled Republican meddling in scientific circles in the last several decades. The way it didn't stint on critisizing the Democrats when the deserved it and praising moderate Republicans when they deserved it too. The book starts very positively with a detailed taxonomy of the different ways science can be abused, from undermining science itself to error and misrepresentation to magnifying uncertainties. This taxonomy not only appealed to the librarian in me, but gave an real map to the rest of the book, laying out the ways in which Mooney would approach and analyse his topic.

Mooney takes us on a quick tour of the Republican administrations from FDR to Nixon, followed by a bit more information on Reagan where the issues were creationism, Star Wars, Gingrich's campaign against the Office of Technology Assessment and for "sound science." Next up, he tackles the beginning of the battles against global warming and the EPA, also under Gingrich. Big Tobacco and the food industry's war on our waistlines are covered in the next couple of chapters. The Endangered Species Act is covered in chapter 10. The religiously motivated attachs on evolution, stem cell research and research into sexual and reproductive health issues are tackled in the next few chapters. The final chapter looks in some detail at the attitudes of the current administration, notably on climate change. The conclusion brings in all together; I found it particularly interesting how Mooney draws a parallel between postmodern critiques of the scientific worldview and the Republican penchant for ignoring the "reality-based" community of scientists.

So, in the final analysis I appreciated the opportunity to read this book, to plunge my mind into the depths that to which politics can sink. How relevant is the book still? Well, the current Republican administration is in its lame duck phase so the worst may be over. On the other hand, the Democrats also seem to want to curry favour with the religious element, which may mitigate some of the positives. As well, Canada has an ideologically conservative government right now as well, one that looks south for inspiration. The lessons learned by pro-science advocates in the US may prove to be all too relevant to us here in Canada.

A final note: Chris Mooney's blog is here, and the site for the book, here.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Skal, David J. Screams of reason: Mad science and modern culture. New York: Norton, 1998. 368pp.

A little pop-cultural analysis is never a bad thing, taken in small doses. In larger doses, however, it can be a bit problematic. The good news is that it can be breezy and light, fun and frivolous while still making some good points and containing a few nuggets of real wisdom. On the other had, it can be plagued with shallowness, of research and analysis, lacking in both depth and breadth. David J. Skal's Screams of reason is a good example of both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, although in the final analysis I would have to give it more plusses than minuses.

So, what's Skal trying to achieve here (p.18):
A prototype outsider, shunted to the sidelines of serious discourse, to the no-man's-land of B movies, pulp novels, and comic books, the mad scientist has served as a lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the meaning of scientific thinking and the uses and consequences of modern technology. The mad scientist seems anarchic but often serves to support the status quo; instead of pressingus to confront the serious questions of ethics, power, and the social impact of technological advances, he too often allows us to laugh off notions that science might occasionally be the handmaiden of megalomania, greed and sadism. And while he is often written off as the product of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, upon closer examination, he reveals himself (mad scientists are almost always men) to be a far more complicated symbol of civilization and its split-level discontents.

And I would submit that he does a pretty good job of it, each chapter exploring a different aspect of the image of mad scientists (and science/scientists in general) in modern culture. In chapter 1, Skal presents the history of the prototypical mad scientist, Dr. Frankenstein. He does a good presentation of the history of the novel and the various films based on the novel, relating them to his thesis fairly well. He also touches upon some other creations from the same period, such as Dracula. Chapterd 2 and 3 touch on the Frankenstein story some more, this time focussing on artificial life such as robots, electicity and mostly B movies from the 30s and 40s. Chapter 4 doesn't quite see us moving on from Dr. Frankenstein, but we do continue discussing B movies, mostly related to nuclear weapons and fear thereof. Finally, chapter 5 moves on from our favourite mad scientist and discusses the phenomenon of aliens, UFO and abductions. And yes, a lot of B movies and a bit of TV. Chapter 6 is about mad medical doctors and the fears they conjure up. The Nazis get a few mentions, as does, you guessed it, Dr. F. Robin Cook, Hannibal Lecter and AIDS all get name-checked here. Chapter 7 is one of the most interesting, as Skal discusses the whole posthuman movement, with lots of fast and furious commentary on Rock Horror, David Cronenberg and others.

While this is good work, there are some serious weaknesses in Skal's approach. First of all, so much of the ambitious analysis he sets up for himself on page 18 really boils down into a lot of film history. That's understandable, because that's what he's known for with important books on Tod Browning (Dark Carnival), Dracula (Hollywood Gothic) and horror film (The Monster Show) but he really needed to broaden his approach for this project. He barely touches on the science fiction and horror pulps era of the 1930s onwards. Comics, almost nothing, when you consider the importance of several EC titles in horror and sf this is really too bad. Novels also get short shrift, unless a film was made out of it. Even tv didn't get too much coverage. Obvious shows like Star Trek and X Files are touched on only briefly while others like Night Stalker not at all. Even non-US film gets little attention, such as the various Hammer Films getting only brief coverage. Like I said, these are a serious weaknesses. It's like he had a lot of notes left from some of his film projects and thought he could cobble them together into another book.

Some other weaknesses? The tendency to recite film history and plot summary in the place of analysis is amusing and fun, but not really what he's trying to get at. As I alude to above, while Frankenstein may be the most important example I think he relies on the various film versions a bit too much.

Finally, at the end of the book, he gets all post-moderny on us, something that I found kind of surprising. Some quotes (p312-317):
[Carl] Sagan does not seem to appreciate that many people find scientific material threatening and dehumanizing, not because of ignorant apprehensions but because of what science explicitly states. Most people don't want to think of themselves as temporary mechanism destined for the scrap heap of oblivion...Sagan does a commendable debunking pseudoscience...But in rationalizing the abdunction stories into absurdity, he completely misses their metaphorical dimensions and significance. They are the ultimate symbolic expressions of twentieth-century fears about being immobilized and dehumanized by "scientific" authority figures.


In her book Science as Salvation the British moral philosopher Mary Midgley note theat "increasing technicality in the sciences...leaves unserved the general need for understanding, and whatever spiritual needs lie behind it." Ironically, "The promise of satisfying those spiritual needs has played a great part in establishing the special glory of the abstraction 'science' in our cultures." But as scientific complexity increases, general understanding wanes. As Midgley elaborates, "Many scienitists will now say flatly that most of us cannot expect to understand what is happening [in science] at all, and had better not even mess around with the popularizations. This gloomy estimate must extend, of course, far beyond the uneducated proles to the scientists themselves, when they deal with anything outside their own increasingly narrow provinces. There cannot, in this view, ever be such a thing as a scientifically-minded public.

And, well, a lot more like that in the last few pages of the book. After such a lively, but limited, journey through pop culture I find it interesting tha the last chapter reads like a bad undergrad paper in the philosophy of science by a 19-year-old that has just discovered postmoderism. In a sense, Skal is saying we're stuck with the image of science and scientists in pop culture becuause scientists are too smart, arrogant and condescending for their own good and that the "little people" are justified in their fear and suspicion because of their own ignorance and lack of intellectual curiousity. Sheesh. Read a book, pay attention in school, watch a documentary, for god's sake.

Anyways, in the final analysis, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it with some reservations. It's got lots of fun B movie history and a few interesting things to say about the place of science in modern culture, even if Skal seems to fall into some of the same traps at the end that he bemoans in the middle. Just skip the conclusion.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Wellington, David. Monster nation. New York: Thunder Mouth Press, 2006. 282pp.

This is the prequel to David Wellington's novel Monster Island I reviewed a little while ago. This one, though published later, fills in a lot of the back story on how the world came to be populated by zombies. Like it predecessor/successor it's full of over-the-top horror and some very dark humour and is completely enjoyable. I can't recommend it enough.

It follows the "lives" of various characters at the beginning of the zombie outbreak in the US, including an army officer who's trying to contain the plague. It also follows a newly created zombie who, due to a bit of oxygen-supplied luck, has kept most of her human intelligence. Both are interesting, in that the officer tries to be brave in the face of unspeakable horror and the new zombie starts by trying not to eat any humans, but soon gives in to her hungers. We also get insight into how the whole plague came about, as a kind of horrific science experiment/supernatural accident.

Wellington has been publishing all his novels online in blog form before the print version. Here's a listing of all Wellington's online serializations. Enjoy.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

McDougall, Sophia. Romanitas. London: Orion, 2006. 607pp.

This is a perfect example of a novel where the execution doesn't live up to the idea. Oh, the book isn't terrible. It's just not anywhere near as good as it could (should?) have been. The premise is quite interesting: what if the Roman Empire didn't decline and fall and survived into the present day, with institutions such as the emperor and slavery intact? The plot built around this setting is also interesting: what if the presumptive heir to the throne favours abolishing slavery and is assassinated, making it look like an accident? What will happen when the new heir, that person's son, also has an attempt on his life and flees with a bunch of escaped slaves to a secret escaped slave hidaway, from which to plan a return to Rome and rescue by the emperor? Lots of potential here, but sadly the novel never really takes off. Too much shuffling around without much actually happening; at 575 pages of story, the book is at least 100 pages too long.

In any case, this is a first novel, and McDougall does show promise. I'll very likely end up giving the second volume a chance one of these days.

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