Quick Roundup 150

Monday, February 12, 2007

Book: The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

During a couple of flights this weekend, I finally read Steven Johnson's fascinating and extremely well-written book about how physician John Snow showed -- during a particularly severe 1850's outbreak of cholera in London -- that the disease was caused by contaminated drinking water and could be fought through measures of sanitary engineering we take for granted today. I'd originally heard about the book through a review at City Journal by Theodore Dalrymple and mentioned it to my wife, who is finishing medical school. Strangely enough, I ended up receiving it for Christmas!

Dalrymple's review would serve as a good introduction and the book lived up to it. Johnson knows how to introduce his "characters". (He brilliantly treats both London and Vibrio cholerae as characters in line with his theme of consilience, inductive reasoning across vastly different disciplines, time scales, and space scales.) He can describe a situation and set a mood very effectively, and he is good at explaining essential scientific and political issues in terms that a layman can understand while maintaining a good narrative pace and keeping the reader's interest.

My main criticism of the book -- and this is, except for its mostly disappointing epilogue, not a major impediment to enjoying the book -- is that its author is blind to and thus victimized by some of the very philosophical problems which he shows us causing the epidemic (and hindering London's recovery therefrom) in the first place!

At the time of the epidemic, the dominant theory of disease transmission was that they were caused by "miasmas", or poisonous vapors, and that we could sharply reduce the incidence of disease through measures designed to lower the amount of foul air in cities. This theory not only resulted in a foolish government sewer-building plan that polluted parts of London's water supply, causing some of the other cholera outbreaks in London; it also thwarted attempts by the authorities to understand the cause of the epidemic in question, resulting instead in a voluminous official report filled with meticulously detailed data, most of which was useless and which would be distracting to the cause of unearthing the data that actually mattered.

Johnson shows us how government action motivated by junk science can be even more effective at causing death than many deliberate terrorist attacks. However, he also shows us, at different points in the book, how successful the work of private citizens and a more or less free market can solve many of the same problems that misguided government efforts can exacerbate or even create. In John Snow, we see how a physician -- without a cent of government funding, in the face of the "scientific" consensus of his day, and with opposition from government authorities -- worked tirelessly to understand how cholera was transmitted, and suggested a way to stop its spread. Later, we see how an inventor in modern times solved the problem of obtaining safe drinking water in areas lacking a modern infrastructure. Indeed, in a brief consideration of squatter settlements near major third world cities, Johnson notes that some of these -- without government-installed infrastructures -- provide some access to "electricity, running water, and even cable television".

Yet, despite having "all the pieces" of an argument that government interference in the economy is not required for good public health and can even hinder the causes of science and good public health, Johnson himself can be said to suffer from the miasma of our day. Time and again, he urges government solutions to public health problems and other things he regards as threats to the public welfare, such as global warming. At the same time, he seems dumbfounded when he considers the danger that nuclear proliferation poses to major cities. Here, rather than note the most effective government solution, to end states (such as Iran) that sponsor terrorism, he advocates a sharp curtailment of the nuclear arsenal -- of the United States.

Johnson thus falls into the dominant view of government of our day -- as nanny, rather than protector of individual rights. He also suffers from a strange ethical blindness wherein he fails to see the moral difference between the United States and Iran, which I think is caused by his taking rationality (vice the capacity for rationality) as a given in human beings. Finally, he buys the global warming argument (and environmentalism in general) hook, line, and sinker. Interestingly, why this has happened can be seen indirectly from his own explanation for the past dominance of the miasma theory of disease.

Johnson asks why a theory so demonstrably wrong and on so many levels was so difficult for men like Snow to combat. He has many interesting insights on the matter, but ultimately decides that the organization of the human brain is to blame for the persistence of the theory. Our sense of smell is governed by a region of the brain that is also important in emotion, and so it was relatively easy to displace reason in the debate. This is will be an attractive idea to many of his readers, but it becomes clear that over time, the correct theory did win out. Furthermore, history is strewn with plenty of other equally absurd -- and destructive -- ideas which have precisely zero olfactory support. Or can everyone else but myself smell God or the innate superiority of the Arian race?

Johnson's great failing is that he does not understand the importance of philosophy in shaping the receptiveness to new ideas by men, including himself. He also holds the common philosophical belief that reason and emotion are opposites, helping cause him to draw the wrong conclusion about why the miasma theory held England's health hostage for so long. Furthermore, he does not see that the only proper purpose of the government is to protect individual rights. This cause him to give very little consideration to the notion that a free economy could solve the very problems he thinks need government intervention and it apparently also blinds him to the fact that perhaps the arsenal of the United States can and should be used to protect its cities from the nuclear threat posed by Iran.

And so, just as Johnson shows us how an incorrect theory held dogmatically and taken as a given can hinder an analysis and misguide action, his own analysis is hindered by several beliefs similarly unsupported by evidence and unchallenged by all but a few. He would do well to become familiar with Ayn Rand, who is to philosophy today in many ways what John Snow was to medicine in the mid nineteenth century.

Having said this, I still very highly recommend the book. One need not fully grasp the importance of philosophy to see and convey the greatness in a man, and Johnson succeeds in showing us what a hero Snow had to be to defy consensus, disease, and the sheer difficulty of the task for which he volunteered -- to ultimately come away victorious.

Movie: Invincible

Several weeks ago, my wife and I watched Invincible in our hotel room. The movie, which I highly recommend, is based on the true story of a Philadelphia Eagles fan who participates in an open tryout held as a marketing stunt by new coach Dick Vermeil -- and makes the team.

One scene in particular stood out to me and I want to comment on it here. Vince Papale is in the Eagle's training facility after a hard day of tryouts. He is in great pain, partly because he has opted for less padding so he can enjoy greater mobility. In fact, as he removes tape from his torso, it is clear that he is in agony, almost to the point of tears.

Then, he looks up and notices that Vermeil has entered the next room and can see him through a window. He very quickly gathers his composure, straightening himself up in case the coach looks his way, which he eventually does. Papale looks directly at Vermeil and waves. Vermeil leaves, and Papale returns to his agony.

Powerful stuff, but what does it mean?

This was the virtue of pride in action. Papale is trying to do something very hard. In fact, although he has friends rooting for him, he also knows that some regard his goal of making the team as not just unlikely, but foolish. At moments, he wonders as much himself. At the same time, he would be thrilled to make the team he has cheered for all his life. He is working towards something he wants very badly and knows he may not get. And he refuses to show his coach how hard his struggle is.

He hasn't made the team yet and yet he wants no quarter from Vermeil. He wants no consideration to weigh into the final cut besides whether he is good enough to play professionally. He wants to be an Eagle only if his presence will help the Eagles win. He will try his best and he will accept the consequences whatever they are. Wow.

I am often disappointed by Hollywood, but it is not true that nobody there can show heroism. We could use a lot more on the big screen of what I saw in that movie.

Another Good Counterattack against Global Warming Hysteria

I am very grateful to brave souls like Timothy Ball and Nigel Calder who are taking on the media hype about global warming. While airheads like Ellen Goodman are marching in lockstep (or should that be "goose-step"?) to the notion that to doubt that we should "do something" about "global warming" NOW, is "on a par with Holocaust deni[al]", these men are marshalling an army of facts and evidence to support the contrary view.

Calder discusses an experiment that shows that global temperatures are likely under far greater influence from changes in the sun than from small changes in the composition of our atmosphere.

Enthusiasm for the global-warming scare also ensures that heatwaves make headlines, while contrary symptoms, such as this winter's billion-dollar loss of Californian crops to unusual frost, are relegated to the business pages. The early arrival of migrant birds in spring provides colourful evidence for a recent warming of the northern lands. But did anyone tell you that in east Antarctica the Adelie penguins and Cape petrels are turning up at their spring nesting sites around nine days later than they did 50 years ago? While sea-ice has diminished in the Arctic since 1978, it has grown by 8% in the Southern Ocean.

So one awkward question you can ask, when you're forking out those extra taxes for climate change, is "Why is east Antarctica getting colder?" It makes no sense at all if carbon dioxide is driving global warming. While you're at it, you might inquire whether Gordon Brown will give you a refund if it’s confirmed that global warming has stopped. The best measurements of global air temperatures come from American weather satellites, and they show wobbles but no overall change since 1999.

That levelling off is just what is expected by the chief rival hypothesis, which says that the sun drives climate changes more emphatically than greenhouse gases do. After becoming much more active during the 20th century, the sun now stands at a high but roughly level state of activity. Solar physicists warn of possible global cooling, should the sun revert to the lazier mood it was in during the Little Ice Age 300 years ago. [my bold]
Read it all. Especially you, Ms. Goodman.

(HT: Matt Drudge)

Update: Via HBL, the scientific report on this theory of climate change can be obtained here. The corresponding book for the public, Henrik Svensmark and Nigel Calder's The Chilling Stars, here.

Comment Problem (With Poll)

Someone wrote me Friday, screenshot enclosed, to the effect that in at least some versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer (which has numerous CSS rendering bugs), the comments to this blog are essentially unreadable due to lines being clipped off or obscured. I hope to rectify this problem some time in the next week or so, but in the meantime I would like to get an idea of how bad the problem is.

If you use Microsoft Internet Explorer for your web browsing, please consider answering the below poll question and/or sending an email/leaving a comment. In the meantime, I also have some possible workarounds to the problem below. I was told by the same reader that Firefox (the first "workaround") does the trick.

How bad do comments look in Internet Explorer?
They look just fine.
The blue bar covers a few letters, but that's all.
Substantial portions of lines are getting chopped off.
Free polls from Pollhost.com

  • Download and install Firefox, which does not suffer from the bug that is causing this in Explorer.
  • Find a phrase from the comment of interest, and search the comment feed for it. (This will only work for the latest comments.)
  • It may be that a cut-and-paste into another program, like Word, might allow you to read the full comment. I probably won't have a chance to try this today, however, to see whether it works.
My apologies for the inconvenience.

-- CAV


2-13-07: Added note on climate change book and report.


Inspector said...

More low tech backlinks.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for the kind words and the recommendation in that first post!

Inspector said...

What can I say, Gus: you earned it!

Sid said...

No problem in IE7/Vista or XP.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Sid. So far, it seems that between a quarter and a third of IE users are having major difficulties.