The Hidden Brain.

I’ve become a huge fan of the NPR prodcast The Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam, a journalist whose 2010 book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives spawned the podcast and a regular radio program on NPR. Covering how our subconscious mind influences our decisions in ways that traditional economists would call ‘irrational’ but modern behavioral economists recognize as typical human behavior, Vedantam’s book is a great introduction to this increasingly important way of understanding how people act and think.

Vedantam walks the reader through these theories via concrete examples, much as he now does in the podcast – this week’s episode, “Why Now?” about the #MeToo movement and our society’s sudden decision to pay attention to these women, is among its best. Some of the stories in the book are shocking and/or hard to believe, but they’re true and serve to emphasize these seemingly counterintuitive concepts. He discusses a rape victim who had focused on remembering details about her attacker, and was 100% sure she’d correctly identified the man who raped her – but thirteen years after the man she identified was convicted of the crime, a DNA test showed she was wrong, and she then discovered a specific detail she’d overlooked at the time of the investigation because no one asked her the ‘right’ question. This is a conscientious, intelligent woman who was certain of her memories, and she still made a mistake.

Another example that particularly stuck with me was how people react in the face of imminent danger or catastrophe. Just before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the sea receded from coastal areas, a typical feature before a tidal wave hits. Vedantam cites reports from multiple areas where people living in those regions “gathered to discuss the phenomenon” and “asked one another what was happening,” instead of running like hell for high ground. Similar reports came from the World Trade Center after 9/11. People in those instances didn’t rely on their instincts to flee, but sought confirmation from others nearby – if you don’t run, maybe I don’t need to run either. In this case, he points to the evolutionary history of man, where staying with the group was typically the safe move in the face of danger; if running were the dominant, successful strategy for survival, that would still be our instinct today. It even explains why multiple bystanders did not help Deletha Word, a woman who was nearly beaten to death in a road-rage incident on the packed Belle Isle bridge in Detroit in 1996 – if no one else helped her, why should I?

Vedantam’s writing and speaking style offers a perfect blend of colloquial storytelling and evidence-based arguments. He interviews transgender people who describe the changes attitudes they encounter between before and after their outward appearances changed. (One transgender man says, “I can even complete a whole sentence [post-transition] without being interrupted by a man.) And he looks at data on racial disparities in sentencing convicted criminals to death – including data that show darker-skinned blacks are more likely to receive a death sentence than lighter-skinned blacks.

The last chapter of The Hidden Brain came up last week on Twitter, where I retweeted a link to a story in the New York Times from the wife of a former NFL player, describing her husband’s apparent symptoms of serious brain trauma. One slightly bizarre response I received was that this was an “appeal to emotion” argument – I wasn’t arguing anything, just sharing a story I thought was well-written and worth reading – because it was a single datum rather than an extensive study. Vedantam points out, with examples and some research, that the human brain does much better at understanding the suffering of one than at understanding the suffering of many. He tells how the story of a dog named Hokget, lost in the Pacific on an abandoned ship, spurred people to donate thousands of dollars, with money coming from 39 states and four countries. ( An excerpt from this chapter is still online on The Week‘s site.) So why were people so quick to send money to save one dog when they’re so much less likely to send money when they hear of mass suffering, like genocide or disaster victims in Asia or Africa? Because, Vedantam argues, we process the suffering of an individual in a more “visceral” sense than we do the more abstract suffering of many – and he cites experimental data from psychologist Paul Slovic to back it up.

The Hidden Brain could have been twice as long and I would still have devoured it; Vedantam’s writing is much like his podcast narration, breezy yet never dumbed down, thoroughly explanatory without becoming dense or patronizing. If you enjoy books in the Thinking Fast and Slow or Everybody Lies vein, you’ll enjoy both this title and the podcast, which has become one of my go-to listens to power me through mindless chores around the house.

On Immunity.

Eula Biss’ brief 2014 book On Immunity: An Inoculation takes a novel angle on the subject of childhood vaccinations by weaving the science around the subject into her personal experiences as a first-time mother hearing all of the nonsense anti-vaccine arguments out there and finding herself bombarded with information. Biss makes it clear that she is pro-vaccine and pro-science, and that she did get her son vaccinated, but her essay-like style puts the reader on the ground with her as she’s navigating the uncertainties and fears that come with parenthood, which may also give some readers a new window on how new parents get bamboozled by the many charlatans and frauds out there telling them not to vaccinate.

When my daughter was born, vaccinating was never a question for us … but we were shocked to learn that they vaccinate newborns for hepatitis B, a viral infection that is probably best known as a sexually transmitted disease but that can also be transmitted through many other bodily fluids, including blood, so it’s possible for a child to get an infection through exposure from another kid in school or day care. We made the mistake of looking online for information on the hep B vaccine, and found the website for the so-called “National Vaccine Information Center,” a dangerous anti-science group that spreads misinformation about vaccines and, of course, presented horror stories from parents who claimed the hep B vaccine harmed or even killed their babies. (We vaccinated anyway.)

Biss’ recounting of her own meanderings through the world of vaccine information and bullshit felt very familiar to me, as she obviously understands science – her father is a doctor, and she refers to him frequently in the text – but also gives real credence to the fears of the new parent, and how overwhelming all of the information coming at new parents can feel. Biss hits all of the notable cranks, from the NVIC to Andrew Wakefield to Bob Sears (who has been accused of selling medical exemptions for California kids) to well-meaning but clueless parents who talk about “toxins” or “natural” or “organic” as if those terms really mean anything when it comes to health. She walks back through the history of vaccinations, to Edward Jenner’s experiments with cowpox and previous awareness in non-European societies of inoculation techniques, and the associated history of anti-vaxers, a group that once at least had a legitimate complaint because vaccines weren’t regulated for safety or efficacy; in 1901, two separate batches of vaccines caused deadly tetanus outbreaks in St. Louis and Camden, New Jersey. Now, such groups just capitalize on the public’s science ignorance – and fear – to make a few bucks from selling books or “alternative” therapies. (Note: There is no such thing as “alternative medicine.” If it works, it’s medicine.)

Fear is just as much a theme of On Immunity as science, and Biss, unlike many writers (myself included), has quite a bit of empathy for parents who hear (bogus) horror stories of vaccine “injuries” or who see that vaccines contain aluminum (in adjuvants, which make the vaccines more effective) and waver on vaccinating their kids. Failing to vaccinate puts your kids at risk, but also the community as a whole; Biss discusses herd immunity, which was first identified nearly a century ago, and the societal cost of failing to vaccinate, as well as the risk posed to vulnerable populations who can’t be vaccinated, such as newborns, the elderly, or the immune compromised. This understanding tone makes it a better read, I think, for folks who are on the fence about vaccinations; she was essentially preaching to the converted with me, while hardcore denialists won’t bother with the litany of facts she includes or the blithe knockdowns of anti-vax tropes.

Biss is a “professor of instruction” in Northwestern’s English Department and has garnered praise both for On Immunity and her 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land; she writes here like an essayist, with a strong first-person perspective that allows her to bring the reader inside her head, so to speak, as she became a mother and experienced all of the typical anxieties and moments of panic that come along with new parenthood. It makes the brief book both readable and engrossing, almost as if Biss wanted to slip in a little education – a dash of history, a pinch of immunology – along the way. And the resulting work may do as much or more to address new parents’ fears of vaccines, fears that are unfounded, irrational, but still quite common, as direct attacks on anti-vaxer falsehoods.

Hi, Anxiety.

Kat Kinsman is a food writer who used to run CNN’s Eatocracy site and now is the senior food and drinks editor at Extra Crispy, a site (also owned by Time, Inc.) dedicated solely to breakfast. She’s also lived with anxiety, panic, and depression for just about her entire life, and since 2014 has been very public about these conditions and the steps she has to take to manage them. Her first book, Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, is a memoir of a disordered life that is, by turns, funny, sad, aggravating, and most of all, hopeful, as Kinsman has had to overcome mental health challenges beyond what I would call the ‘average’ sufferer has to face – and has done so enough to write this very witty, big-hearted book about it all.

Kinsman’s book is not a how-to, or a self-help book, but is more of a confessional, as she details events or periods of her life, often exposing herself in ways that I imagine were painful for someone with an anxious mind, that were ultimately dictated by her mental health issues. Her mother also had serious depression and anxiety, as well as mini-strokes that appear to have presaged dementia and Parkinson’s, and living with her mom taught Kinsman how to be anxious – how to worry about everything, to blame herself for things beyond her control, and to expect the worst even in harmless situations. Because anxiety tends to feed itself, growing up anxious put Kinsman into more situations that exacerbated the problem, and the medications pushed on her while she was young did not particularly help her and often made things worse.

I’ve written a few times about my own anxiety, including growing up anxious, so the emotional ground Kinsman covers in Hi, Anxiety is familiar to me … but her case is or was certainly more severe than mine. I’ve had lifelong stomach issues, largely related to anxiety, but Kinsman has had to put up with stronger physical manifestations of her anxiety and panic than I ever have, and she’s also had to work harder to maintain control of her environment than I have. She expands on these points in amusing interludes delineating her “irrational fears,” like driving, being driven, or getting her hair cut (in which she also discusses the anxiety around tipping, which I fully appreciate), mundane events that, to most people, pose no problem at all. If you’re anxious, even the simplest tasks become fraught with peril – getting the mail or answering the phone, because you’re afraid it will bring some terrible news or a huge bill; driving to the store, because you might hit someone, or get hit, or just do the wrong thing and make all the other drivers laugh at or scorn your incompetence.

That’s where Hi, Anxiety succeeds most – Kinsman humanizes an anxious life by giving so much detail on episodes from childhood through her marriage where anxiety (and/or depression) prevented her from doing ordinary things, or altered outcomes when she did do something. Many of these events weren’t Kinsman’s fault – she had a few bad boyfriends, one of whom really did a number on her in a way that I won’t spoil because it’s such a “holy shit” moment in the book – but when you’re anxious, you kind of believe the universe is operating against you, or at least that your account with the universe is permanently in arrears, so of course it was your fault, or you had it coming, and why didn’t you prepare better for it?

Kinsman also gets into the techniques that have helped her live with her condition – and those that haven’t, like medications – but is careful not to prescribe for the reader, making it clear in the concluding essay that she doesn’t have the answer and that every anxious person will have to find his/her own solution. For her, it’s talk therapy, some supplements, occasional hypnosis, and avoiding certain known triggers. For me, with a milder case, it’s medication, occasional therapy, some mindfulness techniques, and exercise. Each person’s case is different; there is no single etiology of anxiety or panic disorder and thus no single trick to help you. Hi, Anxiety is the book to help someone understand more about what it’s like to live with a serious mental illness, whether the reader is suffering from it or knows someone who is, and perhaps the spur to go seek treatment. It’s such a quick, compulsive read – I crushed it inside of 24 hours – that you could really recommend it to anyone, even someone with no concept of mental illness, to help them understand something of what it’s like to live with a brain that spends much of its time working against you.

The Body Keeps the Score.

I’ve been open about my own mental health issues, such as this piece I wrote on being anxious throughout my childhood, but am fortunate in one respect in that my childhood was also relatively free of trauma. I grew up in a loving family, didn’t lose any close family members until I was a teenager – both of my grandmothers lived to their 100th birthdays – and never had to deal with the effects of divorce or abuse, to pick just two possible traumas that affect kids. Events I might recall as “traumatic” pale in comparison to what others grew up with.

I’ve only come to learn about trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the last handful of years, due to several close friends who suffer from it and how its effects can often include problems I’ve dealt with, including anxiety, panic, depression. Somewhere along the way I heard about Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal 2015 book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which I have since learned is an incredibly influential and important book in the world of mental health professionals. Dr. van der Kolk has spent decades working with trauma victims and was one of the leading proponents of the hypothesis, later supported by fMRI and similar evidence, that trauma actually alters the brain in a physical sense rather than just a mental one, and that even minor events can still have traumatic effects on our brains, especially when they happen while we’re young.

Dr. van der Kolk spends the first part of The Body Keeps the Score discussing his own history in working with trauma victims and the difficulty he and other colleagues had in even gaining acceptance for the idea of the aftermath of trauma as a distinct medical disorder. PTSD was only recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a formal diagnosis in 1980, when it was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders‘s third edition (DSM-III), thanks to a surge in sufferers among soldiers who returned from fighting in Vietnam. Awareness of the condition dates back to ancient Greece, and is well-documented in medical and popular literature from the 1800s forward under terms like “shell shock” (whence our word “shell-shocked” derives), but people with PTSD prior to 1980 were treated as if they had a panoply of other, seemingly unrelated mental health disorders, which led to problems like overmedication and a lack of any progress back towards a normal life.

From there, the author discusses new evidence from the world of neuroscience to support his and others’ hypotheses that the brain of a trauma victim works differently than the brain of someone without PTSD. Different parts of the brain are activated in similar situations, although among trauma victims there can be varying responses, from panic to dissociation to shutdown. He also discusses the various ways we develop PTSD, often in excruciating details of childhood abuse or wartime atrocities, tying these underlying conditions to changes in methylation of genes that can even be passed on to offspring, a process known as “epigenetics,” that also explains how the brains of trauma victims end up operating on a different BIOS than those of others.

The prose here can feel a bit academic, perhaps the result of van der Kolk’s background but also that he’s a native Dutch speaker and writing in his second language. In part five, which constitutes nearly half of the book, the writing livens up as he delves into various methods of attacking trauma and retraining the brain not to panic, dissociate, or just peace out when the person is presented with a trigger. Some suggestions are obvious or well-known, like using yoga or EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but does help trauma victims), while others are novel and surprising, including participation in theater or similar role-playing activities, or using a computer program to try to ‘reprogram’ the brain not just in its fear response but all of the time. He includes EEG graphs that show patterns of attention in the brains of study participants where the trauma victims’ brain waves are less tightly connected and even diverge in the milliseconds after the subject was presented with information for the brain to process. Neurofeedback, which allows the user to regulate his/her own brain function with the help of software that displays EEG results, has shown promise for trauma victims and people with other mental health disorders to reestablish control over their brains’ betrayals. Dr. van der Kolk also goes into heart-rate variability training, self-leadership of the different parts of our personality (not quite dissociative identity disorder, but leaning that way), and the pros and cons of cognitive behavioral therapy or medication for PTSD sufferers.

If you or someone close to you is a trauma victim of any sort, even if it seems like a ‘minor’ trauma, The Body Keeps a Score will be an illuminating read that could help alter the course of your/your intimate’s treatment. Even just the final section, where he points out why things like CBT aren’t effective (discussing the trauma over and over doesn’t actually change the way the brain responds to it or other triggers) and gives numerous suggestions for other remedies, would be useful. If you can get through some of the more technical language earlier in the book, though, the entire read is worthwhile, especially as van der Kolk explains his own journey of understanding through decades of working with veterans, children, and other trauma victims to get to this comprehensive theory of how best to treat these people – often people who were considered untreatable by previous generations of psychiatrists.

Everybody Lies.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz made his name by using the enormous trove of data from Google search inquiries – that is, what users all over the world type in the search box – to measure things that researchers would typically measure solely by voluntary responses to surveys. And, as Stephens-Davidowitz says in the title of his first book, Everybody Lies, those surveys are not that reliable. It turns out, to pick one of the most notable results of his work (described in this book), that only 2-3% of men self-report as gay when asked in surveys, but the actual rate is probably twice that, based on the data he mined from online searches.

Stephens-Davidowitz ended up working for a year-plus at Google as a data scientist before leaving to become an editorial writer at the New York Times and author, so the book is bit more than just a collection of anecdotes like later entries in the Freakonomics series. Here, the author is more focused on the potential uses and risks of this enormous new quantity of data that, of course, is being collected on us every time we search on Google, click on Facebook, or look for something on a pornography site. (Yep, he got search data from Pornhub too.)

The core idea here is twofold: there are new data, and these new data allow us to ask questions we couldn’t answer before, or simply couldn’t answer well. People won’t discuss certain topics with researchers, or even answer surveys truthfully, but they will spill everything to Google. Witness the derisive term “Dr. Google” for people who search for their symptoms online, where they may end up with information from fraudsters or junk science sites like Natural News or Mercola, rather than seeing a doctor. What if, however, you looked at people who reveal through their searches that they have something like pancreatic cancer, and then looked at the symptoms those same people were Googling several weeks or months before their diagnosis? Such an approach could allow researchers to identify symptoms that positively correlate with hard-to-detect diseases, and to know the chances of false positives, or even find intermediate variables that alter the probability the patient has the disease. You could even build expert systems that really would work like Dr. Google – if I have these five symptoms, but not these three, should I see a real doctor?

Sex, like medical topics, is another subject people don’t like to discuss with strangers, and it happens to sell books too, so Stephens-Davidowitz spent quite a bit of time looking into what people search for when they’re searching about sex, whether it’s pornography, dating sites, or questions about sex and sexuality. The Pornhub data trove reveals quite a bit about sexual orientations, along with some searches I personally found a bit disturbing. Even more disturbing, however, is just how many Americans secretly harbor racist views, which Stephens-Davidowitz deduces from internet searches for certain racial slurs, and even shows how polls underestimated Donald Trump’s appeal to the racist white masses by demonstrating from search data how many of these people are out there. Few racists reveal themselves as such to surveys or researchers, and such people may even lie about their voting preferences or plans – saying they were undecided when they planned to vote for Trump, for instance. If Democrats had bothered to get and analyze this data, which is freely available, would they have changed their strategies in swing states?

Some of Stephens-Davidowitz’s queries here are less earth-shattering and seem more like ways to demonstrate the power of the tool. He looks at whether violent movies actually correlate to an increase in violent crime (spoiler: not really), and what first-date words or phrases might indicate a strong chance for a second date. But he also uses some of these queries to talk about new or revived study techniques, like A/B testing, or to show how such huge quantities of data can lead to spurious correlations, a problem known as “the curse of dimensionality,” such as in studies that claim a specific gene causes a specific disease or physical condition that then aren’t replicated by other researchers.

Stephens-Davidowitz closes with some consideration of the inherent risks of having this much information about us available both to corporations like Google, Facebook, and … um … Pornhub, as well as the risks of having it in the hands of the government, especially with the convenient excuse of “homeland security” always available to the government to explain any sort of overreach. Take the example in the news this week that a neighbor of Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook mass murderer, warned police that he was threatening to do just such a thing, only to be told that the police couldn’t do anything because his mother owned the guns legally. What if he’d searched for this online? For ways to kill a lot of people in a short period of time, or to build a bomb, or to invade a building? Should the FBI be knocking on the doors of anyone who searches for such things? Some people would say yes, if it might prevent Sandy Hook or Las Vegas or San Bernardino or the Pulse Orlando or Columbine or Virginia Tech or Luby’s or Binghamton or the Navy Yard. Some people will consider this an unreasonable abridgement of our civil liberties. Big Data forces the conversation to move to new places because authorities can learn more about us than ever before – and we’re the ones giving them the information.

Next up: J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.


Biologist E.O. Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Non-Fiction, including one for, of all things, a textbook on ants, along with numerous other awards for his lengthy bibliography of popular and scholarly works on evolution, sociobiology, ecology, and conservationism. His 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life falls into the last category while drawing on multiple fields of expertise to make his case that we should preserve half of the area of the planet for conservation to maintain biodiversity and fight climate change, but for a work by a great scholar and professor, Half-Earth feels half-hearted, as if Wilson knows what he wants to argue but couldn’t be bothered to support his side sufficiently to sway the unconvinced.

The idea of preserving half of the planet, land and sea, for conservation isn’t new nor is it Wilson’s; he credits Tony Hiss with coining the term “half-earth” to describe the concept in a Smithsonian magazine article in 2014. And there’s little doubt that man’s impact on the planet – its environment and the millions of other species on it – has been a net negative for everyone but man, with the pace of change only accelerating as we continue to alter the compositions of the planet’s atmosphere, soil, and water supply. Wilson does well when describing what we might lose or have already lost as a result of our mere presence or our industrial activities, talking about habitats we’ve razed or species we’ve driven to extinction deliberately, through the introductions of invasive species, or through other changes to the environment. But he assumes that the reader will see these losses as significant, or even see them as losses, without sufficiently detailing why it matters that, say, we’re wiping out the world’s rhinoceros population, or various island birds and rodents have been exterminated by the introduction of non-native snakes.

What’s missing even more from the work, however, is a consideration of the costs of an endeavor like the one Wilson is proposing. Man is fairly well distributed across the planet, and setting aside 50% of its land mass for conservation would require resettling hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, many of them members of indigenous populations who live in the least-altered environments on the planet. Crowding the planet’s seven billion people (and rising) into less of the space will trade some environmental problems for others, as various forms pollution rise with population density, and many large urban areas already struggle under the weight of their people, with third-world megacities paralyzed by traffic and its attendant problems. Relocating people is expensive, difficult, and traumatic. There’s also the very real question of feeding those seven billion people and supplying them with fresh water, which we’re already struggling to do; if you reserve half of the world’s land and half of its oceans for conservation, those tasks become more difficult and likely more expensive – a cost few people will be willing to bear directly. It might be necessary, but Wilson glosses over the practical problems his solution would create.

There is, however, one good reason to read Half-Earth right now, at least in the United States, where the current federal administration is rolling back environmental protections left and right, including cutting funds for wildlife area acquisition and management. But I thought Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning book The Sixth Extinction made the same general case more powerfully and thoroughly, describing the current, anthropogenic mass extinction that could rival the K-Pg event for sheer number of species exterminated if we don’t do anything about it. Kolbert goes into greater depth with more concrete examples of how man’s activity has altered the planet and moved species around to extinguish some species and threaten others, including a lengthy discussion of chytrid fungus, a thus-far incurable ailment that is killing off tropical frog species with alarming speed.

I think Wilson also fell into the trap that William Easterley (among others) has identified in charitable and other “good intentions” efforts – aiming impossibly high, so that you can never meet your stated goal. You want to end world hunger? That sounds great, but it’ll never happen, and the only outcome will be the creation of a giant organization that absorbs donations without ever accomplishing much of anything. Micro-efforts yield more tangible results, and increase accountability for workers and donors alike. So while saying “let’s reserve half the planet to save it” is an admirable goal, and may even be the right strategy for the long term, it ain’t happening, and talking about it doesn’t get us any closer to solutions. If you want to help save the planet, work towards small, achievable goals. And right now, that probably means working for change in Washington.

Next up: Nina George’s 2013 novel The Little Paris Bookshop.


I have two new Insider posts on the Verlander trade and the Justin Upton trade.

Princeton sociology professor and ethnographer Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a stunning work of first-person research that examines a major socioeconomic problem from the ground level, rather than the top-down, data-driven approach I expected from a book in his genre. Desmond spent several months living among the inner-city underclass in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, shadowing tenants and landlords, witnessing evictions and forced moves, accompanying residents to rehab, AA meetings, even to court, recording what amounted to over 5000 pages of transcribed notes and conversations, to produce this devastating and utterly human portrait of people who simply do not exist to the house-secure classes.

Desmond’s aim here is clear: eviction is more than just a temporary loss of shelter, but a massive disruption to the economic and psychological well-being of entire families, a process that can lead to job loss, substance abuse, and crime, and a scarlet letter on a person’s record that can make it harder to obtain future housing and employment. The vulnerable class of the working or semi-working poor are victimized repeatedly by a system that takes the majority of their income, often over 75% of it, to cover rent for substandard housing, then punishes them if they fall behind and are evicted in a process that overwhelmingly favors the landlords. Tenants are often afraid to assert their rights, if they have any, or to report building code or maintenance violations for fear of retaliation. Once evicted, families may end up having to pay exorbitant fees to place their limited possessions in storage, with no access to their things, until the almost inevitable time when they can’t afford the monthly cost and lose what little they had.

Desmond accompanies several single residents and entire families on their journey through multiple evictions and the Lodge, a homeless shelter readers will know all too well before the book is complete. The access these people gave him is remarkable, as he captures their words at some of their most vulnerable and depressed moments, often witnessing their stuff being carted out to the curb in trash bags by Eagle Movers, who apparently maintain a truck (or two?) just for the purpose of serving landlords who are evicting residents. He also relates a firsthand account of housing discrimination – and explains in an afterword how the Fair Housing Authority did nothing with his formal complaint. (And that was under a Democratic administration; I doubt it’s any better today.) He also spends significant time with two slumlords – although he refuses to refer to either as such – to give their perspective, usually in their own words, even explaining how one, Sherrena, was “proud” of her landlord status and her collection of properties, even though Desmond makes it very clear that she is a nightmare landlord whose failure to maintain safe conditions in her buildings should probably have landed her in court.

By spending so much time with poor residents, Desmond also makes it clear what critical needs are not addressed when most of someone’s income – often income from disability payments – goes to cover the rent. Going without food, or without enough food, is an obvious outcome. But such tenants often have no heat or hot water, or sometimes can’t cover the gas or electric bills. Medical care is often entirely out of the question. Buying a new pair of shoes for a child, a mundane event for even middle-class families, is an enormous achievement. One of the few success stories in the book, Scott, a former nurse who lost everything when he became addicted to painkillers, has to borrow from his parents to cover the cost to get into a rehab program and begin taking methadone. Many other people Desmond follows don’t have even that bare safety net of a parent or relative to help cover a payment – or, in the case of one single mother, her safety net repeatedly refuses to help.

Desmond saves his prescriptions and recommendations for the epilogue, choosing instead to let the individual narratives tell the reader the overarching story of a system that traps these American untouchables in a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. It’s easy to say, as so many politicians like to do, that the solution to poverty is to make poor adults go to work. That facile, elitist answer ignores the realities of work for the underclass: Available jobs barely pay enough to cover the rent, evictions and other related actions (police are often involved, with Milwaukee employing sheriffs specifically for this purpose) can count against someone on a job application, and missing time to try to find new living space can cost such a person his/her job. Affordable – or “affordable” – housing is often located far from work, with poor public transit options in many or most cities. We get repeated examples of people evicted because of the actions of someone else. One woman is evicted because the police were called to her apartment by a neighbor because her partner was beating her. Another loses what sounds like a perfect apartment because her young son got in a fight and her babysitter asked neighbors if they had any weed. And landlords get away with this because tenants don’t fight back, enforcement of what few rights they have is scarce, and there’s a line of people waiting to get into every apartment the evicted vacate.

In that epilogue, Desmond offers ideas and potential solutions, including universal housing vouchers that can be used anywhere, without discrimination, the way that recipients use food stamps. He speaks of reasonable housing as a fundamental human right, which is how western European governments and societies view it, arguing that “the pursuit of happiness” is impossible without adequate shelter. Desmond also pushes solutions that are, at best, antithetical to the capitalist underpinnings of our society, including broader rent control, without sufficient consideration of the economic consequences of such policies (rent control programs can stifle construction and push landlords to convert rental properties to non-rental ones). He seems to advocate for more public housing, but doesn’t discuss how we can expand the housing stock without repeating the problems of previous housing projects, many of which became unsafe and were razed within 20 years of their construction. His proposed solutions should spark discussion of how to solve the American housing crisis – or, at least, a discussion that there is a housing crisis at all – but seem like they will trade current problems for new ones rather than creating comprehensive solutions that at least consider how the market will react to major policy shifts. That’s a minor issue in a remarkable work that is dedicated more to exposing these problems to the wider audience, to bringing people in distress out of the shadows and into the public consciousness, because without that there won’t even be a conversation about how best to help them in an economy that still places a high value on the rights of private property owners.

I listened to the audio version of Evicted, which is narrated by actor Dion Graham, whose voice will be familiar to fans of The Wire. Graham does a masterful job of bringing the various characters to life with just subtle changes in tone – and treats these people, who are largely less educated and less articulate than, say, Graham himself is, with respect. It would be easy to caricature these underprivileged tenants, but Graham’s renditions infuse them with the quiet dignity they deserve, so that the listener may feel sorrow or pity for them, but not scorn.

Next up: Thomas Stribling’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Store. I’m about 60 pages in, and while the story is moving along, the casual racism in the writing – Stribling was from Alabama, set the novel in Florence, and has it taking place shortly after the Civil War – is appalling.

Not a Scientist.

Dave Levitan’s 2017 book Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science couldn’t have come at a better time … or a worse one, I guess, if you’re at all rational-minded and believe that science is real and should inform policy decisions on science. Levitan’s book looks at the various ways our elected officials – really, our elected Republican officials in nearly every example in this book – either ignore science to suit their goals or twist it to justify bad decisions. He wrote the book last year, but it was published this spring, so while our Dear Leader doesn’t figure much directly in the meat of the book, Levitan has added an introduction to at least address the topic of anti-science, which is only growing in importance as the United States continues to cede any leadership role on global issues like climate change and ocean acidification.

This quick read will be pleasant enough for right-minded people who accept facts as they are, but it won’t tell you much you don’t already know. Levitan identifies about a dozen different tricks pols use to ignore scientific realities that interfere with their plans, and you won’t be surprised at the names that appear or the topics under discussion. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe – I’d identify these guys as Republicans, but you know they all are – makes various appearances for his climate denial, since he’s in the pocket of the oil and gas industries and gladly ignores the evidence that man-made activities are warming the planet or that fracking is harmful. Trump and Michelle Bachman both appear for their vaccine denialism. Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee also appear on climate denial. Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell both pushed the “global cooling” hoax – which was never a scientific consensus or proven hypothesis of any sort – as part of their denialism. Mo Brooks (Alabama) pushed some anti-science nonsense about immigrants spreading deadly diseases to justify his xenophobia. Rick Santorum appears for his bogus arguments against an EPA standard aimed at reducing mercury pollution in the water and air. George W. Bush gets quite a bit of ink here for the reasons he used for cutting funding for basic research. There are, to be fair, a couple of Democrats in here, including former DEA head Chuck Rosenberg, who threw out some serious bullshit on the topic of marijuana to try to rationalize the government’s treatment of it as a drug as dangerous as cocaine or meth. Even Barack Obama gets a little smackdown, although in his case, his error was overstating the benefits of a scientific endeavor, the Human Genome Project.

The readers who would really benefit from Not a Scientist are the folks least likely to read it: The politicians I just mentioned and all of the people who vote for them. Science is not subject to your personal approval. Vaccines work, life evolved from a single common ancestor, the climate is warming and it’s our fault, GMOs are safe, chemtrails are fake. You don’t get a vote on any of this – but you do get to vote every November, and many people (probably not many of you specifically) vote for candidates who publicly disavow or attempt to discredit settled science, all in the name of pursuing other policy goals. Their words and actions put everyone at risk – literally everyone, when it comes to climate change, and more than just humans, but coral reefs, tropical frogs, even many microorganisms whose roles in the global ecosystem we don’t even yet understand. This stuff matters, much more than whether two men living 2500 miles away from you get a piece of paper that says they’re married, but the Republican Party of 2017 has got everyone convinced that gays and ISIS are the real threats and climate change is some sort of progressive hoax. People who don’t get this, who vote for Inhofe and McConnell and Brooks and Rubio and of course the guy in the White House, need to read Not a Scientist. But they won’t, and their celebrations last November and this past January were just another nail in our collective coffins.

If this stuff bothers you as much as it does me, check out 314 Action, a new nonpartisan science-advocacy group that encourages more STEM professionals to run for political office so that we get voices in Washington DC and every state capital who speak out in favor of science and fact.

The Blue Sweater.

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of a non-profit called Acumen, which funds and encourages poverty-reduction efforts that work like business endeavors rather than aid dumps. Foreign aid itself is, in general, not very useful, and often nothing more than a way to prop up corrupt third-world regimes; the U.S. is slated to send out $42 billion in foreign aid in FY2017, but there’s little to no information on how well it works – something like an ROI, for eample. Novogratz has spent over three decades working in the developing world, including substantial time in Rwanda both before and after that country’s civil war and genocide, and her 2009 memoir, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, chronicles some of her work – but also has an unfortunate tendency to show her inability to escape her own privilege when describing the people she’s met and places where she’s worked.

The book works as part memoir – Novogratz has lived an incredible life, not least of which is the incredible story of the titular sweater, which she gave away to a donation outlet while in high school only to find a boy wearing the sweater ten years later in Rwanda – and part plea for a more sensible, rational approach to helping alleviate poverty. Novogratz details projects in multiple countries, from creating jobs for women in central Africa to developing mosquito nets that don’t lose effectiveness to expanding access to cataract surgery in India, where a small upfront investment coupled with some expertise led to a substantial return, particularly in economic growth for people who had no opportunities beyond subsistence farming and in improving health and sanitation conditions. (If you’re poor, and you’re not healthy or don’t have access to clean water, you’re much more likely to stay poor, since you can’t work if you’re sick and then can’t pay for the care to get well.)

Her individual anecdotes tend to be pretty compelling, in part because Novogratz has worked in some areas that were either desperately poor or were caught up in conflicts. One of Novogratz’ close colleagues in Rwanda was killed, perhaps assassinated, for pushing women’s rights, and another, mentioned above, ended up a leader in the genocide. She runs into surprising interference from women in Africa who resent her presence – that local men will listen to her, a white woman from the west, but not to local women, even if they boast some western education. Getting money isn’t a problem per se; it’s getting it from donors who are willing to think small, who’ll accept modest goals that people on the ground can achieve, rather than lofty goals (let’s end hunger! Let’s cure AIDS!) that are unattainable. It’s the idea behind sites like GlobalGiving, where the projects are small but the objectives clear and reasonable.

Novogratz speaks of her work in these countries with two voices, one of which tends to undermine the other. When speaking about the actual plans and execution, she sounds like a businessperson, keeping others accountable, asking questions that an investor in a startup might ask, and ensuring that money is going to where it will do some lasting good. But when she starts to talk about the locals in Rwanda, Pakistan, Brazil, and elsewhere, or to describe the places themselves, she sounds like a tourist. Everyone is beautiful, every color is radiant, everyone is so nice, even the ones who turn out to be corrupt or, in one case, associated with the genocide (and later imprisoned for her role). There’s a strain in travel literature where the white westerner fetishizes the natives of developing countries, and that’s on display here. I can’t doubt Novogratz’ sincerity, and it sounds like she’s tough on locals who come in for microloans with half-formed plans, but she appears to have met a long string of perfect and handsome people while traveling the world. The stories themselves are interesting, and I salute the sacrifices she’s made to live this life and try to improve the world, but The Blue Sweater doesn’t do enough to convince the reader that this is the right way to help the world’s poor.

Next up: I’m still several books behind in reviews, but I’m currently reading Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

Everything is Obvious.

Duncan Watts’ book Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us fits in well in the recent string of books explaining or demonstrating how the way we think often leads us astray. As with Thinking Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Watts’ book highlights some specific cognitive biases, notably our overreliance on what we consider “common sense,” lead us to false conclusions, especially in the spheres of the social sciences, with clear ramifications in the business and political worlds as well as some strong messages for journalists who always seek to graft narratives on to facts as if the latter were inevitable outcomes.

The argument from common sense is one of the most frequently seen logical fallacies out there – X must be true because common sense says it’s true. But common sense itself is, of course, inherently limited; our common sense is the result of our individual and collective experiences, not something innate given to us by God or contained in our genes. Given the human cognitive tendency to assign explanations to every event, even those that are the result of random chance, this is a recipe for bad results, whether it’s the fawning over a CEO who had little or nothing to do with his company’s strong results or top-down policy prescriptions that lead to billions in wasted foreign aid.

Watts runs through various cognitive biases and illusions that you may have encountered in other works, although a few of them were new to me, like the Matthew Effect, by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. According to the theory behind it, the Matthew Effect argues that success breeds success, because it means those people get greater opportunities going forward. A band that has a hit album will get greater airplay for its next record, even if that isn’t as good as the first one, or markedly inferior to an album released on the same day by an unknown artist. A good student born into privilege will have a better chance to attend a fancy-pants college, like, say, Harfurd, and thus benefits further from having the prestigious brand name on his resume. A writer who has nearly half a million Twitter followers might find it easier to land a deal for a major publisher to produce his book, Smart Baseball, available in stores now, and that major publisher then has the contacts and resources to ensure the book is reviewed in critical publications. It could be that the book sells well because it’s a good book, but I doubt it.

Watts similarly dispenses with the ‘great man theory of history’ – and with history in general, if we’re being honest. He points out that historical accounts will always include judgments or information that was not available to actors at the time of these events, citing the example of a soldier wandering around the battlefield in War and Peace, noticing that the realities of war look nothing like the genteel paintings of battle scenes hanging in Russian drawing rooms. He asks if the Mona Lisa, which wasn’t regarded as the world’s greatest painting or even its most famous until it was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian nationalist before World War II, ascended to that status because of innate qualities of the painting – or if circumstances pushed it to the top, and only after the fact do art experts argue for its supremacy based on the fact that it’s already become the Mona Lisa of legend. In other words, the Mona Lisa may be great simply because it’s the Mona Lisa, and perhaps had the disgruntled employee stolen another painting, da Vinci’s masterpiece would be seen as just another painting. (His description of seeing the painting for the first time mirrored my own: It’s kind of small, and because it’s behind shatterproof glass, you can’t really get close it.)

Without directly referring to it, Watts also perfectly describes the inexcusable habit of sportswriters to assign huge portions of the credit for team successes to head coaches or managers rather than distributing the credit across the entire team or even the organization. I’ve long used the example of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks as a team that won the World Series in spite of the best efforts of its manager, Bob Brenly, to give the series away – repeatedly playing small ball (like bunting) in front of Luis Gonzalez, who’d hit 57 homers that year, and using Byung-Hyun Kim in save situations when it was clear he wasn’t the optimal choice. Only the superhuman efforts by Randy Johnson and That Guy managed to save the day for Arizona, and even then, it took a rare misplay by Mariano Rivera and a weakly hit single to an open spot on the field for the Yanks to lose. Yet Brenly will forever be a “World Series-winning manager,” even though there’s no evidence he did anything to make the win possible. Being present when a big success happens can change a person’s reputation for a long time, and then future successes may be ascribed to that person even if he had nothing to do with them.

Another cognitive bias Watts discusses, the Halo Effect, seems particularly relevant to my work evaluating and ranking prospects. First named by psychologist Edward Thorndike, the Halo Effect refers to our tendency to apply positive impressions of a person, group, or company to their other properties or characteristics, so we might subconsciously consider a good-looking person to be better at his/her job. For example, do first-round draft picks get greater considerations from their organizations when it comes to promotions or even major-league opportunities? Will an org give such a player more time to work out of a period of non-performance than they’d give an eighth-rounder? Do some scouts rate players differently, even if it’s entirely subconscious, based on where they were drafted or how big their signing bonuses were? I don’t think I do this directly, but my rankings are based on feedback from scouts and team execs, so if their own information – including how teams internally rank their prospects – is affected by the Halo Effect, then my rankings will be too, unless I’m actively looking for it and trying to sieve it out.

Where I wish Watts had spent even more time was in describing the implications of these ideas and research for government policies, especially foreign aid, most of which would be just as productive if we flushed it all down those overpriced Pentagon toilets. Foreign aid tends to go to where the donors, whether private or government, think it should go, because the recipients are poor but the donors know how to fix it. In reality, this money rarely spurs any sort of real change or economic growth, because the common-sense explanation – the way to fix poverty is to send money and goods to poor people – never bothers to examine the root causes of the problem the donors want to solve, asking the targets what they really need, examining and removing obstacles (e.g., lack of infrastructure) that might require more time and effort to fix but prevent the aid from doing any good. Sending a boat full of food to a country in the grip of a famine only makes sense if you have a way to get the food to the starving people, but if the roads are bad, dangerous, or simply don’t exist, then that food will sit in the harbor until it rots or some bureaucrat sells it.

Everything Is Obvious is aimed at a more general audience than Thinking Fast and Slow, as its text is a little less dense and it contains fewer and shorter descriptions of research experiments. Watts refers to Kahneman and his late reseach partner Amos Tversky a few times, as well as other researchers in the field, so it seems to me like this book is meant as another building block on the foundation of Kahneman’s work. I think it applies to all kinds of areas of our lives, even just as a way to think about your own thinking and to try to help yourself avoid pitfalls in your financial planning or other decisions, but it’s especially apt for folks like me who write for a living and should watch for our human tendency to try to ascribe causes post hoc to events that may have come about as much due to chance as any deliberate factors.