Minis Roundup: Pop Science and Psychology

Because my blogging has reached new productivity lows, I’m trying to at least gather some thoughts on the past year’s reading. Trying!

As I mentioned, I continued to read most heavily this year in the area of pop science and psychology. It’s time to accept that I’ll never get around to full reviews for these. Still, I’d love to point you to some you may like or haven’t heard about if I can. (Still determined to do a full post on the Offit books because oh man, he deserves it.)

Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, by Esther Perel (Used/new – I absolutely loved The State of Affairs – it changed some of my very long-held thinking and perspectives significantly. But this fell flat. An examination of the struggle between domesticity and sexual passion, it had a few interesting moments or ideas but didn’t feel nearly as developed and insightful as that book. The individual case studies felt very two dimensional and not as realistic as the scenarios people were working through in Affairs. Maybe that’s not fair to say – of course a lack of passion in a relationship is a problem. But I mean that these felt like very Cosmo-magazine type of problems as opposed to serious moral dilemmas with deep psychological roots and life-altering consequences. I really admire Perel and her work and the realistic way she frames issues and solutions, but I found this pretty forgettable overall.

The Genome Odyssey: Medical Mysteries and the Incredible Quest to Solve Them, by Euan Angus Ashley (Used/new Katie @ Doing Dewey reviewed this one far better than I could. I think it would help to have a better prior knowledge foundation to tackle this, as much of it whooshed over my head. Which disappointed me, because the topic — of specific cases where cutting-edge advances in genomic medicine are able to solve medical mysteries, couldn’t be more fascinating. As the author points out, genome sequencing has already come so far, with its costs reduced and capabilities expanded exponentially just in the last decade — a “staggering reduction in cost [which] has fueled a tsunami of scientific discovery and has given the medical profession an unparalleled opportunity to change lives for the better.” The promise of precision medicine and the wealth of information available in each individual’s genome is dizzying, and it’s so exciting to realize we’re on the cusp of life-changing medical breakthroughs.

Especially considering that “genomic medicine actually saves money — which is worth emphasizing as we try to help more families. Patients with undiagnosed disease are among the largest contributors to health care expenditure. Whereas genome sequencing currently costs under $1000, it costs $10,000 to spend one day in the intensive care unit — which is where undiagnosed patients all too frequently end up.” There’s a lot of promise and interesting stories here, but it’s not the most accessible for a lay reader.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, by Carl Zimmer (Used/new – More in my quest to better understand this topic, and building on how much I loved the first Zimmer book I read, I tried this one. I think it required greater focus than I had available while reading it, but Zimmer is a master storyteller and managed to frame a lot of historical stories in hereditary in a very entertaining way. The science itself was a bit too heavy for the kind of reading I wanted to do though. I’m beginning to accept that might always be the case for me in this topic and I’d rather stick to narratives about historical scientific discoveries and developments. Zimmer is great here, and the history was the biggest highlight — it’s very worthwhile for that.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande (Used/new – I don’t often try to push books by saying it’s one every human being should read, but I can’t imagine a better example than this. I both wish I’d read this a long time ago and understand that I couldn’t have read it before I was ready. Gawande, a surgeon, writes absolutely beautifully and affectingly about his experiences in end-of-life care and what emerges as most important as a life draws to a close. He uses cases from patients as well as his fellow medical professionals. I especially liked the reframing he’s suggesting for what medicine actually is and what we use it for. There’s a lot to think about here and I feel grateful to know all of this now. I also feel a little better prepared, or at least aware of exactly how to become so. It’s incredibly helpful as well as deeply moving, but also one to steel yourself for. When you’re ready, I promise it will be one of the most moving and important books you can ever read.

Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Jennifer L. Eberhardt (Used/new – Stanford psychologist, MacArthur Fellow, and implicit bias expert Eberhardt’s examination of the cognitive biases and unconscious prejudices that comprise implicit bias, particularly racial bias, is a fantastic, eye-opening study. It’s also a perfect blend of the scientific and the personal — Eberhardt knows exactly when to use a telling personal anecdote to illustrate a point. She’s both a researcher and a consultant, including for law enforcement, which makes her perspective from a data-driven standpoint as well a personal one so valuable.

Especially interesting is that Eberhardt identifies our current issues as the persistence of stereotypes over overt racist beliefs. The scientific reasoning behind this is so illuminating: Eberhardt shows, for example, how researchers have learned that our brains are more active while looking at faces from our own race, meaning we’re taking down more details that help us differentiate these people, and inadvertently leading to why we aren’t able to properly identify people of other races — a major issue when it comes to IDing crime suspects, for example.

She explains that our brains are constantly grouping and that’s how we make sense of our world and what’s a threat and what’s a friend or member of our own social group. So even if consciously we’re aware of racist attitudes and actively work not to allow them into our thinking, our brains are doing a different kind of work, using stereotypes to influence perception.

What I found exceptional is how adept Eberhardt is at using her own personal lived and observed examples to illustrate concepts. Her story of an encounter with police the day before her doctoral graduation from Harvard is chilling and strongly underscores the points she makes here.

Her advice is that we have to recognize and acknowledge biases, and where that work is being done, instead of just implementing diversity and assuming it’s automatically enough, change is also happening. Bias is inherent and there’s not much we can do about that — she shows how even her Black son exhibited bias against a Black man, in an example that really struck me — but we can better understand how it works and from there, what we can do to mitigate the damage.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan (Used/new – I think what I really wanted was to be able to read The God Delusion again for the first time and for some reason I thought this was similar.

This is a book I know I’m going to have to reread because I didn’t get everything from it the first time around. I’m not sure if that’s even possible here. It felt denser than I would’ve liked, but that’s probably my own struggles with understanding science unless you explain it reeeaaaally slowly and clearly (no small thanks to the US school science curricula, subject of an utterly shocking chapter here: however behind you think we are in this subject in a global comparison, it’s way worse than that. No, worse; keep going lower).

I loved the overall message: that we owe children something better than stories about ghosts, demons, monsters, aliens, cryptids and whatever else, namely a solid foundation in skepticism, questioning, performing analysis, and evaluating evidence. It should never be the case that people are much better primed to accept “miracles” and otherworldly phenomena over logical, evidence-based scenarios and scientific research. And yet.

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach (Used/new – Now for something much lighter: Beloved science writer Mary Roach delves into human-animal interactions that have ended in crime.

I didn’t love this. She’s undoubtedly a charming writer, very funny, and an excellent science translator/communicator, but the reason why I haven’t read anything of hers yet other than Spook is that the topics really don’t much appeal to me. Like they pique zero interest whatsoever. Which was my major problem here. I just had a hard time getting interested enough in any of it. Her humor is the major plus, as are the couple of factoids here and there I’m glad to have learned.

But also a lot of it is just really sad, because as usual it’s more examples of how humans screw up nature and then kill everything that’s getting in our way now that we screwed it up. Blergh. No amount of humor in the world was enough to cushion that message.


14 thoughts on “Minis Roundup: Pop Science and Psychology

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  1. Being Mortal was a life changer for me. Literally. We retired, sold our home and 75% of our possessions and moved from Nebraska to Oregon to live with my 83-year-old mother. I think the book should be required reading of all adults.

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    1. What a cool career, yay him!! I definitely think he’d enjoy it — actually I could see someone in his field absolutely being the best target readership for it, it has some really good, insightful information that should be extra meaningful to someone in the thick of it!

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  2. Great short reviews that still get the books across! I am struggling a bit with How to Read Water as it’s way too dense and information-packed for me at the moment. One chapter at a time … There are so many books on bias at the moment, the two I read agree with that one on stereotyping vs overt racism.

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    1. That makes me so happy to hear, that I could at least get something of them across despite some brevity! I find end of the year is always a tough time for something too dense, maybe best to put that one aside until the holiday season is past…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. How amazing that’s what you’re studying, I don’t think I realized that!! Such an important field. Being Mortal is incredibly important, and what I loved most was his reframing of how we look at medicine and what it means to us. We tend to have such a rigid view of what it is and does but he really turns that around. It feels so important!

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  3. I can’t believe it’s taken me as long as it has to get to reading this post! You’ve reviewed so many books I’ve enjoyed or would like to read.

    I also loved Perel’s The State of Affairs, so I’m sorry to hear her earlier book didn’t work as well for you. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical of the topics of both of her books, since I felt they might present having an affair in such a sympathetic light that I wouldn’t have much patience for them. I think that’s part of why I’ve not yet gotten to her first book.

    Thanks for the link to my review of The Genome Odyssey! I’m guessing your review will be more helpful to most readers. Since the book covered stuff that I work on, I was really excited to see them cover some of the sequencing technologies other than the one everyone uses now, but looking back, I can see that all those research dead-ends are one of several reasons this book could be hard to follow.

    I’m really glad you’ve gotten me into reading Zimmer. I really enjoyed Her Mother’s Laugh and I thought Life’s Edge was even better. He collects such incredible stories and tells them so well!

    I’d also push Being Mortal at most people and will probably re-read it myself! I’ve not yet followed his advice on the type of directives people should have prepared, so a revisit is in order.

    I agree with everything you said about Biased and I’ve not yet read the Sagan. Physics is definitely less my thing, so I’m not sure I’ve read anything of his yet.

    And I’m sad to hear Mary Roach doesn’t do it for you! I am interested in most of the topics she covers, but I also find that her humor and personal approach to the topics is enough to get me interested in even topics I’m not so excited about.

    Ah, what a great post! Sorry for the long reply. I’m just so excited to chat about all of these books 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading through it! I really had so much fun chatting with you about so many of these too, I’m thrilled that we could 🙂

      Like you I was skeptical about the topic of State of Affairs (it was your review that convinced me!) and I think that’s part of why I loved it so much, it really challenged my own beliefs and gave me very different perspectives to consider. I went into this one expecting more of the same and it just felt so Cosmo magazine-y and thin compared to what I consider much heftier topics in her second one. It had a few good ideas but was overall not very helpful and pretty forgettable.

      I also haven’t yet followed his advice in Being Mortal, but I want to revisit it too, and at least be keeping some of these ideas in mind.

      I loved chatting about the Zimmer books with you – he really does have a knack for collecting the most interesting and exciting stories and making me feel really enthused about a topic! I feel like I don’t encounter that enough with authors that write these multi-story style histories. He’s such a gem.

      Physics isn’t my thing at all either, and I don’t think his book was necessarily super-heavy on the physics angle, but it was just something about his style in general that I found a bit tougher reading. I still really liked that one though, and I held onto my copy because I’d like to revisit again too. He’s clearly a brilliant thinker and deserves a closer reading than what I was able to devote to it that month, I think 🙂

      I picked up used copies of Mary Roach’s Stiff and Gulp at my neighborhood thrift store to force me to try them after hearing so many glowing recommendations – these two were a bit closer to my interests and I do love her style for the most part, topics aside. She’s such a great science communicator!


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