Hephzibah Anderson: A lesson in Bad Science and stories from Zadie Smith and friends, among others, in this week's paperback picks.
The opposite of innovation
A lesson in Bad Science and stories from Zadie Smith and friends, among others, in this week's paperback picks, as reviewed by Hephzibah Anderson.
Bad Science Ben Goldacre Fourth Estate Dh86
Dr Ben Goldacre is furious. The target of his rage? All things "sciencey". Or more precisely, the sciencey-sounding claims on food supplements and skincare products, the sciencey-looking experiments taught in schools, the sciencey-seeming reports swallowed whole and then regurgitated by journalists. Yes, Goldacre is angry, but more than that, he's concerned - concerned that pseudoscience will part us from our good sense, our hard-earned cash and possibly even our health, plus undermine and drive out out real, solid science.
As such, Bad Science is the book equivalent of a stern talking-to from a parent or teacher - or perhaps a doctor, which is of course exactly what Goldacre is. Beginning by demolishing the hallowed detox phenomenon (with its footbaths, foot patches and ear candles), he moves on to tackle homoeopathy, our obsession with antioxidants and fish oil pills, and health scares. Along the way, he questions the "medicalisation" of everyday life, exposes the tricks used by the pharmaceutical industry to hoodwink doctors and patients both and probes the wacky history of quackery and assorted anti-science movements.
The British media's favourite nutritionist, Dr Gillian McKeith, gets a chapter all to herself, and it isn't very flattering. Other highlights include an exploration of the placebo effect, which turns out to be far more complex than you might imagine, and entangled in some fascinating ethical quandaries. And then there is the chapter on the MMR vaccine, widely suggested to be a cause of autism. Goldacre suggests that the story was cynically driven onto front pages by editors,and in fact rests on a series of claims that are either misleading or simply untrue.
One of the book's recurring themes is our own willingness to be duped. As Goldacre comments apropos the detox industry, "pseudoscience isn't something done to us, by venal and exploitative outsiders: it is a cultural product, a recurring theme, and we do it to ourselves." Though we should know better, time and again we fall for the seductive promises of quacks in various guises. We all know, for instance, that moisturiser's crucial ingredient is water, and that a cheap tub bestows pretty much the same benefits as a costlier jar. Still, the cosmetics industry continues to flog its most expensive wares successfully. As Goldacre sees it, the advertisements that peddle these high-end lotions and potions simultaneously "sell the idea that science is incomprehensible".
A key mission of this fervent book is to disprove that notion. Goldacre stresses that science is about the relationship between theory and evidence; to that extent it is simple. At the same time, he says that if he could pick a promotional T-shirt for the enterprise, it would read "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that." Not the snappiest slogan, but Goldacre's point is this: while science is not impenetrable, the story behind anything from miracle cures to vaccination scares tends to be more complicated than many media renderings suggest. Ultimately, his aim is to empower and inspire us to argue back against pseudoscience.
Early on, Goldacre acknowledges that talking to people who disagree with him is one of his favourite leisure activities; highlights from such exchanges pepper his disputatious text. Yet while you'll stumble upon occasional graphs, bar charts and a few footnotes that take up two thirds of a page, Bad Science is always clear, and Goldacre even manages to inject some terse wit. How could he resist, when he's dealing with the likes of face creams stuffed with salmon roe DNA and literature that dubs the tongue "a window to the organs"?
Kennedy's Brain Henning Mankell Vintage Dh46
As an archaeologist, Louise Cantor is used to sifting complex layers and piecing together tiny shards in order to glimpse the full picture. These skills have made her an authority on Grecian urns, but when tragedy rocks her personal life, she finds herself applying them in pursuit of a far deadlier catch. Various men have drifted through her life, but at 54 years old, she has yet to find one who measures up to her cheating ex. Her solace has been their son Henrik, and she stumbles into an abyss of grief after he's found dead, supposedly by his own hand. Refusing to believe that Henrik killed himself, Louise begins doing what she does best: excavating. A photograph of an unknown girlfriend in Mozambique sets her on a trail that leads her way out of her depth, into an Aids-ravaged world where fear and exploitation reign. Henning Mankell has long surfed the crest of the so-called "Scandi crime" wave, and even without a role for his beloved Inspector Wallander, this latest novel confirms him as leader of the pack. It features pretty well everything you'd expect of a first-rate thriller, plus a plucky social conscience that would sink the work of a talent any less deft.
The Book of Other People Edited by Zadie Smith Penguin Dh52
This patchy collection of short stories was pulled together by novelist Zadie Smith, and its contributors include plenty of the hip usual suspects - Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders - along with less expected authors like Colm Tóibín. Its title trumpets its unifying theme, inasmuch as there is one: the bizarre, rich, unknowable oddness of other folk. Spun around pivotal moments and the epiphanies that they prompt, the stories conjure up characters such as an eccentric New Yorker who lives for Chet Baker and burgers, a couple of unhappy wives and several cranky authors. Toby Litt's Monster searches for himself, Chris Ware's graphic story tells of a boy reeling from the loss of his mother and, in Dave Eggers' Theo, a mountain discovers love. Though their focus is character, setting steals the show in a couple of the strongest stories. In Edwidge Danticat's excellent Lele, for instance, small-town Haiti with its frogs and almond trees is an even more forceful presence than the pregnant narrator who leaves her husband. The book benefits a good cause, with proceeds going to 826 NYC, Eggers's non-profit organisation dedicated to helping the readers and writers of tomorrow. But you'll still feel a little cheated by some of these stories, which fairly scream creative writing seminar.
Pashazade Jon Courtenay Grimwood Gollancz Dh52
You're probably familiar with novels that riff on alternate history - those "what if??" stories like Philip Roth's The Plot Against America or Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. This cult thriller takes the notion one step further, spinning an alternate past out into the future. The premise is simple: Germany never lost WWI, and the Ottoman Empire has survived into the 21st century. The novel's backdrop is El Iskandryia, the North African port deemed barbarous by Berlin, feared by the White House and dismissed as decadent by Baghdad. Its hero, Ashraf Bey, is a mystery, not least to himself. Plucked from an American jail and told that the father he's never known is none other than the Emir of Tunis, he becomes the prime suspect in a murder case following the death of his newfound aunt. Suddenly responsible for the welfare of his nine-year-old niece and loathed by the girl he was bethrothed to marry, he turns detective in an effort to find some swift answers. Sci-fi gadgets and gizmos place the story in the future, though not far off, while supernatural elements hark back to classic ghost stories. It's a quirky blend, held together by a steely plot. If this volume hooks you, you'll be happy to know that it is the first in a trilogy, and books two and three are already available.