More scientific puffery at The New Yorker

April 6, 2019 • 12:30 pm

I’ve often carped about the New Yorker‘s science writing (see here and here, for instance), something that became a pet peeve when it published Siddhartha Mukherjee’s wonky ideas about epigenetics and then refused to correct them after many famous geneticists called it to their attention.   After I was getting tired of its attempt to wrap every subject in baroque and orotund prose, including science, I finally gave up my subscription when its self-important editor, David Remnick, caved in to public pressure and disinvited Steve Bannon from the New Yorker Festival (writer Malcolm Gladwell dissented). The magazine was also becoming increasingly Woke, as its target audience, rich Leftists, wanted the rag to flaunt more virtue.

But I still have a stack of back issues, and have been working my way through them, feeling most of the time that canceling my subscription was the right thing to do. For one thing, I can read a lot more books.  On the plane to Amsterdam, I read the January 14 issue, which included this article by Jerome Groopman, a staff writer and physician. It’s a review of a new book, Nine Pints: A Journey Through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood, by Rose George, which describes the history of research on blood, starting with ancient mythology through the first transfusions and on to modern knowledge. The book sounds good, but Groopman has to trick out his review, à la New Yorker style, with irrelevant flourishes. You can read the article, which does contain some fascinating facts, by clicking on the link below.

Perhaps I’m being captious here, but after reading the article, a piece that recounts some good history of science and interesting medical facts (the account of Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation is fascinating), it winds up saying that the Big Mystery of Blood remains. Yet what that “profound mystery” actually is is never elucidated.

Groopman begins with a literary flourish, referring to Leviticus:

During my training as a hematologist at U.C.L.A., forty years ago, a senior faculty member introduced the program of study by citing a verse from Leviticus: “The life of the flesh is in the blood.” For the assembled young physicians, this was a biological truth. Red cells carry oxygen, required for our heart to beat and our brain to function. White cells defend us against invasion by lethal pathogens. Platelets and proteins in plasma form clots that can prevent fatal hemorrhages. Blood is constantly being renewed by stem cells in our bone marrow: red cells turn over every few months, platelets and most white cells every few days. Since marrow stem cells spawn every kind of blood cell, they can, when transplanted, restore life to a dying host.

. . . and, in a literary trope of circularity, Groopman also ends his piece with Leviticus. But what on earth is the “oldest, most profound mystery of blood.” Groopman’s last sentence, which says that “the life of the flesh” could also mean “the soul of the flesh” in Hebrew, doesn’t clarify things a bit.

Last month, in San Diego, the American Society of Hematology had its annual meeting. The program featured new discoveries about blood’s biology and accounts of recent advances in patient treatments—including an alternative to chemotherapy for one of the most common and incurable forms of leukemia. But, even as the field probes ever more deeply into the ways that blood serves living tissues, my colleagues and I are no closer to unravelling the oldest, most profound mystery of blood. In the verse from Leviticus, the word nefesh, translated as “life,” also means soul.

This is an example of how not to write popular science: ending with a claim that The Big Mystery Still Remains. This is how the magazine’s penchant for the humanities at the expense for science actually corrupts the science in an almost metaphysical direction. For how else can you interpret “the oldest, most profound mystery of blood”? Clearly, science will not suffice.


As an addendum, here’s how Groopman (and the New Yorker itself) often present the Jesus myth as if it were literally true, with no doubt cast upon it:

Yet, despite the firm proscription against ingesting blood, one breakaway Jewish sect of the first century A.D. made the idea of doing so central to its rituals. Its leader, Jesus of Nazareth, told his disciples that the bread and the wine at the Last Supper were his body and blood, and should be consumed thereafter in memory of him. The ritual of the Eucharist became a cornerstone of early Christianity, and with it the doctrine of transubstantiation—that a literal, not just figurative, transformation occurred during the sacrament.

Here we see the credulous acceptance that Jesus of Nazareth not only existed, but was leader of a Jewish sect, as well as the implication that the Last Supper really did happen. Where is the “reportedly” that should occur at least twice in this paragraph?

31 thoughts on “More scientific puffery at The New Yorker

  1. Three out of four gospels agree, wine is Jesus blood. Three out of four ain’t bad. (Sorry Meat Loaf.)

    1. Eucharist bread would make sorry meatloaf indeed 🤮.

      Lame jokes aside, a decent book about blood is Bill Hayes’ “Five Quarts”, part medical history, part memoir, with a focus on being a gay man during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Hayes (the late, great Oliver Sacks’ partner) is not a scientist or doctor but is a great writer.

    2. Does this mean Jesus was permanently pissed?**

      That would explain quite a lot…


      (** ‘Pissed’ in the English sense of ‘plastered’, though I guess the ‘Murican connotation – which we would render in English as ‘pissed off’ – could fit as well)

      1. Wouldn’t you be if you could turn water into wine? Of course one must ask, Merlot? Pinot Noir? Cabernet?

        1. You’d be pissed (EN_US sense) if you could turn water into wine but preferred beer.

        1. Without digging out the lyrics from somewhere, I don’t think there was one of the philosophers who wasn’t well on the lubricated side of sober.

    1. There will be a big duck post tomorrow. I returned to find that Honey had CHANGED MATES since I went to Europe (the strumpet!), and the new one looks like James, but I can’t tell. I’m still pretty sure it’s her, and the pair are well ensconced in the pond and eating well. About two weeks to ducklings, or so I estimate.

  2. I quite liked the Groopman article,some fascinating stories, but had some reservations here and there. You point out exactly where.

  3. Jerry has given up a subscription to the New Yorker. I gave up a subscription to New Scientist, and Scientific American and National Geographic have both lost some credibility in my opinion.

    I see a theme developing… perhaps there are too many journalists trained in the humanities chasing too few jobs, displacing journalists trained in science. But the well turned phrase is not a substitute for rigour.

    1. Rupert Murdoch purchased National Geographic, so I expected it to decline. SciAm, not so much.

    2. …and I sent Jerry an email asking about a couple of articles I saw promoted in the New Scientist. I don’t have a subscription, but I did get these emails offering these articles, one about Free Will, and the other was about the value of religion. But to see these articles I’d have to subscribe, and I don’t want to.

      (Shucks, I don’t believe in Free Will and I don’t think the New Scientist will have an argument that converts me. As for the value of religion, I think the harm religion does outweighs the social benefits.)

      I hate to see woo replacing Real Science. I do have a subscription to the New Yorker which I got several years ago. So far I haven’t unsubbed because I see things that I think are worth reading.

      But I hate to see Science getting degraded…

  4. A sizable part of the article could be called examples of ignorance and religion on the subject of blood. Maybe where the blank mind goes when science is not available. The practice of bloodletting was very popular by early doctors and very likely led to the death of George Washington.

  5. Groopman’s been writing about medicine for quite awhile now. Perhaps he’s grown bored and is drawn to unconventional prose on that account.

    1. It is long known that blood groups play a role in resistance to diseases.
      Eg. Bloodgroup O gives resistance to Syphilis, while it makes one more susceptible to Cholera, at least as far as severity of these diseases go.
      TB is more prevalent in those with bloodgroup AB and B.
      Although we certainly do not know everything, we do have some knowledge on the molecular level, the mechanism.
      The cause/purpose is not that mysterious: it is part of the ongoing fight against infectious disease.

    2. One of the simplest ways to approach that question is to employ a phylogenetic bracket. Find a pair of animal species, one of which has blood-group-like cell surface chemistry, and one of which doesn’t. The origin of blood grouping is (most likely) somewhere between the last common ancestor of the two species, and the current blood-grouped species. Lather, rinse and repeat to track the origins down.
      I recall that back in the approximate era of Landstein (first decades of the 20th century) people discovered by blood-clotting reactions that the closest relatives of whales were actually hippopotami … to considerable confusion. This has since been confirmed by a much wider data set, from palaeontology to genetics.
      Corollary – blood grouping originated with the mammals, if not earlier, though what goes on in the bloodstreams of platypodes (platypussies?, platypii?) and echidnas … is a good question.
      Establishing the presence of blood-group-like chemistry in avian dinosaurs would of course, render the question about monotremes moot.
      “When” is not an answer to “why”, but it might be a more approachable question.

  6. I’ve always enjoyed Groopman’s articles in the New York Review of Books. Perhaps his last paragraph in this article is making a sort of joke. In other words, he and his colleagues will never solve that mystery since there’s no such thing as the soul. It is an article with lot’s of historical references so the Bible qualifies. I will admit that it’s a bit lame.

  7. Well, as any aficionado of horror movies knows, there’s nothing better than *blood* to create the right atmosphere.

    I’d call that a mystical function. Or maybe just a literary one.


  8. Regarding what they mystery part is – my guess is this?

    Bloodlines. Blood brothers. Blood feud. We still think of blood as what makes tribal identity cohere. The inquisitors in Spain defined race by blood, as did Southern slave owners and Nazi eugenicists. The current resurgence of nativism brings the jingoistic fixation on “blood and soil” to the fore, stoked by the likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Steve Bannon. As George puts it, “We fear blood, still, despite our science and understanding, and we look to blood to tell us who we should fear.”

    Blood is figurative and emotional, too: our blood “boils” when we’re angry, “chills” when we’re afraid, “curdles” when we’re threatened. Such primitive associations appear to be impervious to advances in scientific understanding. ….

    I’m not sure why this is particularly mysterious though, as it points mostly to the idea that blood is highly archetypal to people in a variety of ways. Skeletons and bones are as well, but to call that ‘mysterious’ would be an uncommon use of the word. Things like carbohydrate cravings are a ‘mystery’, to my mind (We had no access to them while we were evolving, so how did they mentally override all of the foods we did evolve with in such a short period of time? Is it true that they are responsible for our giant modern brains, or is that a fanciful new theory?). Archetypes surrounding blood would be better described as ‘enigmatic’ or ‘ethereal’, I think. There’s no specific question there waiting for a tangible answer, it’s just that people’s associations with it are somewhat inscrutable all around.

  9. I finally gave up my subscription when its self-important editor, David Remnick, caved in to public pressure and disinvited Steve Bannon from the New Yorker Festival …

    I recall back in the Nineties that New Yorker subscriber stayed away in droves (to employ a Sam Goldwynism) when that parvenu Tina Brown took over the editorship after sixty-odd years of Harold Ross and William Shawn.

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