Elizabeth Holmes found guilty on four counts

January 3, 2022 • 7:00 pm

Well, it looks like con artist Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos and its nonfunctional blood-testing system, is going to jail. That is, unless the judge lets her off on probation when each of the four counts of which she’s convicted carries a maximum twenty-year sentence.

As the New York Times reports, Holmes was found guilty of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. As for the other seven charges, here’s the outcome (from the NYT); “no verdict” means that the jury was deadlocked.

  • Count one of conspiring to commit wire fraud against investors in Theranos between 2010 and 2015: Guilty.

  • Count two of conspiring to commit wire fraud against patients who paid for Theranos’s blood testing services between 2013 and 2016: Not guilty.

  • Count three of wire fraud in connection with a wire transfer of $99,990 on or about Dec. 30, 2013: No verdict.

  • Count four of wire fraud in connection with a wire transfer of $5,349,900 on or about Dec. 31, 2013: No verdict.

  • Count five of wire fraud in connection with a wire transfer of $4,875,000 on or about Dec. 31, 2013: No verdict.

  • Count six of wire fraud in connection with a wire transfer of $38,336,632 on or about Feb. 6, 2014: Guilty.

  • Count seven of wire fraud in connection with a wire transfer of $99,999,984 on or about Oct. 31, 2014:Guilty.

  • Count eight of wire fraud in connection with a wire transfer of $5,999,997 on or about Oct. 31, 2014: Guilty.

  • Count nine was dropped.

  • Count 10 of wire fraud in connection with a patient’s laboratory blood test results on or about May 11, 2015: Not guilty.

  • Count 11 of wire fraud in connection with a patient’s laboratory blood test results on or about May 16, 2015: Not guilty.

  • Count 12 of wire fraud in connection with a wire transfer of $1,126,661 on or about Aug. 3, 2015: Not guilty.

From the NYT:

A jury of eight men and four women took 50 hours to reach a verdict, convicting her of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She was found not guilty on four other counts. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on three counts, which were set aside for later.

Each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, terms that are likely to be served concurrently. Ms. Holmes is expected to appeal.

The verdict stands out for its rarity. Few technology executives are charged with fraud and even fewer are convicted. If sentenced to prison, Ms. Holmes would be the most notable female executive to serve time since Martha Stewart did in 2004 after lying to investigators about a stock sale. And Theranos, which dissolved in 2018, is likely to stand as a warning to other Silicon Valley start-ups that stretch the truth to score funding and business deals.

The mixed verdict suggested that jurors believed the evidence presented by prosecutors that showed Ms. Holmes lied to investors about Theranos’s technology in the pursuit of money and fame. They were not swayed by her defense of blaming others for Theranos’s problems and accusing her co-conspirator, Ramesh Balwani, the company’s chief operating officer and her former boyfriend, of abusing her.

They were also not swayed by the prosecutor’s case that she had defrauded patients. Ms. Holmes was acquitted on four counts related to patients who took Theranos’s blood tests and one related to advertisements that the patients saw.

Holmes’s defense of blaming her actions on mind control by Sunny Balwani particularly galled me, as she constructed her image, and certainly behaved accordingly, as a strong and independent woman.

My prediction was that she’d be convicted (you’ll see an earlier writing, before the verdict was just issued, in tomorrow’s “Hili News), though I thought she’d be convicted on more charges.  Still, in my own view, she needs some jail time to serve as a deterrent to others entrepreneurs who would extract money from people under false pretenses.

To see what she really did, I highly recommend John Carreyrou’s dissection of the whole saga in his 2018 book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. Begun as a reportorial job for the Wall Street Journal, the saga was turned by Carreyrou into a page turner that is endlessly engrossing and won several prizes as well. If you’ll read it, you’ll wonder how Holmes got off so lightly.

lizabeth Holmes | CREDIT: YICHUAN CAO/GETTY IMAGES

Abigail Shrier speaks truth to Princeton

December 9, 2021 • 1:00 pm

I’d forgotten that Abigail Shrier had a Substack column called “The Truth Fairy“, and so I would have missed this wonderful talk (in transcript) had several readers not sent me the link. It is a talk that Shrier gave to a group of students at Princeton, hosted by the Princeton Tory, the Witherspoon Institute, and the Tikvah Fund. It is well worth your time to read this, and will stiffen your resolve against wokeness.

For surely you remember Ms. Shrier, a former writer with the Wall Street Journal and then author of the book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, which I’ve read. It’s an account of the exponential rise in the number of young women and girls who want to transition to becoming transmales; an attempt to explain it partly (but not by any means wholly) as a result of social pressure and mental illness; and a critique of the “affirmation therapy” in which therapists and doctors facilitate these transitions without adequate medical and psychological assessment and supervision.

It’s not a transphobic book, nor is Shrier a transphobe. She is thoughtful and deeply sympathetic to people with gender dysphoria who have given their transitions mature and rational consideration. It is a call for caution towards younger people—women in particular—who might not be getting proper guidance.

For writing this reasonable book, Shrier was demonized, widely called a transphobe (including by the ACLU, one of whose lawyers called for her book to be banned), she’s been disinvited to speak, and major chains wouldn’t carry her book. Science-Based Medicine removed a positive review written about Shrier’s book by Dr. Harriet Hall. I’ve documented much of this on posts on this website.

Here we have Shrier giving the Princeton students the equivalent of a graduation speech: imparting lessons she learned the hard way to try to emphasize the importance of independent thought in a time of liberal conformity. I wish I could reproduce the whole talk, but you can read it by clicking on the screenshot below.

There’s a bit of biography to show how Shrier went down the route to being demonized. First, though, the question she’s answering (all bolding is mine).

The question I get most often—the thing that most interviewers want to know, even when they’re pretending to care about more high-minded things—is:  What’s it like to be so hated?  I can only assume that’s what some of you rubberneckers want to know as well:  What’s it like to be on a GLAAD black list? What’s it like to have top ACLU lawyers come out in favor of banning your book? What’s it like to have prestigious institutions disavow you as an alum? What’s it like to lose the favor of the fancy people who once claimed you as their own?

And then she began writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, and the die was cast:

. . . One of those op-eds inspired a reader to contact me and tell me the story of her teen daughter who was rushing into a sudden gender transition. After trying and failing to find an investigative journalist who wanted the assignment, I took it on myself. My investigations turned into a book called Irreversible Damage.

All of which is to say: I’m not a provocateur. I don’t get a rush from making people angry. You don’t have to be a troll to find yourself in the center of controversy. You need only be two things: effective, and unwilling to back down.

Why am I unwilling to back down? Why wouldn’t I prostrate myself before the petulant mobs who insist that my standard journalistic investigation into a medical mystery—specifically, why so many teen girls were suddenly identifying as transgender and clamoring to alter their bodies—makes me a hater? Why on earth would I have chosen to write this book in the first place and am I glad that I wrote it?

And she says she found it freeing to express her opinion even though it went against the grain of most trans activists. There’s a bit of a confusing discussion of “freedom,” as Shrier appears to be a determinist, and her half-page discussion might have been omitted, for, after discussing how our views are manipulated by outside sources like social media sites and Wikipedia articles, which constitutes neuronal wiring completely compatible with determinism, she says this:

If you form views based on those Wikipedia articles or reports by corrupt fact-checkers, if you act based on them, are you exercising freedom of will? Given that you’ve been spun and prodded along to a pre-determined conclusion by hidden persuaders, perhaps you aren’t. Perhaps you’re left in the same sorry state as the Moor of Venice: toyed with, subverted, manipulated. Acting out someone else’s plan, pointed in the direction that he wants you to walk.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years debating whether this kind of manipulation is at the root of our political divisions, but I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to an even more basic question: how it has interfered with freedom of conscience and ultimately free will.

But she’s strongly questioned whether we even have free will! What she objects to is not unwarranted interference with some dualistic “will,” but unwarranted interference with your brain.

But that doesn’t matter; it’s a small digression in a magnificent talk—but a digression that takes her into territory I inhabit. At any rate, the following words are what’s going to get her into trouble, and the kind of writing that makes me so admire Shrier:

When polled, nearly two out of three Americans (62%) say they are afraid to express an unpopular opinion. That doesn’t sound like a free people in a free country. We are, each day, force-fed falsehoods we are all expected to take seriously, on pain of forfeiting esteem and professional opportunity:

Some men have periods and get pregnant.” “Hard work and objectivity are hallmarks of whiteness.” “Only a child knows her own true gender.”  “Transwomen don’t have an unfair advantage when playing girls’ sports.”

On that final example of a lie, the one about transwomen in girls’ sports, I want you to think for a moment about a young woman here at Princeton. She’s a magnificent athlete named Ellie Marquardt, an all-American swimmer who set an Ivy League record in the 500-meter freestyle event as a freshman. Just before Thanksgiving, Ellie was defeated in the 500-meter, the event she held the record in, by almost 14 seconds [Shrier’s bolding] by a 22 year old biological male at Penn who was competing on the men’s team as recently as November of 2019. That male athlete now holds multiple U.S. records in women’s swimming, erasing the hard work of so many of our best female athletes, and making a mockery of the rights women fought for generations to achieve.

Ellie Marquart swam her heart out for Princeton. When will Princeton fight for her? Where are the student protests to say—enough is enough. When a biological male who has enjoyed the full benefits of male puberty—larger cardiovascular system, 40% more upper body muscle mass, more fast-twitch muscle fiber, more oxygenated blood—decides after three seasons on the men’s team to compete as a woman and smashes the records of the top female swimmers in this country, that is not valor—that’s vandalism.

Where is the outrage? Imagine, for a second, what it must be like to be a female swimmer at Princeton, knowing you must pretend that this is fair—that the NCAA competition is anything other than a joke. Imagine being told to bite your tongue as men lecture you that you just need to swim harder. “Be grateful for your silver medals, ladies, and maybe work harder next time,” is the message. Imagine what that level of repression does to warp the soul.

Now, imagine, instead, the women’s swimmers had all walked out. Imagine they had stood together and said: We will meet any competitor head on. But we will not grant this travesty the honor of our participation. We did not spend our childhoods setting our alarm clocks for 4am every morning, training for hours before and after school, to lend our good names to this fixed fight.

Many of us agree with Shrier (I know I do), but how many of us would say this words, or write these words, publicly? Not many, I warrant.

She goes on to extol and explain the freedom she found in resisting the influences of authoritarians and trans activists (granted, she had no choice about resisting, but resisting did bring her a jolt of endorphin that one wants to experience again). And so a few more excerpts:

I didn’t write Irreversible Damage to be provocative.  In a freer world, nothing in my book would have created controversy. I wrote the book because I knew it was truthful and I believed recording what I found—that there was a social contagion leading many teenage girls to irreversible damage—was the right thing to do. I also believe if I hadn’t written it, thousands more girls would be caught up in an identity movement that was not organic to them but would nonetheless lead them to profound self-harm. But I didn’t write it specifically to stop them. I wrote it simply because it was true.

When I testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee back in March, I started by stating that I am proud to live in an America where gay and transgender Americans live with less stigma and fear than at any point in American history. That is the glory of freedom as well—the chance for adults to live authentic lives and guide their own destinies. And allowing mature adults to make those sorts of choices for themselves is absolutely a requirement of a free society. Yes, you can reject the false, dogmatic insistences of Gender Ideology and still wish to see transgender Americans prosper and flourish and fulfill their dreams in America. I do.

I wrote the book because the story of one mom and her teen daughter compelled me, and so did that of the dozens of other parents who then spoke to me—mothers and fathers who sobbed as they described how their daughters had become caught up in a craze that seemed completely inauthentic to the child, but which they were powerless to arrest.

And a conclusion:

I’m 43, which I realize makes me very old to many of you. But not so long from now, you’ll wake up and be 43 yourselves. And when I look back on my life thus far, it occurs to me that the decisions of which I am most proud—the ones that strike like an unexpected kiss—are not the times when I obeyed the algorithm. They’re the times when I defied it and felt, for a moment, the magic and power of being alive. When I felt, even for an instant, the exquisite joy of not being anyone’s subject. When I had the unmistakable sense that I’ve existed for a purpose, that I stood the chance of leaving the world better than I found it. You don’t get any of that through lock-step career achievement and you certainly don’t get that by being the Left’s star pupil.

You feel that frisson when you choose a person to commit yourself to knowing full well that any marriage may fail; when you bring children into a world where there are no guarantees of their safety or success. When you summon the courage to fashion a life, something that will remain after you are gone. When you speak the truth publicly—with care and lucidity.  And when you say to the world: you cannot buy me with flattery. Purchase my colleagues or classmates at bulk rate. I am not for sale.

Yes, that frisson isn’t in everyone, but some like Shrier are wired to experience it through rebellion, and to sell that experience to others. And perhaps that itself will rewire the brains of the others. But forget the determinism. The fact is that Shrier spoke the truth as she saw it, not realizing what would happen. But when the shitstorm began, she just put up an umbrella and weathered it. And she continues to fight. Moreover, she has a lot to lose here, though it turns out that the damnation she experienced as a supposed “transphobe” actually brought her more attention and a louder microphone. I can echo her words because I have very little to lose by doing so, but I want to echo her words because they bear repeating, and may echo in other people’s brains.

In short, my message to Shrier is, “You go, girl!

A new anti-woke book

November 27, 2021 • 10:30 am

Reader Keith called my attention to a new book by Charles Pincourt “with” James Lindsay, which gives advice on how to actually defeat Wokeness.  It’s published by New Discourses itself, and, as Lindsay notes at the beginning of the podcast below, he has another book coming out shortly, Race Marxism. Charles Pincourt is not a real person, but the pseudonym of somebody who writes the “Woke Dissident” blog on github. Further, Lindsay says in the podcast that he didn’t really co-author this book, which was written wholly by “Pincourt”. Lindsay’s name appears on the cover because he gave comments on the manuscript and published it.

The “field manual” bit reminds me of Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, which was a field guide to combatting faith.

This is a short book: 111 pages, and is $12.49 in paperback. It’s Amazon position is fairly high: 2308 overall. Click on the screenshot just below to go to the Amazon site.

Here’s a 100-minute “podcast” with Lindsay that was featured on this page.  I haven’t listened to the whole thing, but it explains what the book is about.

Canadian girls’ book club event with Nobel Peace Prize activist canceled because of potential “Islamophobia”

November 22, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Here’s a theory that is mine. And now, my theory: Canada is more woke than the United States. Why? Because although the innate degree of wokeness may be the same, Canadians are famous for their politeness, and thus don’t push back very hard on Woke insanity, like the article I describe below. Without pushback, Wokeness, with its drive for power, spreads inexorably.

So here’s the article, which you can get translated automatically from the French (at least I could with Chrome). It’s from Le Figaro. Sadly, the story it tells seems true.

Nadia Murad is an Iraqi who now lives in Germany. In 2018 she and Denis Mukwege won the Nobel Peace Prize; she for her campaign “to help women and children who are victims of abuse and human trafficking, and Mukwege for “repeatedly condemn[ing] impunity for mass rape and criticiz[ing] the Congolese government and other countries for not doing enough to stop the use of sexual violence against women as a strategy and weapon of war.

Murad’s drive came from personal experience, for as the Nobel Committee notes:

Nadia Murad is a member of the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq, and in 2014 the Islamic State (IS) launched a brutal attack on her home village. Several hundred people were massacred, and girls and young women were abducted and held as sex slaves. While a captive of the IS, Nadia Murad was repeatedly subjected to rape and other abuses. After three months she managed to flee.

Murad is the first Yazidi and first Iraqi to be awarded the Nobel Prize for anything. She was invited to a Toronto school book club, and what a catch she would be, for she was talking about her latest and autobiographical book. (There was another guest as well; see below.) But she and the other participant were canceled. As the paper describes (note: this is an automatic translation so I’ve tweaked it a bit to make it clearer):

The Toronto school board has withdrawn its support for a book club dedicated to young girls. The presence of the Nobel Peace Prize, committed to the Yazidi cause, could, according to its representatives, offend Muslim students.

Founded by Tanya Lee about four years ago, the book club where Nadia Murad is a guest welcomes young girls aged 13 to 18, from various secondary schools, themselves overseen by the said school board. Without being directly governed by the institution, the club is promoted by its members to the students. The organizer of this literary meeting told the Globe and Mail of her misunderstanding , explaining that the superintendent of the school, Helen Fisher, allegedly said that the students would not participate in the event, scheduled for February 2022 .

The reason given? Her book, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against Islamic State , may promote Islamophobia, reports The Globe and Mail . This is to forget that the 28-year-old Iraqi girl was, for three months, the sexual slavery of no less than 13 Daesh soldiers in 2014, before she managed to flee to Germany. Shocked by the exchange with Helen Fisher, Tanya Lee says she then sent her an email containing detailed information on the Islamic organization, coming from the BBC and CNN. “This is what the Islamic State means ,” she wrote to the superintendent.It is a terrorist organization. It has nothing to do with ordinary Muslims. The Toronto school board should be aware of the difference. ”

Apparently a council of the school board finally decided not to distribute the book to students. That’s absurd. What better role model for girls of that age than a woman who was abused and fought back hard—gaining a Nobel Prize in the end? The “Islamophibia” excuse of course comes from fear: that Muslims might take offense at the topic and cause trouble. But remember, Murad was abducted and sexually abused by an extremist group of Muslims. All rational Muslims should support Murad and her appearance. But of course religion has a way of eroding rationality. What the school board is doing is in effect saying that what ISIS did to Murad shouldn’t be criticized publicly, thus condoning religiously-inspired sexual slavery.

By the way, another person, also canceled, was supposed to appear with Murad in a joint event:

The event was supposed to carry discussion on two books in presence of their authors — Marie Henein’s ‘Nothing But the Truth: A Memoir‘ and Nadia Murad’s ‘The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State‘.

The board said it has withdrawn support to hold the October event with Henein, the daughter of Egyptian immigrants and one of Canada’s most prominent lawyers, because her book was “problematic” as she “defended” former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi when he was accused of sexual assault.

As far as I know, Ghomeshi was found “not guilty.” This is going too damn far, school board! Why aren’t Canadians objecting to this and writing letters to the Toronto school board?

h/t: Paul

Competing and divergent reviews by The Washington Post and the NYT of the 1619 Project book

November 22, 2021 • 9:30 am

As you probably know, the 1619 Project has produced a book (below), which is an expansion and supplementation of the original essays in the New York Times magazine. It’s selling like hotcakes, too: #4 on Amazon.  Click on the image below to go to the Amazon site:

I haven’t read it yet, and am not sure that I will given the queue of books by my bed, but I did read two reviews of it. The first, in the Washington Post below, is quite critical. The reviewer is Carlos Lazada, identified as “the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.”

The second review appears in the NYT itself, and the paper has a long history of reviewing books by its own writers favorably. That review is at the second screenshot below (you can access the reviews by clicking on the screenshots), and the reviewer is Adam Hochschild, author, journalist, and historian, who wrote a book I read not long ago and liked very much: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial AfricaI would have bet a lot of money in advance that the NYT review would be highly positive, given their history of printing only positive reviews by their bigwig writers and the fact that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the main force behind the book, won a Pulitzer Prize for her first 1619 essay.

The contrasting titles of the reviews show their differential assessments. While both authors like parts of the book, Lazada is unwilling to excuse major claims in the book that are erroneous, misleading, or distorted, while Hochschild largely ignores or minimizes them. More important, Lazada emphasizes that the book pushes an ideological program, especially in a new essay contributed by Ibram X. Kendi.

I’ve always objected to the 1619 Project’s aim to inculcate schoolchildren with distorted and “progressive” Leftist views. It is propaganda and is not counteracted in schools by requiring other books giving other views. It’s the first time I know of that a newspaper has deliberately inserted itself into the school curriculum to push a set of ideological values and dubious “truth” statements.

Hochschild, on the other hand, gives a very laudatory review, picks out a few perfunctory problems, barely mentions Kendi’s essay, which he agrees with, and says it’s the book is a valuable and necessary corrective for racism. It might well be in bits, but if the assertions of Lazada be correct, there’s a considerable amount of distortion and cherrypicking going on. It’s amazing how the two reviews have such different takes on the same contentions of the 1619 Project.

 

First, Lazado’s review. I’ll concentrate on a few issues historians had with the book, and also on its propagandistic aims. Both reviewers’ words are indented:

Together these elements form a powerful and memorable work, one that launched a seismic national debate over the legacy of slavery and enduring racial injustice in American life. It is also a work with a variety of competing impulses, ones that can at times confuse and conflict. This is evident in “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” a book that softens some of the edges of the prior magazine collection but also transcends its original mission as a historical corrective, informing readers what they now must do or else risk personal complicity in the painful story they have just been told.

This is Kendi’s view, but more later. I doubt readers will appreciate being deemed racist if they’re not doing something, which includes paying reparations to the black community. (I favor a form of reparations, but in terms of social benefits, better schools, and affirmative action, not direct payments to individuals who can prove some black heritage.)

One of the contentious assertions of the first 1619 Project was Hannah Nikole-Jones’s claim that 1619, the date that the first slaves arrived in the colonies, was the true founding date of America, for slavery conditioned, she said, every aspect of American life, even being a major cause of the American Revolution. The paper has walked that claim back a bit in the face of historians’ corrections, but the book still waffles on the issue.  From Lozada:

The elusiveness begins where the project begins — in 1619, with the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to reach the English American colonies, and that moment’s proper status in the history of the United States. In his note introducing the special issue, New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein first depicts the project as something of a thought experiment, counterfactual to the common notion of 1776 as the year of the nation’s birth. “What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?” Three sentences later, the question mark is gone, the tone more declarative. The barbaric system of slavery introduced that month is not just the United States’ “original sin,” Silverstein asserts; it is “the country’s very origin.” The project’s broadsheet supplement widens that perspective, declaring that “the goal of the 1619 Project is to reframe American history, making explicit that slavery is the foundation on which this country is built.” From what-if to no-matter-what, all on the same day.

This hardly settles matters. More than a year later, in an article titled “On Recent Criticism of The 1619 Project,” Silverstein indicated that the notion of 1619 as the country’s birth year should be regarded as a “metaphor” and not read literally. This is why, he explained, the Times had deleted a description of 1619 as our “true founding” that previously appeared in the project’s online presentation. But then, in an essay this month titled “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History,” Silverstein wrote that the date indeed “could be considered” the moment of the United States’ “inception.”

In the new book version, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times journalist who conceived of the overall effort and wrote its lead magazine essay, offers a few interpretations. In the preface, she cautions that the project is “not the only origin story of this country — there must be many.” Then, in the opening chapter, Hannah-Jones repeats the text of her original magazine essay and refers to Black Americans as the country’s “true ‘founding fathers,’” as deserving of that designation “as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital.” Some 400-plus pages later, in a concluding chapter, she writes that the origin story in the 1619 Project is “truer” than the one we’ve known.

What might an assiduous reader conclude from all this? That 1619 is a thought experiment, or a metaphor, or the nation’s true origin, but definitely not its founding, yet possibly its inception, or just one origin story among many — but still the truer one? For all the controversy the project has elicited, this muddle over the starting point is an argument that the 1619 Project is also having with itself.

Lozada finds the 18 essays “both constructive and uneven”. An example of the latter is the chapter on “Capitalism”, which seems to distort matters (note that Hochschild’s review below accepts the chapter’s contentions whole hog):

Lozada:

Consider sociologist Matthew Desmond’s chapter, “Capitalism.” In his original magazine essay, Desmond argued that many labor-management and record-keeping practices of modern American capitalism originated on plantations, with lasting consequences for the nation’s growth and industry. He indicated, for instance, that the vast increases in the productivity of America’s cotton fields — an average enslaved field worker in 1862 picked 400 percent more cotton than one had in 1801, he noted — flowed from the meticulous efforts to manage every detail and moment of those workers’ lives. “Bodies and tasks were aligned with rigorous exactitude,” Desmond wrote in the essay, describing the “uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave plantations.”

Critics of this essay pointed out that some financial and management practices Desmond mentions, such as double-entry bookkeeping, predated the slave-plantation era. More consequentially, they argued that Desmond’s discussion of cotton productivity bypassed the real explanation for the increase. In the new book, Desmond addresses this, but only to a point. Following a detailed discussion of the management of enslaved labor, he again cites the boost in productivity. Then he adds this caveat: “Historians and economists have attributed this surge in productivity to several factors — for example, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode found that improved cotton varieties enabled hands to pick more cotton per day — but advanced techniques that improved upon ways to manage land and labor surely played their part as well.”

Note what is happening: A different explanation is introduced for an important point of fact, but the overall narrative remains — because “surely” it still holds. Readers should always be open to new historical interpretations, but when revising history, “surely” does not reassure. When facts complicate a story, they shouldn’t be tucked in an aside but taken up as part of that dynamic and contested process of discovery that Silverstein so praised.

Finally, Lozada criticizes the narrative of Hannah-Jones that the maintenance of slavery was a major cause of the American Revolution, which is based almost solely on an offer from the British in Virginia that any slave who joined them fighting the colonists would be freed:

In the opening chapter of the book, titled “Democracy,” Hannah-Jones adds two explanations supporting her interpretation of colonial motives. One involves the Dunmore Proclamation of November 1775, in which the royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to enslaved people if they joined the British side of the fight. (The declaration went unmentioned in Hannah-Jones’s original essay and did not appear in the magazine’s timeline of important events in African American life; now, it is featured in the book’s expanded timeline.) She writes that the proclamation “would alter the course of the Revolution,” appropriate phrasing given that the revolution was well underway by the time of the proclamation.

How influential was this episode in the fight for independence? Here Hannah-Jones narrows the story. She stresses that the proclamation “infuriated white Virginians” and that when you think about it, the revolution was mainly a Virginia thing, anyway. “Schoolchildren learn that the Boston Tea Party sparked the Revolution and that Philadelphia was home to the Continental Congress, the place where intrepid men penned the Declaration and Constitution,” she writes. “But while our nation’s founding documents were written in Philadelphia, they were mainly written by Virginians. . . . No place shaped the Revolution and the country it birthed more than Virginia.” It is a subtle but effective shift: Rather than expand history to encompass the range of the colonists’ rationales, Hannah-Jones limits the universe of colonists who matter. Now, Virginia is real colonial America.

This sounds a bit sleazy to me, but none of this is mentioned in the NYT’s own review. Lozada also criticizes the claim that the civil rights movement was fought almost completely without white allies, but I don’t have time to address that.

Finally—and I know I’m quoting too much, but readers may not have access to the story—Ibram Kendi writes the penultimate chapter with with his denial that American is making progress in racial relations (a claim I’ve always found totally ludicrous), so that the readers need to take antiracist action. Note the one fact Kendi adduces to deny the arc of progress (I’ve put it in bold):

In a chapter titled “Progress,” historian Ibram X. Kendi writes that the popular notion of America making steady, if slow, headway toward greater racial justice is “ahistorical, mythical, and incomplete.” The “mantra” of incremental improvement can undermine efforts to promote real equality. Kendi cites Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which held that the country’s progress against discrimination meant that certain states and counties no longer needed federal approval before amending their voting laws, as the Voting Rights Act required. (The decision unleashed a series of state-level initiatives creating obstacles to voting.) “Saying that the nation has progressed racially is usually a statement of ideology,” Kendi writes, “one that has been used all too often to obscure the opposite reality of racist progress.” The failures of the Reconstruction era led to the “Second Reconstruction” of the 20th-century civil rights movement, a cause and effect that Kendi says is too often “left out of the story.”

That is one action (there are some others, of course), but what we no longer have is blatant segregation (dual water fountains and restrooms, back-of-the-bus policies, segregated hotels), lynchinga, and mistreatment of and bigotry against blacks in every situation. What we do have are the Civil Right Act, the Voting Act, and a strident effort to hire blacks and provide affirmative action in college admissions and hiring. It appears, though, that the aim of both Kendi and Hannah-Jones is to deem all Americans as racists if they’re not antiracist by paying reparations. I favor reparations, but as a moral issue and not a duty (my ancestors, after all, came from eastern Europe around 1890), and not by dispensation of cash to individuals.

Lozada:

Kendi then introduces something else he says is left out of the story — that America requires a “Third Reconstruction” to address the unfulfilled promise of the second. Here the 1619 Project’s project becomes explicitly political. Hannah-Jones fills in the details in the book’s final chapter, “Justice,” where she identifies the racial wealth gap as the most serious challenge for Black Americans. “White Americans’ centuries-long economic head start,” she writes, is what “most effectively maintains racial caste today.” To narrow that gap, the country must embark on “a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies.”

Among these are a slate of priorities such as “a livable wage; universal healthcare, childcare, and college; and student loan debt relief,” Hannah-Jones indicates. They also include cash reparations for Black Americans — specifically, for those who can document having identified as Black for at least 10 years prior to any reparations process and who can “trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.” Also suggested is a commitment to enforce civil rights laws regarding housing, education and employment, as well as “targeted investments” in Black communities across the country.

And so the New York Times’s 1619 Project is now enlisted in the service of a policy agenda and political worldview. The book’s concluding chapter underscores that link. “It is one thing to say you do not support reparations because you did not know the history, that you did not understand how things done long ago helped create the conditions in which millions of Black Americans live today,” Hannah-Jones writes. “But you now have reached the end of this book, and nationalized amnesia can no longer provide the excuse. None of us can be held responsible for the wrongs of our ancestors. But if today we choose not to do the right and necessary thing, that burden we own.”

Is this the message that we want to convey to children—that if they aren’t antiracist, they are racist? That is Kendi-an to the bone.   I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s proper.

The NYT’s review:

Hochschild takes a diametrically opposed view, saying that his worries about historians’ concerns “largely melted away” when he read the book. He then lauds the book for showing connections between past racism and present-day acts.  Here’s one example:

Part of the book’s depth lies in the way it offers unexpected links between past and present. New Yorkers, for instance, have long protested that the city Police Department’s “stop and frisk” searches for contraband or guns disproportionally snag people of color. But how many had connected it, as Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander do here, to the slave patrols of the old South, in which groups of armed white men routinely barged into the cabins of enslaved men and women to hunt for stolen goods or “anything they judged could be used as a weapon”?

Is there a direct connection here, or merely an analogy? Connecting two things because they’re similar doesn’t show an ancestor-descendant relationship. And Hochschild accepts Desmond’s chapter without quibbles:

Another contributor, Matthew Desmond, points out that the cotton plantation “was America’s first big business.” On the eve of the Civil War the monetary value “of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation.” That fact alone should silence anyone who claims that slavery is not central to American history.

No, that’s best shown in other ways, not by comparative value.

Hochschild continues:

Moreover, controlling those workers “helped mold modern management techniques.” The plantations’ size allowed for economies of scale. And “like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs” — easy to do when you compared harvesters according to how far each had progressed down parallel rows of cotton plants. Every fieldworker’s yield was carefully recorded, and rewards or whippings administered accordingly. Spreadsheets tabulated the depreciating value of human property over time. Trade magazines for planters carried management tips on getting the most out of enslaved workers: the best diet, clothing and even the proper tone of voice to use when giving orders.

Does Hochschild, a historian, not realize that many modern management techniques were afoot independently in the North, not copied from slaveholders? And, of course, modern managers don’t dictate the diets of their employees nor whip them. He also buys Kendi’s assertion that Justice Roberts’s comment shows that racism has not waned a bit since the antebellum era.

To be fair, Hochschild does have some beefs about the book. He calls the claim that the Founding Fathers created the American system, and fomented revolution, all to preserve the institution of slavery “going out on a shaky limb.” He bemoans the lack of discussion of slavery in countries outside the U.S., and wishes that there were more about white allies of slavery. (Here he’s really admitting that the main criticisms of historians are correct.) But in the end, he sees the book as a necessary corrective—part of “The Reckoning.”

Despite what demagogues claim, honoring the story told in “The 1619 Project” and rectifying the great wrongs in it need not threaten or diminish anyone else’s experience, for they are all strands of a larger American story. Whether that fragile cloth holds together today, in the face of blatant defiance of election results and the rule of law, depends on our respect for every strand in the weave.

Yes, we do need a corrective to counteract the glossing-over of slavery and racism taught in many American history courses. But I’m not down with distortions of that history, and I’m opposed to calls for action and reparations in a book that will be used widely in schools.  They should have left Kendi out, and also had the book reviewed not by self-picked reviewers but, like science papers, by anonymous but qualified reviewers picked by someone other than the authors.

h/t: Paul

My review in the Washington Post of a new book on genetics and social justice

November 19, 2021 • 9:45 am

Today the Washington Post put up online a review I wrote a while back on Kathryn Paige Harden‘s new book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality. Click on screenshot to read my take, or make a judicious inquiry if you can’t access it.

Harden is a behavioral geneticist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. You may remember that The New Yorker had a long profile of her a short while ago, and in it was this statement by her grad school mentor Eric Turkheimer:

In Bozeman, Harden seemed anxious that she had not heard from Turkheimer about her book. It took him a long time to get around to reading it, he told me, in part because of the ways their ideas have diverged in recent years, but when he finally did he wrote her an e-mail that said, “I really do think the book is great—in fact I think it will be instantly recognized as the most important book about behavior genetics that has ever been written. You should get ready to be very famous.”

Turkheimer has beefs with some of Harden’s ideas, but I simply had to read a new book about genetics that was likely to make its author very famous. And so I got the book and read it, and the Washington Post asked me to review it. Click below or go for that judicious inquiry.

As you see, my review is mixed. Her explanation of genetics and the use of “genome wide association studies” (GWAS)—a way of determining the expected value of a phenotypic trait from sequencing an individual’s genome—is excellent. She’s a good writer. The problem with the book is that she tries very hard, despite being somewhat of a genetic determinist who sees most human variation as having a sizable component of genetic underpinning, to appeal to the Progressive Left. For Harden is “woke”, as they say, and she’s aware that the other side, conservatives, would love to hear the sizable contribution to the variation of IQ of attributable to variation in people’s genes (it’s about 40-60%). There are large contributions of genetic variation to many other human traits as well.  But Harden carefully explains, correctly, that genetics is not destiny and that even a high genetic component to variation of a trait doesn’t mean that this variation can’t be flattened or equalized (I use myopia and glasses as an example).

But she’s still left with the problem of reconciling genetic inequality with societal equity—in particular how to treat children in school whose variation in academic achievement has a sizable genetic component. And here, in the prescriptive part of the book, she comes a cropper. She offers no plausible solutions about how one can actually use GWAS scores (I explain them in my review) to level the playing field for low achieving students, including minorities like blacks and Hispanics. (She doesn’t favor “tracking” students as she thinks that only perpetuates inequality.) My own conclusion is that, at present, we have no way of connecting GWAS scores to ways of improving education. It’s even worse because we know the genetic contributors of academic achievement only in European populations, and they could differ, as Harden emphasizes, in other populations. My conclusion:

I happen to share much of Harden’s ideology, and I wish her well. As I noted earlier, both the right and the left will find much to object to in this book. The resulting fracas might have been useful had she achieved what she set out to do — establish the fact of genetic unfairness and develop prescriptions to overcome it — yet she does not deliver on her second goal. Harden’s book is a thought-provoking read but in the end demonstrates only the incredible difficulty of using empirical data, both genetic and environmental, to level the educational playing field.

I want to add one thing here that was left out of my review for lack of space. Harden feels that we must rely on genetics to create equality/equity because one’s genetic endowment is a matter of “luck”:—the combination of genes you happen to inherit from your parents.  And Harden claims that she, and many others, feel it’s especially unfair for people to gain advantages simply because they’ve been genetically “lucky”. The implication is that there are things beyond “luck”, like an individual’s dedication and labor, that are a matter of “choice.”

This I find bogus, because, as a determinist, the “luck of your genes” is just as determined as “the luck of your environment” that also helps you achieve. Having the right for high IQ is “luck” in one sense, in that it’s not predictable, but so is the environment you’re born in and experience, which you also don’t choose. Harden actually recognizes this problem (p. 200):

Whether the universe is deterministic, whether such a thing as free will actually exists—these questions are beyond the scope of this book, to put it mildly. We need to put some philosophical guardrails up. If you think that the universe is deterministic, and the existence of free will is incompatible with a deterministic universe, and free will is an illusion, then genetics doesn’t have anything to add to the conversation. Genetics is just a tiny corner of the universe where we have worked out a little bit of the longer deterministic chain.

And, in fact, that’s the way it is. Harden has punted here. It doesn’t matter if you believe in “compatibilist” free will, because the philosophers who do are still determinists (or naturalists). And if you’re a determinist, then genetics is no more important than environment in its reliance on “luck” (i.e., unpredictability). It is just as unfair for someone to succeed because they had a good environment (and not necessarily good genes) than if they had good genes alone. Everything is determined—save the results of fundamental quantum unpredictability—which means that everybody’s fate is always matter of “luck” (unpredictable results of the laws of physics). Therefore, genetic and environmental influences are equally “unfair.” It is a major flaw of the book that Harden fails to take this seriously, but rather avoids it.

That’s all I want to add. The book is worth reading for its lucid genetic explanations, but I don’t think many hard-thinking readers will be convinced of her program to use genetic “inequality” to achieve social justice, though I agree that we need to do way better with schooling. Before you quibble about what I’ve said, though, read my review.

John McWhorter verbally reviews DiAngelo’s and Kendi’s most well-known books

November 3, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Over time, John McWhorter’s assessment of Ibram Kendi’s book How to be an Antiracist has gotten worse and worse. I suspected—as he admits in this 6-minute video—that McWhorter was loath to go after Kendi early on, but when Kendi started going after him, he took off the gloves. So now we get to hear what McWhorter really thinks of Kendi’s book. And it isn’t pretty.

He also takes on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which, says McWhorter, is the “second worst book he’s ever read.” (He does tell us the worst one, too.) When he’s finished with both, they’re in tatters.

Nevertheless, I recommend that you read both of them, for two reasons. First, you need to know the thoughts that are influencing so many people these days. These books are the manifestos for a lot of woke racism, including the assertion (from Kendi) that inequity of representation in organizations or groups is prima facie evidence for ongoing racism.

Further, a few readers have actually praised these books, and before you think there’s any credibility to such opinions, you need to read the books themselves. If you like them, so be it, but then go back to reason #1.

I have indeed read both books, and share McWhorter’s opinion, except that one book that’s possibly worse than White Fragility is The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. (The movie was quite good but the book is so shabby, so full of hyperventilating and purplish prose, that it takes the prize for Worst Book I’ve Ever Read. But it was still a bestseller!)

h/t: Paul

Reviews of John McWhorter’s and Steve Pinker’s new books

October 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

Two books that you’ll probably want to read are just appearing, and readers sent me links to one review of each.  The books are John McWhorter’s Woke Racism (see below for subtitle), which came out yesterday and is already #78 on Amazon, and Rationality (subtitle below) by Steve Pinker, which comes out tomorrow and is #653 on Amazon (it will go higher).

McWhorter’s book is 226 pages long with a hardback price of $19.06 on Amazon, and Pinker’s is a mere pamphlet for him at a scant 432 pages—and a bargain at $19.69 in hardcover.

The longish review of Woke Racism is at Quillette, so you can probably expect that it’s laudatory. I haven’t read it as I write this, but will before I continue this post. Click on the screenshot below to read it for free (but you can also subscribe to Quillette).

Pollen’s review, though it is laudatory, really summarizes the thesis of the book rather than evaluates it (there’s not a critical word in his piece though the NYT review I just found, also laudatory, detects some flaws). Pollen does give a good summary of what McWhorter says, though if you read McWhorter’s excerpts on his old Substack site, you’ll already know much of what he has to say. Regardless, I’ll read his book.

There are four parts of McWhorter’s argument as outlined by Pollen, and I’ll separate them. Quotes are indented:

a. McWhorter’s thesis. We are in the “third wave” of anti-racism, the first two being the “fight against slavery and legalized segregation. Number two was “the struggle against racist attitudes, which sought to instill the idea that racial prejudice was a moral defect.” This is presumably the era of Martin Luther King, Jr: from the Fifties to the late Sixties.  This third is the current brand of anti-racism, apparently construed by McWhorter as “woke racism,” although of course there are temperate and rational anti-racists. Those aren’t McWhorter’s targets.

b. The third wave is not only nuts, but harmful. 

In his new book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, John McWhorter demonstrates that there is far more Martin Luther than Martin Luther King in today’s anti-racist movement. McWhorter, a linguist and a professor at Columbia University, is a critic of luminous intelligence, and his book’s apparently oxymoronic title plays on Robin DiAngelo’s (equally oxymoronic) Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. DiAngelo’s dubious contention is that white progressives are often more injurious to the cause of racial equity than skinheads or bedsheet bigots, because their racist transgressions are the result of well-meaning ignorance. McWhorter asks the corollary: can even those supposedly enlightened and self-appointed champions of anti-racism (whom he calls “the Elect”) think and act in ways that harm black America?

McWhorter seems to concentrate on Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo as avatars of “third wave antiracism”, though, according to the NYT review, he gives short shrift to their arguments themselves (he has analyzed those arguments elsewhere). It will behoove you to read Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist and DiAngelo’s White Fragility, though they may cause you “harm” by creating “offense”. You can’t really fathom the irrationality of the current movement without reading at least those two books.

c. The third wave is not just like a religion; it is a religion:

The central tenets of the third wave are provided by what McWhorter pointedly calls a “Catechism of Contradictions.” These include such prescriptions as: embrace multiculturalism, but don’t culturally appropriate; silence is violence, but remember to defer and elevate oppressed voices above your own; more black students should be admitted to top schools (via adjusted test scores and grade standards) in order to foster diversity, but it is racist to acknowledge that students are admitted for these reasons, and it is racist to expect them to represent a “diverse” view.

The catechism, in this case, is not a metaphor: McWhorter earns his subtitle, and he is not being rhetorical. He does not argue that third wave anti-racism is “like” a religion—it is a religion in all but name. It is religious in the infinite elasticity of its arguments and in its claim to be an all-solving theory, which banishes irony and contradiction and treats all opposition as blasphemy. We see also the prayer sessions and genuflections, the insistence on sin, the creation of saints (see the George Floyd murals), and the same extraordinary moral arrogance masquerading as humility and meekness. Church leaders, in sympathy with white protestors at a rally in Cary North Carolina, actually washed black protestors’ feet. This is not a distortion of religious thinking, as critics like Andrew Sullivan (a Catholic) have claimed. It is religious thinking to a T. It is Christianity in drag

. . These ostentatious outbursts of self-flagellation are quasi-Christian displays of self-incriminating and self-mortifying masochism. Perversely, people want to feel bad about themselves and to be told that they are sinners, so that they can throw themselves on the mercy of their clerics.

It’s useless to quibble about whether it really is a religion because it lacks a supernatural being; the point is that it is a largely irrational and delusion belief system that shares many characteristics with Abrahamic faiths.

d. The new anti-racism is pretentious and condescending to black people. Further, it will do little to bring about equality as it is mostly performative. 

It is hard to see how any of this will redress real “structural” inequalities. “People supposedly committed to political transformation,” McWhorter writes, “breezily ignore the yawningly abstract relationship between testifying to ‘privilege’ and forging change in the real world.” How, for example, will DiAngelo’s micro-behavioral prescriptions make poor black communities less poor? How will dropping to one’s knees and admitting one’s privilege end the mass incarceration of black Americans caused by the disastrous failure of the War on Drugs? How will separate graduation ceremonies and separate national anthems raise standards in public schools, boost literacy, or make vocational training more accessible? None of these concrete problems receive a fraction of the attention given to the regulation of conduct and demands for intellectual rewiring.

As I’ve said before, Grania used to dwell on this issue when confronting woke words or actions. “What will it change?” she asked, and she lived in South Africa during the apartheid era. When people demonstrate against Americans trying on kimonos at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, how does that reduce racism against Asians? When people cancel bird names and change the name of Audubon societies because of accused racism, does it help the situation of black Americans? Well, I suppose you can make the case, but those acts are clearly exculpatory and performative. Surely there are meaningful acts that can do a better job, and those are the actions that McWhorter and Lowry have been prescribing. We’ll see if they’re discussed in McWhorter’s book.

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You can’t read the full review of Rationality since nearly all of it is paywalled on Arc Digital, but I got four whole paragraphs in an email from the site. (If readers have access, please send me a copy of the full review; I don’t think McWhorter would mind as it’s for publicity purposes.) If you are a subscriber, click on the screenshot below.

Here’s the excerpt I got:

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Steven Pinker’s earlier blockbuster Enlightenment NowWhile it was crisply written and argued, it seemed incurious and even blasé about the many sources of dissatisfaction which had led to the re-emergence of radicalism in many developed states. Pinker also had a bad habit of gish-galloping past strawmanned iterations of doctrines he disdained as irrational, from postmodern leftism to Nietzschean reaction, offering zingers rather than analysis. While his optimism resonated with me, as someone who has grown weary of the cliché of left-wing melancholia, Pinker’s “stay the course” diagnosis also struck me as inadequate to the challenges humanity faces in the 21st century.

Now that is bad writing, loaded with jargon and ponderous. But press on, for the review is positive:

So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his latest book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it MattersA far less ambitious book than Enlightenment Now, it may disappoint those looking for another “state of the world” liberal manifesto. That said, it plays heavily to his strengths as a renowned cognitive psychologist.

Many of its summaries of logical reasoning, critical thinking, and fallacious argumentation are top notch introductions which anyone could benefit from. Pinker still occasionally reaches too far when trying to engage in moral and political philosophies where his grip remains superficial, and as cultural analysis no one will get much from Rationality. But these are relatively minor complaints about what is a useful and always readable book.

We live in an era that simultaneously worships intellect and resents it. Even in the most relentlessly rad left circles I’m most familiar with, where discrimination of all kinds is avoided with incomparable zeal, the one form of social ranking that remains not only permissible but accepted is intellectual: who is the smartest, knows the most, has published the most books, etc. Much of this is the long term product of our Enlightenment heritage’s focus on reason as the Archimedean lever which can move the world for the better.

And there is more to read, but I can’t get to it . . .

h/t Steve (not Pinker!)

Short take: “Books Do Furnish a Life” by Richard Dawkins

October 19, 2021 • 12:30 pm

If you look at the Amazon website for Richard Dawkins’s new book (click on screenshot below), you immediately discover two things. First, the Kindle edition has a subtitle different from the paper copies: the Kindle one is called Books do Furnish a Life: An Electrifying Celebration of Science Writing. Often publishers change book titles or subtitles when the volume crosses the pond, but I’ve never heard of changes among Kindle versus paper editions. (Could the “electrifying” refer to the Kindle’s batteries?)

Second, the book is pretty pricey, even for Amazon: the hardcover is $29.56 and the paperback $28.95. If you’re going to buy it, it makes sense to spring the extra 61 cents and buy the hardcover.  Granted, it’s a big book (464 or 480 pages depending on which one you get), but it’s still expensive.

The question then becomes, is it worth it?  I didn’t buy mine, as I have no more room for books on my shelves, and so had the U of C library order it—a nice feature of our library if the book is one they think is of general interest. And if you don’t have to pay, I can say without reservation that you should read this book.  It’s different from all but one of Richard’s previous books in that it’s mostly a collection of short pieces that are forewords or introductions to other people’s books, along with his notes on what he wrote.

You might think that you don’t want to read a bunch of forewords, but there’s more than that (I’ll describe it in a second), and even if it were only forewords, you’d still want to read it. That’s because Richard doesn’t just introduce other people’s books, but transforms his introductions into standalone thought pieces that are little works of art and thought in themselves. And, of course, Dawkins’s prose is as graceful as always. No other popular science writer has such a literary style, and it’s a style I find immensely appeaing.  Steve Pinker’s own style of writing is just as engaging, but in a different way.

So yes, do read this book. Whether you want to pay thirty bucks for it, or wait for a cheaper used copy, must be your decision. But read it. More below.

The book comprises six parts, each beginning with a transcribed conversation between Richard and a scientist or writer, and each conversation is followed by about a dozen introductions, forewords, or, in some cases, standalone essays that were published elsewhere. The format:

I. Tools of two trades: Writing science (Opening conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson

II. Worlds beyond science: Celebrating nature (Conversation with Adam Hart-Davis)

III. Inside the survival machine: Exploring humanity (Conversation with Steven Pinker)

IV. The miner’s canary: Supporting scepticism (Conversation with Christopher Hitchens)

V. Counsel for the prosecution: Interrogating faith (Conversation with Lawrence Krauss)

VI. Tending the flame: Evangelizing evolution (Conversation with Matt Ridley).   I was pleased to see that the last essay in this section, and the final one in the book, is “The only kind of truth that works” Richard’s generous and gracious review of Why Evolution is True published in the London Review of Books

He finishes with an epilogue: “To be read at my funeral”. It’s not grim, but rather the famous opening to Unweaving the Rainbow that starts with “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” Surely you’ve read it, but if you haven’t you must do so immediately.  I know of no piece like it, and it may make you tear up.

Now, the forewords and their explications will introduce you to many people now gone but were friends of Richard’s: people like John Maynard-Smith, Peter Medawar, Lewis Wolpert, and Bill Hamilton, and there are plenty of anecdotes to liven the narrative. It’s definitely worth reading Richard’s selections from these people, whose book or papers are forgotten by many students today. Some of the books are old ones that are now obscure, and thus you get a lot of suggestions for future reading.

As I don’t have the book before me, I won’t go over specific pieces except to say that they’re all worth reading because they all are food for thought. All but two are laudatory, the two being a critique of Ed Wilson’s views on group selection (“The descent of Edward Wilson”) and a book by Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan that Dawkins absolutely rips to shreds—all with British grace, of course. But even the critique of Wilson’s ideas is a standalone disquisition on the levels of selection, and why the gene, as a “replicator” makes genic selection—Dawkins’s big contribution to evolutionary thinking—more efficient than selection on any other level. I’ll add that his piece on speciation, “Branching out”, is one of the best things written on a topic that few have tackled in popular writing.

Note that the book encompasses science in general, evolution in particular, and also deals extensively with skepticism and atheism. The last bits are strongly anti-theistic, which I find refreshing in these accommodationist days.

I’lll warrant that if you’re reading this website, you’ve almost surely read and loved at least one of Richard’s books (my favorite is The Blind Watchmaker, as I place The Selfish Gene in a different category; Richard’s favorite is The Extended Phenotype. Add this new one to your list.

This is not even a real review because I don’t evaluate the contents with examples and quotations, but my purpose in writing this is to tell you not to neglect this book: it contains some of Richard’s finest writing, much of which you probably missed, and you can read it in pieces. It’s the perfect bedside book—unless, like me, reading it makes you feel so inferior that it’s hard to sleep!

A brief review of Andrew Sullivan’s new essay collection

October 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

I don’t want to write a full review of Andrew Sullivan’s new book, as I just finished a different review for a media outlet, but I want to urge you to read Out on a Limb: Selected Writing: 1989-2021, even if you don’t like Sullivan’s conservatism or religiosity (both are muted in this book). It contains dozens of essays over the 32-year period, arranged in chronological order.  Some are very long, others just a page or two, and I found myself reading all of them over the past several weeks.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Sullivan is a lovely and thoughtful writer, and, although he puts himself on the rightish end of the political spectrum, many of the essays comport well with liberal thinking. He was, for instance, instrumental in helping gay marriage become accepted in America, and his early essays (e.g., “Here comes the groom” from The New Republic) are powerful arguments for that institution. He touted Obama as a possible and potentially good president long before others were doing so, and shows additional prescience in recognizing Trump not only as a possible winner of the Presidency, but later as a probable winner of the Presidency. (He despises Trump.) He also predicted that Joe Biden would be the best Democratic candidate to beat Trump. (Perhaps he’s picking his essays to look prescient, but I doubt it.)

What I like about Sullivan’s writing is that, unlike many other writers, he’s willing to admit when he’s wrong and remains open to correcting his opinions. Ergo his self-flagellating essay, “How did I get Iraq wrong?” (he was an early booster of the war). His case against torture is ironclad (“The abolition of torture”), and many essays will appeal to readers on the grounds of simple humanity (e.g., his memoriam on the death of one of his beagles, “Surprised by Grief”, a title cribbed and modified from C. S. Lewis; or “Still here, so sorry”, his musings on still being alive years after an AIDS diagnosis).

There is a lot, of course, on AIDS and homosexuality, and it’s good to read this stuff from the viewpoint of a gay writer. The bulk of the essays are on politics, which he knows a lot about. I usually find such essays dry but Sullivan is such a good writer that you get the sense of discussing politics with a friend, not being preached to. Like a good scientist, he’s always considering counterarguments to his positions, another thing that makes him likable.

As I said, he’s surprisingly light on religion—it comes up rarely, except for one long and tedious essay on “What is the meaning of Pope Francis?” But after reading that and his other stuff on faith, I’m no closer than ever to understanding why a smart guy like Sullivan believes in things like the literal resurrection of Christ. So it goes.

Here are a few of my favorite essays, which give an idea of his range:

“Here comes the groom”, an epochal essay that really did help move American opinion.

“Quilt”, a touching piece on the AIDS Quilt.

“When plagues end: Notes on the twilight of an epidemic”. About the tapering off of the AIDS epidemic and Sullivan’s remembrance of its worst days.

“What’s so bad about hate?”  A long and absorbing essay on the uses, abuses, and varieties of hatred.

“Gay cowboys embraced by redneck country”: Sullivan’s thoughts on the movie Brokeback Mountain.

“The abolition of torture”: an eloquent argument that any torture is the sign of a totalitarianism and is to be totally rejected as a tool of Americans.

“Why I blog”: a very thoughtful piece that especially resonated with me, as it draws a distinction that those of us understand who write both for publication in the media as well as on a website. They’re very different forms of writing, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

“I used to be a human being”: A tale of Sullivan’s week at a meditation center completely disconnected from the Internet, combined with an acute and scathing analysis of what absorption in our “devices” has done to us.

“We all live on campus now”. A favorite of mine, which dispels the idea that insane leftist extremism found on colleges campus will not spread to the greater culture because the kids will grow up. (It already has spread, as you know, and is not going away.)

And the two final pieces:

“The unbearable whiteness of the classics”: An anti-Woke critique of the anti-classics classicists, defending the classics and showing that they can be taught alongside the history of racism.

“Two sexes, infinite genders”: A distinction between gender and sex (one that seems to be disappearing) and a touching remembrance of Sullivan’s father.

It’s good to have a book of essays on hand, like Sullivan’s or Orwell’s, to fill in the gaps when you don’t have time to absorb a chunk of a novel. And of course there’s a long-standing literary niche for short non-fictional pieces. Sullivan is a master of them, and although none of us are fans of all his ideas (the religion still bothers me), you come away from this book feeling as if you really know the guy—and like him.

Photograph of Sullivan by Joshua Cogan.