Monday, November 20, 2017


Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961); The Sun Also Rises, 1926

Hemingway began his career as a writer in a newspaper office in Kansas City at the age of seventeen. After the United States entered the First World War, he joined a volunteer ambulance unit in the Italian army served at the front and was wounded and spent considerable time in hospitals. After his return to the United States, he became a reporter for The Toronto Star, which sent him back to Europe to cover such events as the Greek Revolution. He used Paris as his base.

The Sun Also Rises is about a group of American and British expatriates who leave Paris, where they are enjoying the City of Light in the Post World War I world, to experience the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain, to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. For the last 91 years, it has always been in print. It’s a great piece of writing, though it sometimes uses old-fashioned words like "swell."

The setting was unique and memorable, showing seedy café life in Paris, the excitement of the Pamplona festival, and descriptions of fishing trip in the Basque region of the Pyrenees.

Hemingway's writing is sparse, as is his use of descriptions. Here's an example:
We would probably have gone on and discussed the war and agreed that it was in reality a calamity for civilization, and perhaps would have been better avoided. I was bored enough. Just then from the other room some one Called: "Barnes! I say, Barnes! Jacob Barnes.
"It's a friend calling me," I explained, and went out. 
The result is that most of the action is behind the scene. To fully understand the book, the reader has to work fairly hard -- for example, when a conversation among three or four individuals takes place, and it isn't clear who is saying what.

The characters are based on real people of Hemingway's circle, and the action on real events. In the novel, Hemingway presents his notion that the "Lost Generation", considered to have been decadent, dissolute and irretrievably damaged by World War I, was resilient and strong. Additionally, Hemingway investigates the themes of love, death, renewal in nature, and the nature of masculinity.

The book reflects the times, and this is not always a good thing. What really grates in my mind is its latent anti-Semitism. One of the characters is Robert Cohn, who is typically just referred to as Cohn. At the beginning, Hemingway describes him as having spent a great deal of time training as a boxer, yet later shows him as using his skills as a boxer to hide emotional weakness.

This occurs when there is a dust-up over Lady Brett, the beautiful British woman on the trip, who frequently changes bed mates. That would not be shocking in modern novels, though it probably was when this book came out. When she goes to bed with Cohn, she arouses his jealousy against other members of the expedition, and he uses his fists to take revenge. Then he goes weepy with remorse.

From the beginning, there are close bonds between Brett and Hemingway. However, the book suggests that the story-teller can’t go to bed with her because of war wounds. Hemingway was later married three times, and with one of his wives had children. It’s interesting to speculate on what wounds he had. Could it have been shell shock – what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Book Review, Denying to the Grave

Denying to the Grave 

Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us
Sara Gorman and Jack Gorman
2017; Oxford University Press; Oxford

This book is about the politics of bad science. Here are a few examples.
  • Phony science, based on a sample of 12 individuals, created the cult of anti-vaxxers. These are the people who refuse to vaccinate their children against disease because they think it will induce autism in them.
  • News stories about outbreaks of the Zika virus, for example, created panic in the US when the disease briefly appeared there. Much of North America began to panic when four US cases of the disease took people’s lives. To put that in perspective, about 2.5 million people die in the US each year – on average, 6,775 per day. The threat was almost infinitesimally small.
  • Many Americans, who have easy access to firearms, believe that having guns at home makes them safer even though social science has demonstrated conclusively that it puts their lives at much greater risk.
  • In Calgary in particular, there are endless arguments about whether man-made climate change is really real, although the bulk of scientific research has repeatedly confirmed that these phenomena are real.
  • Patients insist on antibiotics for viral infections even though viruses are immune to antibiotics. Why is that? Of equal interest, why do doctors prescribe them, knowing they will make no difference?
  • Why do conspiracy theorists still believe that many people conspired to kill President Kennedy, when the most exhaustive investigation ever into a single homicide concluded decisively that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?
  • Genetically modified foods have greatly increased harvests, and have never caused illness. Yet Europeans in particular call them Franken foods, suggesting they are somehow like the Frankenstein monster which Mary Shelley’s book brought into the vocabulary.
In summary, many people insist that science and other kinds of creditable research are wrong. Often based on information provided by charismatic leaders, they argue that they are right because the evidence is incomplete. Unidentified hazards lurk everywhere, making the world an innately dangerous place.

The authors are Sara Gorman, whose specialty is public health, and her father Jack Gorman, an MD and psychiatrist.

As a discussion in Goodreads puts it, in this book the two authors “explore the psychology of health science denial. Using several examples of such denial as test cases, they propose six key principles that may lead individuals to reject “accepted” health-related wisdom: the charismatic leader; fear of complexity; confirmation bias and the internet; fear of corporate and government conspiracies; causality and filling the ignorance gap; and the nature of risk prediction. The authors argue that the health sciences are especially vulnerable to our innate resistance to integrate new concepts with pre-existing beliefs. This psychological difficulty of incorporating new information is on the cutting edge of neuroscience research, as scientists continue to identify brain responses to new information that reveal deep-seated, innate discomfort with changing our minds.”

Those are good comments, but they refer essentially to the book’s conclusion. What that reviewer fails to mention is that the fun part is getting there. This is an enormously intelligent book. It includes well-sourced information from scientific literature, but also commentary from unreliable online sources. As one example, it includes a quotation from actress Angelina Jolie, from an American Firearms website. “I bought original, real guns of the type we used in Tomb Raider for security,” she told a British newspaper. “Brad and I are not against having a gun in the house, and we do have one. And yes, I’d be able to use it if I had to…. If anybody comes into my home and tries to hurt my kids, I’ve no problem shooting them.”

Countless studies have shown that having guns in the house makes people less safe, not safer. As an experiment, the authors signed up as members of a pro-gun website, joined a discussion group, and began posting scientific information about the dangers of gun ownership. Without fail, the response they got was anger. Put another way, the other members of this group were saying “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” In passing, they note that in the US 10,000 people die from gunshot wounds each year. Another 20,000 men and women use guns to commit suicide – by far the most popular method.

As Shakespeare might have written about American gun laws, “Now thou art come unto a feast of death, a terrible and unavoided danger.”