Category: Science

Calling Bullshit

Cover image for Calling Bullshit by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

ISBN 9780525509196

“Myths are most difficult to debunk when they are interwoven with a person’s worldview and sense of cultural identity.”

In the information age, we enjoy unprecedented access to knowledge. However, the deluge is difficult to sift, and there is more fake news, propaganda, and disinformation than ever before. All of this requires time and energy to sort through, and many people feel as if they do not have the necessary skills to perform such an assessment. Calling Bullshit offers a toolkit for spotting misinformation and disinformation, as well as suggestions for how to approach the actual act of calling bullshit when someone has shared questionable data. It also provides readers some suggestions for guarding against their own confirmation biases or desire to be right. Based on their course of the same name taught at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West lay out a toolbox for skeptics in the information age.

Calling Bullshit includes the type of skills that are taught to librarians, journalists, and scientists, all professions where assessing the accuracy of information is paramount. However, it also aims to teach readers strategies for spotting misinformation and disinformation that don’t rely on expertise in any particular field. For example, you don’t need to be a scientist to check the axes of a graph to make sure they haven’t been inappropriately foreshortened, or that the intervals are even. Nor do you need to be a computer programmer to consider the quality of that data that goes into the black box algorithm. If garbage goes in, garbage will inevitably come out, regardless of what happens in between. As the authors put it, “there’s no magical algorithm that can spin flax into gold. You can’t compensate for bad data. If someone tells you otherwise, they are bullshitting.”

The authors are specifically interested in the type of claims that cloak themselves in math, science, or other quantitative evidence as a means of trying to appear more valid than they actually are. This strategy is often effective because people are less likely to question quantitative evidence, often because they do not feel competent to evaluate it. However, there are a variety of methodological questions from sampling method to data presentation that anyone can ask of a study, without being an expert in that field. Each is illustrated with a variety of clear examples that help teach readers what to watch out for, particularly crucial for examining information graphics.

When it comes to sharing misinformation, Bergstrom and West argue that “participating in social media is only secondarily about sharing new information; it is primarily about maintaining and reinforcing common bonds.” This goes a long way towards explaining why people are often not terribly concerned with the exact truth of their postings, as well as why people share articles they haven’t read. If the headline conveys the right emotional valence and social signals—what the authors call “tribal epistemologies”—that may be all that is necessary for them to hit share, cementing their loyalty to the group. It also explains why arguing with these posts can be so fraught and fruitless; beliefs that are tied up in people’s identities are much harder to refute because persuading them requires not just debunking the incorrect information, but also contending with the emotional ties they have to what it signals.

While Bergstrom and West laud the merits of science as a method of investigation, the book also includes an important chapter on the limitations of science, and the ways in which it can itself be subject to bullshit through human foibles. Science is a system that tends towards self-correction by its very nature, but mistakes can and will be made along the way. This includes an overview of both misreporting on science by the press, and a dive into some of the ways that science can be misused, from p-hacking to publication bias. This is particularly useful for thinking about studies you read about in the news, where correlation and causation may have been conflated, or other important factors gone underreported.

To quote Jonathan Swift, “Falsehoods fly and truth comes limping after it.” Creating misinformation is easy; debunking it is a much more difficult task.  Calling Bullshit offers an interesting look at some of the reasons why that might be the case, as well as the tools for spotting the most common types of misinformation, accompanied by illustrative examples.

You might also like Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2021

My reading this year leaned heavily towards fiction but I’ve still got some great non-fiction picks for you. These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed–not necessarily published–in 2021. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

Burnout

Cover image for Burnout by Emily Nagoski

by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

ISBN 9781984817068

Burnout is an examination of both stressors and the stress cycle, as well as the cultural conditions that contribute to the stress and burnout experienced by women in particular. The first section of the book focuses on the key distinction between stress and stressors, and the separate techniques needed for dealing with each. Parts two and three delve into underlying causes. Burnout is about what happens when the instinct for self-preservation does battle with the deeply ingrained cultural message that caring for oneself is indulgent or selfish. The Nagoski sisters specifically look at the messages aimed at women, but many of the insights would be applicable to other marginalized identities as well. The book is written in an accessible even somewhat conversational style, and acknowledges the baggage that comes with words and concepts like “The Patriarchy (ugh)” that make these systemic issues difficult to talk about. This may be unpopular with some readers who prefer a more serious scientific tone, but this lighter touch will be key to the book’s approachability for others.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Science

Facing the Mountain

Cover image for Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown

by Daniel James Brown

ISBN 9780525557418

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans changed forever. Prominent first generation Japanese immigrants were arrested on pre-emptive suspicion of disloyalty. At the same time, many of their sons were trying to volunteer for military service, only to discover they were barred from enlisting as “enemy aliens” despite their American citizenship. The ban would hold until 1943, at which point they became subject to the draft, even as many of them were living in concentration camps following their exclusion from the West Coast under Executive Order 9066. Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, follows the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Unit, a segregated unit set up specifically for Japanese American soldiers. Fighting in the European theatre of World War II, the unit served with distinction, taking heavy casualties, and becoming the most decorated unit in the American military. In Facing the Mountain Brown predominantly focuses on three men—Kats Miho, Rudy Tokiwa, and Fred Shiosaki—who volunteered for military service, although two older Japanese American chaplains also play a prominent role, as does conscientious objector Gordon Hirabayashi. Sifting through the Densho archives, as well as many more sources such as letters provided by the family of Chaplain Hiro Higuchi, Brown has woven together strands of personal stories that come together to shed light on a vast and complicated chapter in American history. He succeeds in bringing to life the personalities of his primary subjects, while also maintaining a view of the wider historical context in which their stories took place. 

Tags: Non-Fiction, History

Gmorning, Gnight!

Cover image for Gmorning Gnight by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

ISBN 9781984854278

The contents of this book started life as a series of good morning and good night tweets by playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) from about 2016 to 2018. They are something between poetry and affirmation; little nuggets of encouragement and inspiration, or even commiseration. The book’s subtitle describes them as pep talks, which is apt. This little book gathers them together into a collection illustrated by artist Jonny Sun with black and white line drawings on facing pages. In the midst of a long, crappy year, my best friend and I began trading these back and forth via text message on many days, a little spot of brightness and connection in the endless drag of the pandemic. This ritual proved to be a lovely little lift to the spirits when I needed it most, so this book holds a special place in my heart this year.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Poetry

Tiny Beautiful Things

Cover image for Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

by Cheryl Strayed

ISBN 9780307949325

Before she became famous for her 2012 memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed anonymously wrote an advice column for The Rumpus for two years under the pseudonym Sugar, where she answered letters from people seeking guidance about life and love. Tiny Beautiful Things collects readers’ favourite Dear Sugar columns, as well as a number of original letters. This collection is an intimate illustration of how someone sharing the particular tragedies of their life can be surprisingly generalizable. Strayed’s deeply empathetic replies to her readers about their dilemmas dovetail with stories about her own life, including lose her mother early, her struggle with drug addiction, and her complicated relationship with her father. This book is nearly a decade old now, and I’ve read it perhaps three times in that span, though I was never a Dear Sugar reader in its digital incarnation despite being a fan of the advice column genre. Strayed is funny, compassionate, and honest, and her writing is both beautiful and compelling. In a year full of comfort reads this was lovely to return to once more.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Essays

Two Trees Make a Forest

Cover image for Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

by Jessica J. Lee

ISBN 9781646220007

Jessica J. Lee grew up in Ontario, a biracial child more connected to her father’s large Welsh-Canadian family than her mother’s side of the family tree, which hailed from China via Taiwan. She knew only her maternal grandparents, Po and Gong. For most of her life she was unbothered by this, however, as she grew older she developed an “inarticulate longing” for both her family history, and the island from which they had come to Canada. Her grandfather was lost to Alzheimer’s disease, and her grandmother spoke rarely of the past before her death, leaving Lee to take her own journey to Taiwan with her mother in order to reconnect with her family history. In revisiting the scenes of her mother’s childhood, as well as hiking and biking through the forests and marshes of the island, Lee explores the importance of place to our understanding of self. As an environmental historian, Lee is concerned with the physical island of Taiwan, with its geography, flora and fauna, in addition to its anthropological history and personal connection. Her book is memoir meets family history meets travelogue. Two Trees Make a Forest is a memoir about the vast complexities of identity, and Lee does a beautiful job of articulating the nuances. Her family are settlers in Canada, and she is simultaneously grappling with the fact that her family is part of a long history of Chinese colonialism in Taiwan. Lee blends history, geography, language and family legacy in a meditative account of what it means to be caught between worlds.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Canadian

What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2021? Anything you’d like to recommend?

Non-Fiction Mini Reviews

Burnout

Cover for Burnout by Amelia Nagoski and Emily Nagoski

by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

ISBN 9781984817068

“The good news is that stress is not the problem. The problem is that the strategies that deal with stressors have almost no relationship to the strategies that deal with the physiological reactions our bodies have to those stressors.”

Burnout is an examination of both stressors and the stress cycle, as well as the cultural conditions that contribute to the stress and burnout experienced by women in particular. The first section of the book focuses on the key distinction between stress and stressors, and the separate techniques needed for dealing with each. Parts two and three delve into underlying causes. Burnout is about what happens when the instinct for self-preservation does battle with the deeply ingrained cultural message that caring for oneself is indulgent or selfish. The Nagoski sisters specifically look at the messages aimed at women, but many of the insights would be applicable to other marginalized identities as well. The book is written in an accessible even somewhat conversational style, and acknowledges the baggage that comes with words and concepts like “The Patriarchy (ugh)” that make these systemic issues difficult to talk about. This may be unpopular with some readers who prefer a more serious scientific tone, but this lighter touch will be key to the book’s approachability for others.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Science

Gmorning, Gnight!

Cover image for Gmorning Gnight by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun

ISBN 9781984854278

“Your mind is yours alone. Do what it takes to make yourself comfy. Build a library in there, play some music. Make it your home.”

The contents of this book started life as a series of good morning and good night tweets by playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) from about 2016 to 2018. They are something between poetry and affirmation; little nuggets of encouragement and inspiration, or even commiseration. The book’s subtitle describes them as pep talks, which is apt. This little book gathers them together into a collection illustrated by artist Jonny Sun with black and white line drawings on facing pages. In the midst of a long, crappy year, my best friend and I began trading these back and forth via text message on many days, a little spot of brightness and connection in the endless drag of the pandemic. This ritual proved to be a lovely little lift to the spirits when I needed it most, so this book holds a special place in my heart.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Poetry

Tiny Beautiful Things

Cover image for Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

by Cheryl Strayed

ISBN 9780307949325

“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

Before she became famous for her 2012 memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed anonymously wrote an advice column for The Rumpus for two years under the pseudonym Sugar, where she answered letters from people seeking guidance about life and love. Tiny Beautiful Things collects readers’ favourite Dear Sugar columns, as well as a number of original letters. This collection is an intimate illustration of how someone sharing the particular tragedies of their life can be surprisingly generalizable. Strayed’s deeply empathetic replies to her readers about their dilemmas dovetail with stories about her own life, including losing her mother early, her struggle with drug addiction, and her complicated relationship with her father. This book is nearly a decade old now, and I’ve read it perhaps three times in that span, though I was never a Dear Sugar reader in its digital incarnation despite being a fan of the advice column genre. Strayed is funny, compassionate, and honest, and her writing is both beautiful and compelling. In a year full of comfort (re)reads this was lovely to return to once more.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Essays

Canada Reads Along 2021: Two Trees Make a Forest

Cover image for Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Leeby Jessica J. Lee

ISBN 9781646220007

“I find in the cedar forest a place where the old trees can span all our stories, where three human generations seem small. The forest stands despite us.”

Jessica J. Lee grew up in Ontario, a biracial child more connected to her father’s large Welsh-Canadian family than her mother’s side of the family tree, which hailed from China via Taiwan. She knew only her maternal grandparents, Po and Gong. For most of her life she was unbothered by this, however, as she grew older she developed an “inarticulate longing” for both her family history, and the island from which they had come to Canada. Her grandfather was lost to Alzheimer’s disease, and her grandmother spoke rarely of the past before her death, leaving Lee to take her own journey to Taiwan with her mother in order to reconnect with her family history. In revisiting the scenes of her mother’s childhood, as well as hiking and biking through the forests and marshes of the island, Lee explores the importance of place to our understanding of self.

As an environmental historian, Lee is concerned with the physical island of Taiwan, with its geography, flora and fauna, in addition to its anthropological history and personal connection. Her book is memoir meets family history meets travelogue. On her first trip to Taiwan as an adult, Lee writes, “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s history through green and unfurling dendrological time, to that which far exceeds the scope of my understanding: the deep and fathomless span of geological time.” In trying to understand her family’s past, she also traces the island’s history of colonization, first being claimed by China in the late 1600s, roughly contemporary with the arrival of Western explorers, and briefly passing into Japanese hands for a generation, before becoming the home of China’s exiled nationalist government.

Lee’s trip to Taiwan came after efforts to satisfy her longing through reading were mixed at best, and alienating at worst, being a by-product of the island’s long history of colonialism. She found that many English accounts of the island were written by nineteenth-century British geographers, and “these portrayals mingled beauty with fear, with curiosity and exoticism, occasionally with disgust. Though written in English, I struggled to find in them a language I could share.” Mapmaking was similarly fraught by the cataloguing efforts of both Chinese and Japanese colonial administrators steadily pushing the island’s indigenous people deeper into the mountains.

Language is also a theme that runs through the book, as Lee tries to reclaim some of the native tongue that has been lost to her. As a white-passing woman in Taiwan, she is asked why her Mandarin is so good, but if she reveals that her mother is from Taiwan, then she is asked why it is so bad. Language is a crucial barrier between herself and her family’s past. An important letter left by her grandfather upon his death must be entrusted to translators, and her mother’s annotations. Through her descriptions, Lee is able to convey how the language was both part of her, and not. When her mother taught her the Mandarin names for Taiwan’s plant life while they were hiking through the mountainous forests, Lee “found in them a longing to remember the things I had not known.” In a note at the beginning of the text, Lee explains the difficulties in something as seemingly simple as rendering Chinese and Taiwanese place names into roman letters; Lee was taught Hanyu Pinyin, while her elders prefer to use Wade-Giles, and she had to grapple with both systems to write her account in English.

Two Trees Make a Forest is a memoir about the vast complexities of identity, and Lee does a beautiful job of articulating the nuances. Her family are settlers in Canada, and she is simultaneously grappling with the fact that her family is part of a long history of Chinese colonialism in Taiwan. Her own grandparents only arrived there as rival governments were tearing China apart in the aftermath of the country’s revolution. “My mother, sister, and I stumbled over whether to call ourselves Chinese—we weren’t from a China that existed any longer—or Taiwanese. No single word can contain the movement that carried our story across waters, across continents,” Lee explains. “Political migrants. Exiles. Colonists. Diaspora. The past has many words for my grandparents’ generations, all of them containing a grain of truth.”

At the same time, her family was also on the receiving end of imperialism; her grandmother was living in Nanjing during the horrific Japanese invasion that is sometimes called the Rape of Nanking. “She never spoke of what happened in Nanjing. But I gleaned its seriousness at a young age through her unwillingness to set foot in a Japanese car or the ways she would suck her teeth in frustrated response to Japanese electronics,” Lee explains of her explosively difficult grandmother, known affectionately as Po.

In her memoir, Lee blends history, geography, language and family legacy in a meditative account of what it means to be caught between worlds: “I belong in a forest in a much bigger, colder country. I am not built for heat any more than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves.” The liminality of her account is an inherent part of its beauty, and her unique perspective.

Two Trees Make a Forest was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by singer-songwriter Scott Helman. In his opening argument, Helman touted the book for its intersection of humanity and environmentalism, using the specificity of Lee’s family history to address the universal theme of finding our place in the world. His was the only non-fiction book at the table this year, and drew some early fire from other panelists. Day One of the program is full of panelist introductions, book trailers, opening statements, and author spotlights, with only a little bit of room for debate. Often the best thing a book can hope for is to fly low and avoid initial notice, something over which the defender has little control.

This year’s Canada Reads theme is “one book to transport us,” and the opening debate focused on how well the books did that at this moment, in the midst of a pandemic. No less than three of the panelists called out Two Trees Make a Forest as the book that did not work for them in this regard, with Rosey Edeh citing the non-linear structure, Roger Mooking pointing to the distraction of the environmental descriptions, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee arguing that the book was overambitious. Helman’s rebuttal suggested that this is a book that calls for the reader to take a moment, a breath, and appreciate the Earth, and how the stories of our lives and the Earth are intertwined. He encouraged readers to make room for that.

When the time all too quickly came to cast the first round of ballots, Scott Helman and Devery Jacobs voted against The Midnight Bargain, while the other three panelists cast their votes to make Two Trees Make a Forest the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Check out these past Canada Reads contenders:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong

A Paradise Built in Hell

Cover image for A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnitby Rebecca Solnit

ISBN 9781101459010

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in doing so they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be.”

What happens when a disaster disrupts our communities? If you’ve watched any Hollywood depictions, or followed popular media accounts, the images are immediately of panicked crowds, followed by savage competition for scarce resources. But in the field of disaster studies, crowd panic is found to be far less common, and altruistic, prosocial responses much more the norm. In a large scale disaster, you’re more likely to be helped by your neighbour or your coworker than by an emergency responder or relief worker. So why is the popular conception of how people respond to catastrophic events so skewed? In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit uses six major disasters to examine how the public really responds in a large scale emergency, and how the responses—or lack thereof—by authorities can undermine the altruism, community-building and prosocial behaviour that naturally occur, as well as the role the media can play in perpetuating these misconceptions.

Solnit uses six major disasters, three historical, and three more recent, as her case studies. Working in chronological order, she begins with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, proceeds to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and then turns to the London Blitz. For more recent history, she examines the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 9/11 attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Throughout, she blends these historical accounts with information from the academic field of disaster studies, contrasting these studies and theories of behaviour with more popular conceptions and reports. The case studies are a mix of natural disasters and man-made events; the Halifax explosion was an accident, while the Blitz and 9/11 were deliberate acts of human violence. While earthquakes and hurricanes are natural occurrences, Solnit pays particular attention to how the response of authorities after a natural disaster can create second, man-made disaster, and by contrast, how public response and organizing following a disaster can lead to political change.

A key concept in the book is elite panic, a term coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers University. Both academics in the field of disaster studies, they noticed that while authorities planning for disaster response were preoccupied with how to control public reaction, in fact it was often the authorities themselves that panicked and over reacted. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the acting commander of the Presidio marched the army out in the streets, nominally to provide aid, but in fact essentially instituting martial law in the city without the required approval of Congress. Ordered to shut down saloons and prevent the sale of alcohol, troops went a step further and began breaking into businesses to destroy their stock. Ordered to prevent looting, they shot people who had been invited by business owners to take groceries and supplies before their businesses burned in the fires that followed the earthquake. In fact, the troops were so industrious in the prevention of any possibility of looting, that they also prevented residents from fighting the fires. In each disaster, Solnit demonstrates that the most brutal acts are often committed by those seeking to preserve or restore their authority, not by panicked members of the general public, who are often preoccupied with helping one another.

In several places throughout the book, Solnit takes particular aim at the popular myth of looting in the aftermath of disaster. In a number of the cases cited in the book, including the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, authorities directed police or the military to shoot anyone who tried to take any property, even with permission. Solnit argues that the term looting “conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing.” Taking a television in a flooded city without electricity is theft; taking food, medical supplies, or the means to build shelter or escape drowning is requisitioning. Myths about looting can be particularly harmful because they make people afraid of one another. After Hurricane Katrina, the rumours about looting and violence in New Orleans led authorities in the neighbouring community of Gretna on the other side the Mississippi River to blockade the bridge and refuse to accept any refugees. Solnit also worked with journalist A.C. Thompson on a major story about how white residents of Algiers Point, a suburb of New Orleans, formed vigilante bands to defend their property. Thompson found that this impromptu militia shot at least eleven African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the name of preventing looting. When the general public behaves badly in the aftermath of a disaster, it is often a more powerful group acting out against a minority. Some Germans were targeted in Halifax before it was determined the explosion was accident rather than an act of war by the enemy, and after a major earthquake in Japan in 1923, the minority Korean community was accused of committing arson or poisoning wells.

In contrast to the elite panic is the general behaviour of the public. Solnit argues that “the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave,” and she is able to back this up with ample evidence from academic disaster studies, and her various case studies. In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, the community set up camps and impromptu food kitchens in the city’s parks. After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat owners crowded into the city to rescue the stranded even while authorities argued that it was too dangerous to enter the city. In the Twin Towers, occupants began an orderly staircase evacuation, even when the Port Authority directed residents of the South Tower to stay inside after first plane struck. The accounts from that day include a disabled man who was carried down in a relay by his colleagues. The urge to help one another is powerful, and so many people felt the need to do something, anything, to be of use to the evacuation and rescue operation. Volunteer services available to the victims and rescue workers included everything from food to counselling to massage therapy. This is mutual aid, which means that “every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one way street of charity.”

In addition to altruism and community, Solnit examines the opportunities for political change that can be provided by the upheaval of disaster. She argues that “disasters open up societies to change, accelerate change that was under way, or break the hold of whatever was preventing change.” She is quick to note however that change and progress are not necessarily equivalent. Nevertheless, an opportunity arises. In her account of the Mexico City earthquake, Solnit follows the story of the city’s seamstresses, many of whom worked in sweatshops that were destroyed by the quake. Their employers prioritized saving equipment over saving people, and in many cases disappeared without paying outstanding wages or severance. This led to the unionization of the seamstresses. A housing rights movement also grew out of the disaster, because many homes were destroyed due to the shoddy construction that had been overlooked by corrupt government officials and inspectors. The contrasting cases of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are particularly interesting here, because they both happened under the Bush administration. Whereas the first was used to consolidate power and curtail freedoms in the name of patriotism and safety, the latter opened up the administration to unprecedented criticism and opposition.

I picked up A Paradise Built in Hell following reading Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz, which I reviewed last week. Nawaz cites the book in her acknowledgements as an important source that informed how she wrote her characters’ response to disaster, opting against the more usual depictions of panic. Solnit doesn’t use any pandemics as examples, and indeed a pandemic would seem, by the very nature of contagion, to prevent such altruism and community-building, but Nawaz’s book, despite being written before COVID-19, proved to be a very accurate description of what life has actually been like since the pandemic began. And certainly we now know that the disruption of our ability to gather as families and communities has been one of the most difficult consequences of the pandemic. While it can be uncomfortable to try to think about positive outcomes of horrifying disasters in which people lose their lives, it can also be uplifting to be offered a more positive portrait of human nature in the face of disaster, especially in the midst of one.

You might also like Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg

The Great Influenza

Cover image for The Great Influenza by John M. Barryby John M. Barry

ISBN 9781101200971

“It seemed now as if there had never been life before the epidemic. The disease informed every action of every person in the city.”

On the heels of The Great War—now better known as World War I—a much more rapacious killer swept the globe, leaving a death toll that dwarfed the war in its invisible wake. As the influenza pandemic raged, medical scientists practically took up residence in their laboratories, seeking the elusive pathogen that was piling up bodies on their doorsteps. Wave after wave broke over the globe, but still the cause, a treatment, a vaccine, remained just beyond grasp. Recently modernized, American medical science clashed with nature and fell short, despite the concerted efforts of investigators such as Paul A. Lewis, Oswald Avery, and the team of William H. Park and Anna Wessel Williams. John M. Barry combines war, disease, and history of medicine in this account of 1918 flu pandemic, which remains one of the deadliest in human history.

The Great Influenza is broadly interested in the history of medicine, and specifically the evolution of the American medical tradition, and how it came to be transformed and modernized, finally becoming a scientific endeavour. Barry goes so far back as the Hippocratic and Galenic medical traditions, tracing progress through Paracelsus and Vesalius before discussing the stagnation of medical progress, and America’s late arrival to the scientific medical revolution. He spends significant time on the establishment of Johns Hopkins in 1876, the first modern medical laboratory in the United States to be modeled after state of the art institutions in Europe. The hospital and medical school would be added later, and for the first time prospective doctors in the United States would be required to have a college degree, as well as be fluent in French and German for admission. The establishment and contributions of the Rockefeller Institute also receive significant attention, if not quite as much detail as Johns Hopkins. This contextualization takes up about the first quarter of the book before Barry turns his attention to the pandemic proper.

Barry begins in Kansas in January and February of 1918, following Dr. Loring Miner, who observed an unusually violent influenza among his rural patients that winter which may have been the forerunner of what is now thought of as the first spring wave of a pandemic that would ultimately take as many as 100 million lives. He then turns his attention to Camp Funston, also located in Kansas. Although he briefly acknowledges that the exact origin of the outbreak is not proven, he considers this the most likely, and proceeds from there. From army camp to laboratory to naval shipyard to community spread, Barry follows the pathogen, and the people who were trying to identify it, and create a treatment or vaccine. Barry’s account of the pandemic is largely Amerocentric. (For a book with a slightly more global perspective, I would recommend Pale Rider by Laura Spinney.) Late in the book Barry makes a brief circuit of the globe, with cursory accounts of the death tolls in various locales, but this is not the focus of the book. On the home front, he uses Philadelphia as a particular case study. The city was home to a naval shipyard, and held the Liberty Loan Parade to raise money for war bonds in late September of 1918, just as the deadly second wave was breaking upon the city. The results were catastrophic, almost apocalyptic.

At times Barry seems to wish he was writing a biography, with figures such as William Henry Welch, Paul A. Lewis, and—to a lesser degree—Oswald Avery occupying large amounts of his attention, even taking time to detail lulls in their careers when they were not making significant contributions. Welch, though not much of a laboratory scientist himself, was a key player in the transformation of the American medical establishment, and an important mentor and power broker in the field. Both Lewis and Avery spent the war and the years that followed in the laboratory investigating influenza, but neither would identify the virus, and their most signal scientific accomplishments would be in other areas. Lewis would be remembered largely for his work on polio, and Avery for his ground breaking discoveries regarding DNA. Both the war and the pandemic would pass, and it would be the 1930s before the virus was at last discovered. This receives only cursory attention in the final section.

A significant cautionary note that emerges from The Great Influenza is the danger of government misinformation and inaction. Because of the war, information about influenza was tightly repressed, as it was believed to have a negative influence on morale. As Barry puts it, “What officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured.”  In practice, the cognitive dissonance of seeing friends and neighbours dying all around while the press and government continued to print reassurances that there was nothing to be concerned about proved significantly more destructive to the social fabric. Trust eroded, and in the absence of reliable information, people simply had to fend for themselves. Read in the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, this makes The Great Influenza a chilling combination of reassurance and despair. It—which is to say the disease itself—could be so much worse, and yet more than a hundred years later, we are still making so many of the same mistakes.

You might also like Spillover by David Quammen

The American Plague

Cover image for The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosbyby Molly Caldwell Crosby

ISBN 9781440620461

“Nature had found the perfect place to hide the yellow fever virus. It seeded itself in the blood, blooming yellow and running red.”

Long before the idea that mosquitoes could spread disease was scientifically proven and medically accepted, diseases like malaria and yellow fever were wreaking havoc, spreading from West Africa to the Caribbean and up the Mississippi River Valley on the gossamer wings of aedes aegypti. People who had never been in contact with anyone who was ill mysteriously succumbed, as if the disease was in the very air. In The American Plague, journalist Molly Caldwell Crosby chronicles how yellow fever arrived in North America, the devastating effects of an outbreak, the efforts to uncover how the disease was spread, and finally the journey to a vaccine.

The American Plague has two main subjects; the 1878 yellow fever outbreak in Memphis, Tennessee, and the work of Walter Reed, James Carroll, Jesse Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte on the Yellow Fever Board in Havana during the Spanish-American War. A Memphian herself, Crosby begins with the Memphis outbreak, a devastating event that killed at least 5000 people, in a city with a population of only 40, 000—half of whom fled at the onset of the epidemic. There were not enough doctors and nurses to care for the sick, and medical volunteers arriving in Memphis were often stricken by yellow fever within days of arrival, adding to the burden. With deep access to the local history, Crosby pulls out fascinating details, such as the caretaker’s daughter who kept the cemetery’s record book, writing down each name and ringing the bell for the dead, until she succumbed to yellow fever herself.

Economic imperatives and subsequent devastation surround this narrative, beginning with the slave trade, which was the vehicle that brought yellow fever from West Africa to the Americas, satisfying the thirst for free labour at the cost of human life. Crosby recounts how yellow fever would typically arrive in New Orleans via the Caribbean, and then make its way up the Mississippi River Valley. Port cities were caught between the desire to prevent disease and the economic benefits of not quarantining incoming ships. Cargoes such as fruit from the Caribbean could be destroyed by a quarantine. The Memphis Board of Health voted against a quarantine in 1878, only to have the city economically destroyed anyway; the outbreak was so severe that the city was bankrupted, and its charter revoked. I found this particularly striking in the midst of the fraught economic debates currently surrounding COVID-19 containment measures.

After illustrating the devastating effects of yellow fever on both human life and the American economy, Crosby shifts her attention to the efforts to discover the cause of yellow fever, and create a vaccine against it. When the Yellow Fever Board was assembled in Havana in 1900, they were building on the work of Dr. Juan Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor who had proposed the mosquito as the vector for yellow fever two decades earlier, to much ridicule. What is most interesting here, however, is the various controversies surrounding the work. Members of the board experimented upon themselves, and on army volunteers, but also carefully recruited and groomed new Spanish immigrants to Cuba, using large financial incentives to get them to consent to participating in the experiments. Army doctor Jesse Lazear, who was the head of the mosquito work, died of yellow fever which is now suspected to have been self-inflicted, but was covered up at the time. James Carroll eventually died in 1907 of the lasting complications of yellow fever contracted in the course of his work in Havana. From there Crosby goes on to the work of Max Theiler, who invented a vaccine for yellow fever, infecting thousands of American soldiers with hepatitis in the process—although to be fair to Theiler, he expressed his concerns about the widespread use of this vaccine and was overruled in favour of ensuring that American soldiers deploying for World War II were inoculated.

Although Crosby dedicates a significant amount of the book to medical investigations, I would describe this account of yellow fever as more cultural than epidemiological. She doesn’t delve deeply into any of the virology or the nitty gritty scientific details. Although she briefly mentions that the difficulty in proving the mosquito hypothesis was a matter of the timing of the reproductive cycle of the virus, she never does get around to fully explaining the viremic window for infection between mosquitoes and humans, or a more than cursory exploration of the zoonotic origins of the disease. Nevertheless, The American Plague is an interesting look at how one tiny virus significantly shaped the course of American history, and I would recommend it for those more interested in the human impacts of pandemic than the science surrounding it.

More pandemic reads:

Spillover by David Quammen

Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

China Syndrome by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David Quammenby David Quammen

ISBN 978-0-393-23922-5

“Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another. And they are not simply happening to us: they represent the unintended results of things we are doing.”

I picked up this book because my last couple of pandemic reads had left me particularly curious about the phenomenon of zoonosis. Zoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, when the fragile ecological balance of the world is disrupted in a new way, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Sometimes, that spillover is a dead end; the circumstances are so unique that they may never occur again. Or the virus can be transmitted to humans, but not between people: game over. But the thing that keeps virologists up at night is the pathogen spillovers that are not only virulent—highly deadly to humans—but also highly transmissible between humans once the species boundary has been breached. With the possibility of the Next Big One always looming, David Quammen takes the reader through famous outbreaks of zoonotic illnesses, with sections on Hendra, Ebola, malaria, SARS, Lyme, Nipah and HIV.

David Quammen is a journalist with a long history of covering zoonosis, with the consequent experience in translating a highly technical subject for a lay audience. As detailed in the book, his field journalism has taken him on several expeditions with top scientists working to trace the origins of various zoonoses, from Africa to Asia, following bats, gorillas, and chimpanzees. He interviews people as world famous as Jane Goodall, and specialists who are only rockstars to those who pay close attention to the world of virology. Spillover was published in 2013, and presages not only the 2014 Ebola outbreak, but the current COVID-19 situation as well. That isn’t to say that Quammen or his experts explicitly predicted it; in fact, the final chapter of the book focuses on influenza in particular, and the possibility of avian influenza (H5N1) achieving human-to-human transmission. But COVID-19 is, like influenza, an RNA virus with all the rapid mutation that entails. The broad point is not predicting any specific spillover, which would be virtually impossible, but rather illuminating the circumstances that make these types of events all but inevitable.

One very interesting trend that emerges is bats, which have been implicated as the reservoir host for a variety of spillover viruses. Nipah and Hendra, for example, are confirmed to originate with bats. In his 2006 book China Syndrome, Karl Taro Greenfeld followed the trail of SARS to palm civets in southeastern China’s wild animal markets. But in Spillover, Quammen takes the reader through more recent evidence that palm civets were actually an amplifier or transitional host that enabled the virus to reach humans from bats. Although the reservoir for Ebola remains unconfirmed, virologists are looking at bats with great interest. Unfortunately, Quammen’s reporting reveals that the significance of bats in all this is still poorly understood. It could just be that there are so many bats; at 1116 species, they account for one quarter of all mammal varieties. The fact that they live in large roosts conducive to spreading the virus within their communities, combined with their mobility and range could also be significant. But until bat immunology is better understood, the answer to why so many spillover events seem to originate with bats cannot be more than speculative.

I also found the section on HIV/AIDS particularly interesting because most of the books I have read on the subject focus on the cultural history, specifically the impact on the gay community. None of those books have tended to look further back than the Canadian flight attendant who become known as Patient Zero in a study that focused on a North American outbreak cluster in the early 1980s. Quammen’s interest is more epidemiological, and the story of HIV is particularly fascinating because the science suggests that the spillover event took place much earlier than one might have expected—perhaps as early as 1908. However, this section does get a bit bogged down with a long, imaginative tangent where Quammen uses the little available evidence to extrapolate a narrative sequence about a hunter who ultimately brings HIV out of the forest. The true Patient Zero for HIV will never be known, and while Quammen’s imagining isn’t implausible based on the available evidence, it nevertheless feels out of place in this otherwise very factual book.

Spillover is on the long side—the print edition comes in at nearly 600 pages—and a bit technical at times, but if you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of  the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. The chapter on Lyme disease is particularly apt in its illustration of how important the ecosystem is to prevalence of a disease. If you’re not up for the full volume, Quammen has published Ebola and The Chimp and the River, both short extracts from this larger book focusing on Ebola and HIV respectively. If, like me, information is your coping mechanism of choice at the moment, you’ll emerge from Spillover with a much better contextual understanding of our current situation, armed with many of the essential concepts for understanding the virology and epidemiology underpinning the ongoing public health conversation that will be dominating our discourse for the foreseeable future.

You might also like Pale Rider by Laura Spinney