Sunday, 18 September 2016

Two reviews of depressing books.

Both of the books are depressing as they deal with topics showing humanity isn't doing a very good job.

The Sixth Extinction: Elizabeth Kolbert

The basic point of the book is that the Earth is in the middle of a Sixth Major Extinction with the actions of humanity as the major cause thereof.  I have no major argument with this premise.  

The first half of the book deals mainly with the archaeological back story of three of the previous five major extinctions.  It also covers the history of theories of extinction, which was very interesting. The second half seemed to degenerate a bit into an "Ain't it awful" litany of current problems and didn't interest me as much.

My main problem with the book was that it didn't seem to have a framework against which to pitch its story.  The discussions of both the pre-historic and current events seem to beg questions and leave gaps which I found frustrating.  If the author is going to bag humanity for causing the 6th extinction I would have thought it basic to state clearly what caused the first 5. Here is my take on what is said in the book on this topic:
  1. Ordovician: 440 million years ago - sea life wiped out, Glaciation was cause.
  2. Devonian: about 350 million years ago - reef building stopped.  Cause unclear - acidification?
  3. Permian: 250 years ago - 90% of species whupped.  Warming was cause.
  4. Triassic: 200 million years ago: not clear what vanished or the cause.
  5. Cretaceous: 60 million years ago.  Ammonites and Dinosaurs.  The asteroid!
It is possible to research and plug these gaps (and I probably will)  although in one case she quotes a scientist as saying that interpretation of something is not agreed "There's a body in the library and half a dozen butlers walking around looking sheepish.".  I felt the book could have done more to clarify what the state of play is.

With regard to mankind's role in #6 she gives examples but doesn't try to bring them together.  Perhaps she needs a taxonomy of extinctions?  Again here is my take:
  • Frogs: being wiped out by the Chytrid fungus.  Mankind's role seems to have been to transport the fungus around. 
  • Mammoths etc: Hunted unsustainably,  Mankind's role is directly as a killer.
  • Great Auk: again unsustainable hunting.
  • Forests: Climate change, with mankind's role being the pollution that is causing this.
  • Bats in the Americas: killed by fungus.  Mankind has transported the fungus to areas where the bats have not developed mechanisms to tolerate the fungus.
  • Tropical life generally: Deforestation: man has cleared the forests to raise food.
My thinking about this lack was a comment by Frances that fungus seems to be the direct problem in two cases.  The book does not make it as clear as it could that in both fungal cases mankind's involvement is as a transport vector.

I don't recall the book saying that over all of this is mankind's abuse of resources through there being too many people .  Perhaps you don't say that if you want to sell books in the Bible belt of the US?

Overall I'd give this about 7/10: close, but no cigar.

The Spirit Level: Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The basic thrust of this book is that many social ills in developed economies are attributable to income inequality.  After an introductory part 1 explaining what they are investigating and the sources of their data, they discuss in Part 2 several failings of society and how they can be linked to inequality of income.  Part three is titled "A better society" and is basically forward looking,  There is also a very interesting postscript.

I found Part 1 useful in that it is deliberately written in simple language, and gives the basic ideas in plain language.  Anyone, except of course a One Nation Senator, could understand what they are on about.  The discussion of self-esteem in this Part I found particularly interesting, with the view that (like cholesterol) there is good self-esteem and bad self-esteem with the latter more closely resembling narcissism (aka greedy self interest)

The first evidence for each failing given is a correlation analysis by means of a chart.  This is then supplemented by discussion supporting the view that there is a causal link between inquality and the failing in question, rather than simply a coincidence.  In the postscript the authors address some of the criticisms of Part 2 noting in particular that the strength of their arguments is not that any particular "ill" is correlated with inequality but that all those they consider show this characteristic.

My one doubt is about the significance of some of their relationships.  As I didn't have their data is attempted to duplicate it by measuring the distance of the points in their published graphs from the axes.  In the following example the points represent countries and for the one from which I have drawn lines, line A shows that the point for this country was 28mm from the Y axis and and line B shows it to be 21mm from the X axis.  Thus my measures for this country are 21 and 28 while the measures of the authors show the country to have a quite low index of inequality and about 12% of the population to have some form of mental illness.  I don't think this difference of scale would affect the value of R2 but will of course play Hob with the equations of the trend line.
I repeated this for each of the countries and then applied Excel's trend line function.
 I then repeated the exercise for another chart with slightly more data points.
From my perspective the correlation coefficients are not strong: I usually regard a value of R2 of about 0.7 as something to get excited about.  However:
  • my method of deriving the plotted values was not that flash; and
  • the authors would (I hope)  have far more sophisticated analytic tools than EXCEL! 
I have tried to obtain the original data and the values of R2 they obtained, but that information has not yet arrived. The data has now arrived (the contact on the website was not at work for a couple of days) and will be played with.  Many thanks Equality Trust.  It is with great embarrassment that I note that the correlation coefficients are in the back of the book under the heading "statistics" and I just didn't realise they were there.  They also give a measure of significance which is entirely supportive of their position.

In part 3 they do address the issues of climate change which overcomes one of my issues when first reading the earlier chapters.

The authors suggest that it would be a good thing if the less developed countries achieved economic growth so that their quality of life approached that of their chosen countries.  They don't suggest how that could be done with the size of the populations involved and the growth rates they are currently showing - but that is not the intention of this book, so they can't be criticised too much for that.

I am not sure how their preferred mechanism for achieving more equal societies (cooperative ownership) could be implemented.  My suspicions are that:

  • in the USA in particular this would be seen as Communism and thus rejected out of hand by those individuals who might lose their undue wealth (and probably a lot of those who might benefit - for example those unfortunates who might vote for Donald Trump) and;
  • that with the current level of narcissism in many societies the same greed-heads would end up in charge
However I found the book to be overall very well written and their core arguments stand up very well.  The depression in this case is due to my pessimism that there is a solution to the problem!

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