book review: what we believe but cannot prove

July 18, 2006

in Books


Awhile back, I asked readers to choose the next book review they’d like to see.  What We Believe But Cannot Prove inched out Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent. (For a review of that book, see John’s thoughts and links to other reviews at A DC Birding Blog.  John had reservations  on Pilgrim similar to my own, although mine were a little more strident, as I found the author’s wandering asides and “precious” writing frankly annoying. But I digress…)

What We Believe is a compilation of answers to the question: What do you believe even though you cannot prove it?  According to the cover blurb, these are the “very best answers from the most distinguished contributors.”

Let’s stop right there for a moment.  There are 107 of these “leading thinkers” in the book by my count.  Yet only 14 are female. Around 19% are physicists of some ilk, and another 24% specialize, at least in part, in the field of psychology. Another chunk is made up of computer or technology experts, along with a batch of writers. My expectation of a book of this sort would be that it practice a little gender balance, and sample across a wide range of disciplines.  Instead, most are men from a fairly restricted number of fields. Are there not more distinguished women? No brilliant agronomists, English literature experts, attorneys, pastry chefs, or sanitation workers?

The essays are not formally grouped, but there does seem to be some flow of loosely-related themes.  The book starts out with answers related to evolution and human origins and moves on to matters of faith. Then there are a slew of essays on human cognition, consciousness, and behavior; and it sort of winds up on the nature of the universe.  A minority of great thinkers answered the question with various other beliefs scattered throughout, but over half the essays fall into these categories.  This also seemed a bit limited to me.

Not that I didn’t enjoy some of the pieces. Neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski pondered how one could remember things from 50 years ago when brain molecules are constantly being replaced (he believes old memories are stored in extracellular space). Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey believes human consciousness has evolved to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance. Biologist Donald I. Williamson believes he can explain the Cambrian explosion. I found a handful of the essays, such as these, stimulating.  Others, such as those on string theory or quantum mechanics, I found dense and well, high-falutin’.

The essays are short, generally a few paragraphs to a few pages.  I wish more of the contributors had been stylistically succinct, stating their thesis in the first or last paragraph of their essay.  Not infrequently the authors that did not do so tended to be obtuse; in a few essays, it was too much effort for me to figure out what the hell they believed.  There are a few that wrote about beliefs that seemed to me to be provable.  Anthropologist Robert Trivers, for instance, believes that deceit and self-deception play an important role in human-generated disasters, the underdevelopment of the social sciences, and limiting individual achievement. Couldn’t some metasurvey “prove” this, at least statistically?  I suppose we need to agree on what we mean by proof…which was exactly the topic of mathematician Keith Devlin’s piece.  Leave it to a mathematician to point out uncertainties in the idea of “proof,” while pointing out that “mathematical proof is generally regarded as the most certain form of proof there is.”

So, there were some obvious biases in the making of this book.  While we could conclude that most of the leading minds of today are male physicists, shrinks, and computer nerds, and the most widely unprovable beliefs center around the meaning of life and what it is to be human, I suspect that really isn’t the case. Even if it is, I believe the book would have
been more readable and thought-provoking if there had been a wider variety of great minds and great thoughts.  But you can’t prove it by me.  I’m just a female ecologist.


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