Reviews Roundup | 6 February

The critics' verdicts on Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, Sherill Tippins and Ray Jayawardhana.

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Phillip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott

Farmageddon may at first appear to be another “enviro-shocker”: a bloody guilt trip, taking the reader from one gruesome factory to another, with little respite, but Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott have instead delivered a journey through a world of intensified farming, with plenty of possible solutions.

Farmageddon stands out from other books of its genre because it doesn’t rest heavily on visceral details from industrial farming and its impact on animals. Instead, according to Alex Renton of the Evening Standard, “Lymbery turns out to be a humanist animal-lover ... He lays out a sad and comprehensive case against modern, industrial farming but his argument is about much more than the welfare of animals and the difficult question of what moral duties we have to them. It is about whether the rich world’s lust for cheap meat is going to destroy the planet and starve us”. The book promises an insight into the impact of overconsumption of cheap foods by the rich, on the living standards of the poor, now and in the future.

However, Ross Clark of the Times claims that a consideration of the costs of a food revolution is precisely what is severely lacking in the book: “Much as Lymbery tries to convince us that Western consumers are enjoying their cheap meat on the backs of the world’s poor, there is much evidence to suggest that industrialised farming is helping to improve nutrition worldwide.”

A number of critics have highlighted Lymbery’s background as a campaigner and activist for Compassion in World Farming. The Guardian’s Tristam Stuart praises the authors for being pragmatic in their approach to the urgent problems in the food industry, resulting in a punchy, accessible book: “Lymbery brings to this essential subject the perspective of a seasoned campaigner – he is informed enough to be appalled, and moderate enough to persuade us to take responsibility for the system that feeds us.”

The Observer’s Lucy Seigle praises the book for its wider perspective, provided by Oakeshott, refining Lymbery’s arguments by challenging any prejudices about intensified meat production: “The overriding effect is the wholesale destruction of the myths that are used to sell intensive agriculture to populations around the world ... In fact, Farmageddon also lays out enough evidence to challenge complicity.”

Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins

At a crossroads for the future of New York City’s infamous Chelsea Hotel, Inside the Dream Palace is a poignant biography of a building and its ecosystem. The home for over a century of songwriting, drugtaking, sex, and suicide; the haven of artists of all kinds in need of space or inspiration has finally received an epitaph, before it is redeveloped for a new generation. The book, however, has received a mixture of criticism and, disappointingly for gossip-hungry readers, not for any slanderous accounts of the inhabitants.

Ada Calhoun of the New York Times writes about the lack of any new or revolutionary material; the book's want of scandalous and long-awaited anecdotes from the kind of exclusive interviews one would expect after years of research. However, the Independent’s Charlotte Raven relishes the biography’s inescapable sauciness: “Tippen tries to distinguish fact from fiction, but happily, her history still reads like a tall tale; as gossipy as any of the Chelsea denizens.”

Commended by Calhoun is Tippins's “measured tone” through the blaze of high-strung bohemia, with due respect for what she describes as Tippins's role as “a quiet authority [with] the soothing vibe of shepherd to an acid trip”. Yet Peter Conrad criticises her as “startlingly moralistic” for the very same reason, “given the funkiness of her subject”.

Despite questions about the author’s standpoint and “cool”, the book cannot be faulted for the interest it has provoked in the hotel’s future, and for those who are made to relive its past through precious anecdotes, for better or for worse. 

Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Ray Jayawardhana

“Whenever anything cool happens in the universe, neutrinos are usually involved.” The recent celebrity of an otherwise silent particle, the neutrino, has been warmly welcomed to the astrophysics stage after decades of scepticism.

Dubbed an “astrophysics detective thriller”, Jayawardhana tells the contentious tales of the discoveries surrounding neutrinos - elusive, tiny, human-neutral particles that have historically been blamed for or credited with the inexplicable - and what they implicate for the future of our understanding of the universe.

The book has been upheld by Robert McKie, writing in the Observer, as a clear and vibrant detangling of the hunt; its eccentric huntsmen leading the way. While most have praised this character-led history of the particle’s research, the Economist criticises the book for at times sounding “a little too much like a professional CV”, in contrast with its contemporary, The Perfect Wave by Heinrich Päs, which is richer in theory and scientific explanation.

According to the Boston Globe’s Jennifer Latson, the book’s strength lies in its “lively and endearingly nerdy” voice, coupled with an excitement for the future, as Jayawardhana details the next generation of investigation into many realms of physics, exploring the possibilities of tracking the particles and where they could lead us theoretically and commercially.

Since its launch at the end of 2013, the book has received much praise, with its entertaining storytelling by Jayawardhana - an award-winning science writer and celebrated researcher - applauded widely.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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