Reviews Round-Up

The critic's verdicts on Nate Silver, Alice Munro and Ben Thompson's Mary Whitehouse biography

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

Ever since Nate Silver induced global jaw-dropping when he correctly predicted 50 out of 50 states for the US election last week, his revered status in the field of psephology has been guaranteed. With his new book, however, his ranking on the bestsellers chart will surely rest on another question – can he make statistics sexy?

Just about so, according to Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times, "'Fascinating' is perhaps not a word you associate with statistics," he begins. "Well, get used to it." This "fat and fascinating book" succeeds in its aim of explaining a niche subject lucidly to a broad audience. Sophisticated mathematical models may not be the stuff of great literature, but Appleyard insitsts that Silver’s book is "full of satisfying facts", and "a useful attempt to explain a complicated and dynamic field".

If the reader is expecting a detective-style work in the genre of Freakonomics, or a "classic underdog tale" like Moneyball,  however, The Signal and the Noise may dissapoint, warns Noam Scheiber writing in the New York Times. "This one isn’t so much about his [Silver's] rise to statistical godliness, though it includes a smidgen of back story. It’s largely about evaluating predictions in a variety of fields, from finance to weather to epidemiology." Silver’s book, he goes on, "is more like an engagingly written user’s manual, with forays into topics like dynamic nonlinear systems". Ruth Scurr, reviewing for the Guardian agrees that the book is, in essence, "a lucid explanation of how to think probabilistically", rather than a populist work.

Still, these are the only criticism in what is otherwise a sea of praise, and you can see why. The recent election success has donated an awe of the modern-day oracle to Silver, and its no surprise he’s captured the public imagination. As Schieber notes, it’s as if there’s "no question he couldn’t answer with a big enough spreadsheet".

Dear Life by Alice Munro

The literary world has long been lacking a high enough hyperbole for Alice Munro. Can this – her latest collection of stories, published as the writer just turned 81 - maintain that same inimitable standard? Carrie Synder, writing for the Canadian National Post, doesn’t beat about the bush; “These stories are perfect. Of course they are”.

All the critics are unanimous that Dear Life, offers exactly what we would expect from Munro, and we’ve come to expect nothing less than linguistic and structural flawlessness. Each aspects of a Munro story are there, her characters are ‘bare and true’ according to Anne Enright in the Guardian. Her prose is "piercingly clear'"and "brisk - moving" notes Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times. But most pressingly, what we reputedly turn to Munro for is her devastating emotional resonance, and once again, Dear Life doesn’t disappoint; "You can't get away from people, in these stories. Even the ones you thought had wandered off show up again, if only to be avoided, if only as a voice in the next room".

In fact, critics have started to take it to so far for granted that a Munro collection will deliver the goods that much of the reviews are concerned not with weighing up her quality, but with deconstructing her literary techniques so as to explore exactly how she achieves her effects. Kemp delves into the mechanics of her technique, noting that "a perfectly chosen word crisps up a phrase" and "points of view are switched at just the right moment not only to prolong suspense but to deepen complication", whilst Synder examines how "even at the sentence level, she constructs fascinating conflict and unexpected oppositions".

The fact of Munro entering her octogenariancy with this collection has lead to speculation on how her writing style has altered, if at all, with age. "The timelines in her stories have become longer, and the sense of fatedness has stretched to match," notes Enright, although the general consensus is that age hasn't affected the writer other than to make her even - if that's possible - better.

Not one of the critics has a complaint of the collection, other than the minor note that Munro has chosen a new approach with the final four works, writing autobiographically in pieces that she herself concedes are "not quite stories". "Though I count myself as one of the people most interested in this writer on planet Earth, I find, to my surprise that they do not hold me in the same way – it is Munro's stories that I want; not her, after all" notes Enright of these works.

Look out for the review of Dear Life in the next issue of the New Statesman.


BAN THIS FILTH! Letter from the Mary Whitehouse Archive edited by Ben Thompson

Mary Whitehouse is, in many ways, the dream subject for a new biography. On the one hand, her entire character was something of "a gift to the satirist", and secondly, her persistent complaints at the moral demise of the BBC are oddly prophetic, given that the Newsnight omnishambles saga continues to dominate headlines this week. Critics of Ben Thompson’s book universally praise the poignant insights it lends into the very current question of morality and the media, "a fascinating book" amounting to "a net-curtain-twitching cultural history" says William Cook in this week’s New Statesman.

Cook notes that Thompson made a positive decision to veer away from the structural hallmarks of biography, “rather than writing a standard biography…Ben Thompson has hit upon the bright idea of annotating the letters...from her extensive archive”.

The highlight of the book, critics agree, is its humour. Cook is impressed by the ‘good jokes’, whilst Dominic Sandbrook in the Sunday Times goes further, citing a "hilarious book" with "comic gems on almost every page".

Critics are similarly united at Thompson’s  decision to respectfully portray Whitehouse as an intelligent woman with strong logic behind her actions, rather than ridiculing her endlessly. "To his credit, the author resists the temptation to sneer too much at ­Whitehouse," notes Sandbrook, whilst Andew Anthony, writing in the Guardian elaborates "he respects Whitehouse as a cultural phenomenon but is also archly drawn to her value as a social joke".

Martin Fletcher in the Independent goes on to conclude, "Ben Thompson's witty and engaging commentary is admirably even-handed: 'we complained about her when she was alive, we sort of miss her now she's gone.'"

Alice Munro in 2009 (Photo credit: PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)
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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times