Below, my review of ‘The Irrational Ape’ by David Robert Grimes, which was published in the Irish Times on September 22nd last. In an era of fake news, with crackpot theories and conspiratorial nonsense ricocheting around social media at dizzying speed, it’s well worth taking a few hours to step back from the fray and read Grimes’s thoughtful foray into the neverlands, where fact and fiction lose all meaning. If you’ve read Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, you’ll be broadly familiar with much of the ground covered here, but Goldacre’s book is now a decade old, and the world has changed almost beyond recognition since then so The Irrational Ape is as timely as it is readable.
SPARROWS are hardly your typical counter-revolutionaries. Yet, in 1958, the Chinese government, under Chairman Mao Zedong, declared the humble sparrow to be “public animals of capitalism”. What happened next is where farce meets tragedy. Having seen that sparrows eat grain, the authorities ordered a nationwide persecution of the hapless birds. Within a year, more than a billion sparrows were dead, and the species was functionally extinct.
It turns out that insects, rather than grain, were the sparrows’ staple diet. Within a year, grain harvests were devastated by exploding swarms of locusts. Over the next three years, between 15 and 45 million Chinese people had starved to death as a result of the ensuing famine.
This is a standout example of what David Robert Grimes describes as flawed logic, and how it puts us at real risk. The author has set himself the not inconsiderable task of unravelling the many tangled ways in which we deceive ourselves and one another. One possible solution? Learning to think like scientists.
Critical thinking, Grimes notes, is anathema to demagogues and fascists, who promote “an odious strain of anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, which seeks to denigrate critical thought”. A society that is capable of critical thinking and which demands evidence before accepting fanciful claims is, he adds, “immune to the arsenal of eager tyrants”.
Our capacity to reason, Grimes writes, is the clearest hallmark of being human. “We are reflective animals, blessed with metacognition to be aware of that fact.” While the human brain is a singularly impressive organ, “the same organism that routinely solves inferential problems too subtle and complex for the mightiest computers often makes errors in the simplest of judgments about everyday events”.
A physicist and cancer researcher by training, the author returns time and again throughout the book to the topics closest to his heart, namely medical quackery and scientific fraud. He has special scorn for disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield, the man who whipped up the autism-MMR scare that has had such devastating consequences.
“Thanks to the credulous and frankly deplorable conduct of many press outlets, Wakefield’s dubious message spread far and wide,” Grimes states. Three wholly avoidable measles deaths in Dublin and others permanently scarred were some of the victims of this anti-science scaremongering. Last year, there were more than 82,000 cases of measles in Europe.
Vaccines have, to an extent, become victims of their own extraordinary success. While dreaded disease such as polio and smallpox once struck terror into whole communities, the effect of widespread vaccination has been to render them almost invisible. Within a generation, fear of disease has been supplanted by (largely irrational) manufactured fear of vaccines.
Grimes also takes aim at lucrative quackery such as homeopathy and the multibillion-dollar alternative medicines industry, endorsed by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow and replete with New Age pseudo-mysticism. US alternative medicine guru, David Wolfe, for example, describes chocolate as “an octave of sun energy”.
In ordinary circumstances, a book exploring the all-too-human propensity towards self-deception and motivated reasoning might nestle in the anthropology section of the library. However, with reason seemingly in full retreat in the new era of fake news and populist demagoguery, Grimes’s book addresses an all-too-urgent contemporary political question: how do we protect our societies and ourselves from charlatans and fools?
He quotes the late Carl Sagan as observing: “We’ve arranged a global civilisation in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.”
Ignorance is one problem, but arguably a far more intractable one is ideology, the powerful tendency to filter out information that conflicts with our deeply held beliefs or challenges our preconceptions. The internet and social media have placed reassuring falsehoods literally at our fingertips.
Getting people to reconsider core beliefs is exceedingly difficult. “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired,” as Jonathan Swift wryly observed. Reality, the author points out, is ultimately uninterested in our prejudices and egos. Here, he aims a swipe at “contrarian writers and broadcasters who paint themselves as ‘sceptics’ on issues such as climate change or vaccination”.
This is, he argues, usually “a calculated misnomer” as many self-proclaimed sceptics lack genuine scientific scepticism and are simply denialists. True scepticism means being prepared to modify our positions in line with the best available evidence and in light of new information, whether or not we are comfortable with its implications.
The fact that many faux sceptics are otherwise intelligent can mislead. “One might assume that rationality is a byproduct of intelligence, but there is little correlation between intelligence and rationality,” Grimes notes.
The scientific method is a system that is without parallel in winnowing out bad ideas, however seductive or well-argued, in favour of ones that are, simply, less wrong. By its very nature, it is provisional, always ready to adjust to new evidence. “Science is not a collection of immutable facts or sacred dogma; it is a systematic method of inquiry,” Grimes observes.
In political and media discourse, debate is the long-accepted method of arbitrating the truth. However, “debate often rewards not the best arguments but the most devious orators”, Grimes argues. And few scientists are professionally or temperamentally equipped to battle in the public arena with media-savvy spoofers.
And for the author, a passionate science communicator, this feels almost personal: “scientific inquiry is a burning torch . . . it is all that stands between us and the perpetual darkness of ignorance”. His new book is not the first in this arena, but it does bring a fresh perspective, and has been painstakingly researched.
This spirited cocktail of data leavened with anecdotes is served up in Grimes’s trademark provocative, combative style, as he takes on all comers in defence of the science he clearly loves. Non-scientists may find the occasional lapses into verbosity trying, but overall this is a highly creditable debut from a skilled communicator.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator