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Tribal Science by Mike McRae

01/08/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Tribal Science in the USA - or Buy Tribal Science in the UK

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pub: Prometheus Books. 250 page small softcover. Price: $17.00 (US), 16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61614-583-5).

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In case you thought the title, 'Tribal Science', was all to do about your local witchdoctor and then the sub-title, 'Brains, Beliefs And Bad Ideas', actually confirms this. Granted, there are no shaking chicken bones onto the ground or rain dances, but as author Mike McRae shows with this book, it is all too easy to misinterpret the information we receive by doing some simple tests on yourself. If it took a long time to believe in science than witchdoctors, then the act of how we can deceive ourselves is still alive and healthy today as this book illustrates and even its author isn't immune.

Take the opening page of the introduction. I wasn't entirely sure we'd got off to a good start when Australian McRae says he was in Cornwall in the middle of winter and the beaches were quiet. We British might be crazy when it comes to the weather but the majority sensibly stay at home in that season unlike the ozzies where it is still tropical.

Interestingly, areas of Science Fiction do come up in McRae's chapters. He sees SF as our replacement for mythology, which I suppose is right to a degree but doesn't explain why there are more readers of fantasy which still uses olde world mythology, although grant you there are fewer films using that genre.

It's interesting to read him describing the typical image of the lab-coated wild-haired scientist stereotype in the public eye. On some levels, this isn't too far from the truth from my own experience. They do exist although often out-numbered by the ordinary looking scientists but they are also more of a wildcard element providing wilder ideas which often can be backed up with data. McRae points out there are fewer 'Eureka!' moments than, to quote Asimov, 'That's funny...' moments where research finds something different. If anything, it is these latter things that shouldn't be ignored because the likes of penicillin wouldn't have been discovered without them.

McRae using Kenneth Arnold's UFO sighting of how journalist boned his report so that all the public would associate with it was 'flying saucers' to my mind shows how people themselves bone the subjects themselves. We might see word-bytes as something relatively new with the Internet but from this, it looks like we've been doing it far longer as a means to remember information. Maybe this should be a call for more precise information although I doubt if this would change human nature to abridge, rightly or wrongly, what it tries to remember. As we get more sophisticated, maybe we'll keep the shortness but use more complex words or expand differently in our heads.

Equally interesting is how the human desire to find patterns in anything can also be wildly out of kilter when we don't have all the available facts or why gamblers think they can beat the odds at anything. Then again they measure their successes far more than their losses.

Something I wish McRae had explored more is why some people can remember what they were doing accurately when certain events happened and others can't. Unlike McRae, I can remember exactly where I was when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon as well as what I was doing when there was an announcement of Princess Diana's death. For the record, my parents had just turned the Sunday morning TV on in the middle of a newscast during breakfast and I came into the room and queried why the princess was being discussed in the past tense. People do remember events simply because they carry stronger memories than the more mundane day-to-day activities of life.

McRae uses the Loch Ness Monster as an example of people being misled while at the same time not quite getting his facts right at the same time. The immediate area of Loch Ness wasn't highly populated back in the 1930s and still isn't. Indeed, it wasn't until then that a proper road was built there and the reports of a kelpie living there surfaced (sic). Whether there's a creature in the Loch or not is irrelevant to not checking such information.

Looking over this review, I've hit on mostly the bad points where for the most part, McRae does talk a lot of sense on how there needs to be stronger clarity of science and its understanding by the public. If anything, McRae is making the same mistakes that the general public might make as well, like assuming they might also have his own limitation when it comes to recalling event details. Whether this was intentional or not isn't revealed in the text but does suggest no one is immune.

His logic tests were a lot of fun and you learn a lot from them as to how you can be misled by your first choices than thinking through the conclusion. I'd love to see a book investigating this further if for no other reason than it could be used to cultivate better thinking from readers which can't be a bad thing.

I do think you'll learn something from this book. I suspect also that McRae learnt a lot from writing it. If you think you're logical and sensible, this might make you think. I might not fall for all the traps in this book and I hope McRae will take some time to observe these areas in the community. Don't rattle the chicken bones.

GF Willmetts

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This book has 25 votes in the sci-fi charts

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