reading list

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A Blog Reading List

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/07/2020 - 11:50pm in

Today I’m sharing a list of blogs that I read frequently. Although I’m ostensibly a political economist, only two of the five blogs below are about economics. The other three are about physics. These physics blogs, however, are interesting because of the sociological aspects of science that they explore. So even if you’re not interested in cosmology or particle physics, it’s worth checking out what these physicists have to say. I think you’ll find that the problems they identify are shared by all areas of science.

1. Backreaction

Written by the German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Backreaction explores ideas in physics as well as general problems in science. Hossenfelder started the blog in 2006, back when blogs were more like diaries (web logs). But over time, she’s turned Backreaction into one of the most-read blogs about physics.

In 2018, Hossenfelder wrote a book called Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. She explores how the idea that theories should be ‘beautiful’ has led physicists into a scientific dead end. It’s a well-written book whose humorous tone belies its important message.

Hossenfelder explores many of the same issues on her blog. She has recently transitioned into video blogging, but her written blog remains home base. You can watch her videos on youtube and read the transcript on Backreaction. I always find her commentary informative, even when I don’t agree with her conclusions.

On a personal note, I respect Hossenfelder because she’s sacrificed her career to speak out about problems in physics. Although a veteran scientist, Hossenfelder hasn’t yet landed a tenured position. She’s put that ideals of science above careerism. I wish more scientists had the courage to do so.

2. Triton Station

Written by American astrophysicist Stacy McGaugh, Triton Station is a blog about the science and sociology of cosmology. I read Triton Station for two reasons. First, I love cosmology. There’s nothing that dispels human myopia quite like staring into the immensity of the cosmos. Second, McGaugh explores sociological issues that are common to all branches of science.

Permit me a brief foray into physics and cosmology. Our theory of gravity, you were probably taught, is among our most secure knowledge. Newton’s law of gravitation has been verified to exquisite precision within the solar system. And no experiment has ever contracted general relativity — Einstein’s theory of gravity. These theories, you probably learned, are overwhelmingly supported by evidence.

The problem is that this assertion is simply false. Everywhere we look in the cosmos, Newton’s theory of gravity fails. Pick any of the 100-billion known galaxies and watch the movement of stars. Inevitably, you’ll find that the stars move too fast to be bound by the matter we see. According to Newton’s laws, these galaxies shouldn’t exist — they should have long ago flown apart. And yet there they sit, happily disobeying the laws of gravity.

Our theory of gravity, then, is awash with evidence that contradicts it. This suggests that something is deeply wrong — that we need a new theory of gravity. What’s troubling, McGaugh observes, is that the vast majority of cosmologists don’t interpret the evidence this way. Instead, they assume that our theory of gravity is correct. The fact that stars move too quickly is then interpreted not as a contradicting Newton’s theory, but as evidence for a hidden form of matter — dark matter.

What is fascinating from a sociological perspective (and what is applicable in all areas of science) is the degree to which cosmologists are unaware of their underlying assumptions. McGaugh explores these issues vividly and lucidly. But more than being a good writer and philosopher of science, McGaugh is a great scientist. He’s done ground-breaking work exploring the motion of stars in galaxies. He’s shown that an alternative theory of gravity (called ‘modified Newtonian dynamics’) predicts almost all of the behavior that is observed in galaxies.

As with Hossenfelder, the sociological issues that McGaugh explores are applicable in all areas of science. When reading about dark matter, for instance, I’m reminded of economists’ concept of ‘technological progress’. The neoclassical theory of economic growth fails everywhere that it’s applied. The growth of capital and labor cannot (as the theory once predicted) account for the growth of real GDP. But neoclassical economists are undeterred. They turn this failed prediction into the ‘discovery’ of ‘technological progress’. In cosmology, scientists insert ‘dark matter’ wherever it’s needed to retain their theory of gravity. Similarly, economists insert ‘technological progress’ wherever it’s needed to retain their theory of economic growth.

If you’re interested in the universe, you should read Triton Station. And even if you’re not a cosmology junky, read Triton Station to understand the sociology of science.

3. Steve Keen’s Blog

Steve Keen is an Australian economist famous for his book Debunking Economics — an epic take down of neoclassical economics. Keen formerly blogged at Debt Deflation, but has since moved to Patreon.

What I like about Keen’s work is its eclecticism. He writes about monetary issues (the dynamics of credit), about the role of energy in the economy, and about the economics of climate change. It’s this last topic that I think is most important. Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change writes a report that assesses the state of climate-change science. Included is a report about the economic impact of climate change. The average reader probably thinks that this economic-impact report is hard-nosed science, taking full account of the physical basis of our economy. But it’s not. The report is written largely by neoclassical economists who grossly misunderstand the threat posed by climate change.

Keen has recently devoted much of his time to debunking this fraudulent economics of climate change. His writing is accessible to the lay reader, but the analysis is anything but superficial. Keen brings to light the bizarre assumptions that are hidden deep inside the neoclassical sausage. It should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about sustainability.

4. Not Even Wrong

Written by physicist/mathematician Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong is a blog about problems in physics. Woit became famous for his book of the same name, which was among the first to criticize the path taken by modern physics (with its fixation on esoteric, but untestable, theories like string theory).

Woit has been blogging since 2004, so there’s an enormous archive to discover. His writing ranges from technical commentary on aspects of physics, to more general discussion about the sociology of science. It’s the latter that I find the most interesting. The blog’s name stems from a comment attributed to physicist Wofgang Pauli. The worst theories, Pauli observed, aren’t wrong. They’re ‘not even wrong‘. They can’t even be tested.

As a social scientist, I’ve come to believe that many of our social-science theories are ‘not even wrong’. They simply cannot be tested. Marginal utility theory springs to mind. It’s a theory that purports to explain all aspects of human behavior — an expansiveness that has seduced many economists. The problem is that this expansiveness occurs because the theory actually makes no falsifiable predictions. It’s impossible to show that someone is not maximizing their utility. Marginal productivity theory is not even wrong.

I read Woit’s blog with one eye on physics and one eye on the social sciences. True, he’s talking about problems in the foundations of physics. But the sociological issues he identifies are applicable to all branches of science. When one school of thought gets entrenched, alternative ideas are suppressed. In physics, the dominant school goes by the name of ‘string theory’. In political economy, it’s ‘neoclassical economics’. But the groupthink behaviors are remarkably similar.

5. Notes on the Crises

Written by economist Nathan Tankus, Notes on the Crises dives into the financial mechanics that underly governments’ reaction to the COVID pandemic. Tankus is a lucid writer, making what might otherwise be arcane details spring to life.

Reading Tankus’ analysis, you’ll probably assume that he’s a PhD-trained economist. But he’s not. In fact, he has yet to finish an undergraduate degree. Tankus’ story reminds me of Freeman Dyson — one of the great physicists of the 20th century. While Dyson made important contributions to fundamental physics, he never completed a PhD. In fact, for his whole life he was a vocal critic of the PhD system.

There is a certain freshness that comes from not being bogged down by a graduate education. Writing clearly about science involves, in many ways, forgetting what you learned to do in grad school. Out with the obtuse literature review. In with the incisive commentary. Tankus has the knowledge of a PhD-trained academic, but without the accompanying hubris and scholastic baggage. If you want to understand the economics of the COVID pandemic, read Notes on the Crises.

What are you reading?

These are the blogs that I read frequently. There are many others not mentioned that I read occasionally. I’d like to hear what blogs you read. Leave a comment with your own blog list.

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7 Recommended Reads from LSE Spectrum for #IDAHOBIT2020

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/05/2020 - 8:30pm in

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Image of flags at Oslo Pride

17 May is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (#IDAHOBIT). Beginning in 2004, IDAHOBIT is now celebrated in more than 130 countries and is a moment to unite in support of the recognition of human rights for all, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and to celebrate gender and sexual diversity.

Spectrum is LSE’s LGBTQ+ staff network and is here to represent and support staff who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans and of any sexual orientation and gender identity. IDAHOBIT 2020 is a hugely important opportunity to keep up momentum for positive change, despite the difficult times we are facing globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. For #IDAHOBIT2020, members of Spectrum have recommended 7 books to entertain, engage, move and inspire.

Pillow Thoughts. Courtney Peppernell. Andrews McMeel Publishing. 2017. 

This is a great collection of poems to read if you are in a self-reflective mood. Courtney Peppernell explores themes such as love, heartbreak and loneliness. The poems are short, which makes them ideal to read with a quick cup of tea. Although the poems mostly touch on heavy themes, they often have a reassuring, uplifting quality to them.

Recommended by Jake Watkins, BSc Administrator, Department of Social Policy

Book cover of Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky AlbertalliLove, Simon series. Becky Albertalli. Penguin. 2015-

Simon vs The Homosapiens Agenda, Leah on the Offbeat and The Upside of Unrequited are the easy queer Young Adult reads I wish had been around when I was a teenager. The change in narrators between books highlights how easy it is to misinterpret even your best friends. Gender, race and sexual orientation are as intrinsic as family, class, wealth, personality and body image to how we see ourselves and each other.

Recommended by Hayley Reed, Senior Communications Manager

Book cover of The Racehorse Who Disappeared by Clare BaldingThe Racehorse Who Disappeared. Clare Balding. Puffin. 2017.

I would like to recommend The Racehorse Who Disappeared by Clare Balding. I have been reminded during such unprecedented and challenging circumstances, where we can often feel worried or low, how important it is to identify doings things that make us smile and laugh, and that it’s ok to do that. Furthermore, to reflect on those people in our lives who bring hope and a reminder there are rainbows after the rain. Clare Balding is an incredible individual, who is a great hero of mine, and this children’s book demonstrates how she has overcome adversity and is such a fab LGBTQ+ champion. It may not be insightful poetry, or a call to action, but it is joyful. Enjoy.

Recommended by Ben Plummer-Powell, Chief Philanthropy & Global Engagement Officer

Book cover of Pulp by Robin TalleyPulp. Robin Talley. Blackstone Publishing. 2018.

The stories of gay teenagers Janet Jones and Abby Cohen, both preparing to finish school and go to college, are set six decades apart. The rules, rigidity and underlying ominous narrow fear of Janet navigating a lesbian relationship in 1950s America jars against present-day Abby’s world. Her own struggles are not about coming out, which is refreshing, and are set against an effortless blend of sexual orientations, genders, races, religions and relationships. What’s changed, what hasn’t, what can’t?

Recommended by Hayley Reed, Senior Communications Manager

Book cover of Brain Storm by Rebecca M. Jordan-YoungBrain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Rebecca M. Jordan-Young. Harvard University Press. 2011.

In Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, Rebecca Jordan-Young challenges the scientific consensus about sex difference by exposing how the assumption that men’s and women’s brains are hardwired differently due to variations in hormone exposure in the womb is based on very weak scientific evidence.

Recommended by Elisabet Vives, Project Officer and Researcher at LSE Consulting

Book cover of Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre LordeYour Silence Will Not Protect You. Audre Lorde. Silver Press. 2017.

This recent book is the first time a British publisher has brought together essays, speeches and poems by the self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde in a single collection. As Sara Ahmed observes in her introduction (and Tricia Wombell in her LSE RB essay on Lorde’s influence), Lorde’s work identified and challenged ‘brutalising and devastating structures of racism, sexism, classism, ageism and heterosexism’. Reading this collection gives the opportunity of immersing yourself in the formidable intelligence and eloquence of Lorde’s prose and poetry, but her writings also pose necessary, and at times necessarily sharp, questions about the value of allyship and its moments of failure, serving as a reminder of the work that must be done to ensure solidarity and alliance are intersectional – and effective.

Recommended by Rosemary Deller, Managing Editor of LSE Review of Books

Book cover of Gentleman Jack by Angela SteideleGentleman Jack: The Biography of Anne Lister – Regency Landover, Seducer and Secret Diarist. Angela Steidele. Serpent’s Tail. 2019. (Available from LSE Library).

Over the past year, the life of lesbian pioneer Anne Lister of Shibden Hall has become more widely known due to the popular BBC TV programme. People have been inspired by her courage: she is believed to be the first woman in England to have married another woman (albeit without legal recognition), she travelled and she ran businesses. However, Angela Steidele’s biography is certainly worth reading for its honesty. It really emphasised to me that people can be brave and pioneering, whilst being difficult and in many ways unlikeable. It shows how she manipulated some of her many lovers, treated her tenants quite badly and often made unions just for material advantage. A person I would have admired in many ways, but perhaps would not have wanted as a friend!

I would also like to suggest a recent initiative from LSE Library and Google Arts and Culture that has digitised materials relating to the life of Vera ‘Jack’ Holme, suffragette, chauffeur to the Pankhursts and Pethick-Lawrences and a cross-dressing actor. In particular, you can see a marvellous acrostic poem to her lover, Lady Evelina Haverfield, written in October 1909. Sadly little public evidence of their relationship survives and this may have been its first opportunity to reach a wider audience.

Recommended by Heather Dawson, Academic Support Librarian

LSE Review of Books thanks all the members of the LSE community who contributed to this reading list with their book recommendations.

Note: This reading list gives the views of the contributors, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Photo by Cecilie Johnsen on Unsplash.

 


7 Recommended Reads for Contextualising Covid-19

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/04/2020 - 7:55pm in

In the present crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are a number of accessible historical works and websites that can provide background and information on the disease as it unfolds. Since the disease is so recently emergent, there are as yet no reliable books dedicated directly to the topic. There are, however, works that provide the necessary context for explaining where Covid-19 may have emerged from, how it is likely to affect our societies and the ways in which it compares with previous historical pandemics. Such information is important for scholarly purposes. But it is also crucial in enabling all of us to realise that there will also be a post-coronavirus world, and that we need to begin thinking about how to reform our society so that it is not vulnerable to the next epidemic. The challenge is to target and implement those changes that are necessary so that we will not be vulnerable and unprepared next time.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. David Quammen. Vintage. 2013.

This work surveys the large impact of our modern industrial society and the animal world as we relentlessly destroy habitat and create ever more frequent interactions between humans and large numbers of animal species. Since the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is believed to originate from just such a zoonotic spillover, understanding this fundamental vulnerability of our society is important.

 

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World. Laura Spinney. Cape. 2018.

A pandemic that perhaps resembles Covid-19 in many respects in terms of its mode and ease of transmission, its global reach, its nature as a pulmonary viral disease and its societal impact is the influenza outbreak of 1918, often referred to as ‘Spanish influenza’. Laura Spinney’s wide-ranging book explores the many facets of this influenza ordeal and implicitly raises questions relevant to our present affliction.

 

Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. Frank Snowden. Yale University Press. 2019.

This work appeared in November 2019 and nearly predicted the onset of a new pandemic in the near future. It also provides extensive coverage of the major pandemic experiences since 1347, and indicates major lessons that can be drawn from them in terms of their economic, societal, medical and cultural influence.

 

 

SARS: A Case Study in Emerging Infections. Angela McLean, Robert May, John Pattison and Robin Weiss. Oxford University Press. 2005.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, is in many ways a precursor of Covid-19. This work traces the many questions raised by the 2003 SARS pandemic, the vulnerabilities it exposed and the lessons learned in order to achieve a more reliable stage of preparedness.

 

 

The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. Steven Taylor. Cambridge Scholars. 2019.

A critical but seldom explored dimension of pandemic diseases is their impact on mental health. Steven Taylor goes a long way toward filling this gap by charting the manner in which severe stress accompanies biological disease, and he explores its capacity to generate paranoia, fear and stigma. Important but often neglected aspects of future societal preparedness are these emotional and social dimensions.

 

Human Virology. John Oxford, Paul Kellam and Leslie Collier. Oxford University Press. 2016 (5th Edition).

This textbook approaches the topic from a more scientific background and provides a solid foundation for understanding the onset of the new coronavirus and its impact on the human body.

 

 

 

The Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

These leading medical journals have responded in innovative ways to the outbreak of Covid-19. They have instituted expedited review processes to enable the most recent and relevant research material to be published as rapidly as possible. In addition, they agreed to make all of the work that they have published relevant to the pandemic available free to all online. As a result, these journals are important up-to-date sources to explore in trying to understand and follow the nature, course and impact of the disease. Visit The Lancet, JAMA and NEJM to access this content.

Note: This reading list gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Banner and feature image credit: Image of rainbow expressing solidarity with NHS workers.Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash.

Image Credit for main text image: Chicago Department of Public Health Ad encouraging people to wash their hands, Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Raed Mansour CC BY 2.0.

Image Credit for image featured alongside journal information: Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH. NIH Image Gallery, Public Domain.