Other interesting nonfiction

Do you wear magnetic bracelets? Have you justified your daily dark chocolate bar as an effort to increase your antioxidant intake? Do you take gingko biloba for your memory or echinacea for your cold? The news is filled with information telling us to drink more red wine, eat more pomegranates and chocolate,  and less salt. In this book, Goldacre explains a lot about how such claims get made. He goes back to the research to show what researchers actually reported, how they collected their data and what they concluded. He does this in a very readable manner and even humorously. If you know that you’re a bit gullible when it comes to new-agey health products, this book is for you. I don’t consider myself to be one of “those” gullible people. However, after reading Goldacre’s book, I find that my thinking about these sorts of things is clearer. I can articulate better why people shouldn’t be worried about increasing their antioxidant intake, for example.

Goldacre, B. (2008). Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks. New York: Farber and Farber, Inc.
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A professional friend of mine, Dr. Ray Hyman, gives lectures on how smart people can behave stupidly. In his lectures, he gives example after example of how very famous, very smart people have gotten caught up in scams or pseudoscientific endeavors. I’m already familiar with the general idea that no matter how smart people are, they (we!) can be fooled by the right con. Still, when I followed the news about the Bernie Madoff scam, I was amazed. I didn’t understand the actual nuts and bolts of the scam, but I certainly understood the concept of Ponzi scheme. Even after listening to Ray give that talk several times, I found it hard to fathom that Madoff pulled the wool over so many eyes. When it came out that the SEC had been explicitly warned about Madoff several times, I was even more baffled about how Madoff stayed in business for so long. This summer (2010) I attended The Skeptics’ Toolbox, organized by Ray Hyman. The theme was how people are scammed. Lindsay Beyerstein gave a great presentation explaining the Madoff scam and other Ponzi schemes. The more I learned about it, the more interested I became. It was in Lindsay’s talk that I heard about this book. Finally, over Christmas break, I bought a copy and just finished reading it. The book chronicles Markopolos’ reasons for pursuing Madoff and explains the financial industry and Madoff’s scam in terms that allowed me, one completely ignorant of the industry, to follow along comfortably. This book was oddly inspiring. On one hand, it highlighted the common tendencies of greed and selfishness. More importantly for me, it showed how much courage and persistence a person must have sometimes to do the right thing. I learned from my parents that courage and persistence and doing the right thing are things to strive for. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in human behavior.

*Markopolos, H. (2010). No one would listen: A true financial thriller. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

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The study of communication is fascinating! Psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman has spent his career studying facial expressions. Among other things, he developed a system for breaking facial expressions down into their most basic muscular components. He also compares facial expressions across cultures. Hollywood found his work so interesting that a new series, called Lie to Me, premiered last Fall. The show is based on Dr. Ekman’s research. I can recommend the following two books whole-heartedly. They are written in such a way that anyone can read them, but the content is rigorous enough for professionals in the field. Emotions Revealed is divided according to emotion. In each section, Ekman shows you the characteristic features of the facial expressions associated with each emotion. Appropriate to the topic, there are LOTS of photos included. Ekman wrote Telling Lies to make it clear to the public what can and cannot be said about clues to lying. It is written in the same accessible manner as Emotions Revealed. For those who teach the fundamentals of science, this book offers excellent examples of various scientific behaviors, e.g., cautiously drawing conclusions, accepting complexity, drawing conclusions only when data are available and honestly admitting when speculating without the benefit of systematic data. The editions I’ve listed below are the most current and include extra chapters. Older versions are out there as well.

* Ekman, P. (2007).  Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

* Ekman, P. (2009).  Telling lies: Clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

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I’ve lucked out and had good mentors who taught me to appreciate good writing. This summer, at the recommendation of a colleague, I read a book that everyone should read. If you have a passion for good writing, you’ll be in good company. If you aren’t such a good writer, you’ll learn somethings in the context of a funny book.

* Truss, L. (2003).  Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. New York: Penguin Group, Inc.

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I have always wondered what kind of person I’d be in a real crisis, like 911 or the South Pacific tsunami of a few years ago. Laurence Gonzales wrote an incredible book exploring who survives crises and who does not. He talks about the behavioral tendencies that survivors exhibit and those that victims show. Like some of the other books I like, this one is disturbing in places. However, it is interesting and exciting, and forces you to think about how YOU would act in similar circumstances. Would you be a survivor?:

* Gonzales, L. (2005). Deep survival: Who lives, who dies, and why. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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Violence is predictable. Want to know how to protect yourself and your children?

* De Becker, G. (1999). The gift of fear and other survival signals that protect us from violence. New York: Random House, Inc.