Skip to main content

Pavlov's Dog - Adam Hart-Davis ****

This was a book I was not expecting to like. Although books of this format with 50 heavily illustrated things you need to know about something, seem to sell well, they usually irritate me. However, a combination of the topic - 50 experiments that revolutionised psychology - and a slight variant of the format - Adam Hart-Davis was allowed significantly more text than is often the case in this type of book - meant that it was surprisingly effective.

There's plenty here that will be familiar to anyone who has grazed the surface of popular psychology, from Pavlov in the book's title and the infamous Milgram electric shock experiments, up to very late 20th century work (there are just two from the 21st). While it's fun to see familiar old friends, it's the ones that are a novelty that inevitably stand out. Which these are will vary from reader to reader - I lapped up the likes of 'can dogs get depressed?' and 'why can't you tickle yourself (and what's the connection with schizophrenia?)'.

Inevitably with this kind of format, the main drawback is that you really want the experiments to be critically analysed, not just described and accepted. Although Hart-Davis occasionally puts in a critical comment, often the outcome of the experiment is accepted without question - despite doubts about the sample size, relevance of sample (they often used university students, for example, an atypical population) and reproducibility of many classic psychology experiments. One, for example, looked at leadership styles and democracy - but the participants were children, and the format was starkly structured, so it's difficult to draw any conclusions about adult leadership and politics. Similarly, with the Milgram experiment, or later on the video-based Ganzfeld ESP experiment (and I'm sure it applies to many others) there's no mention of concerns about how the experiments were carried out.

Despite the desirability of more depth, Hart-Davis does an excellent job of giving us pithy summaries of the experiments and their conclusions. Arranged in chronological chunks, reflecting the changing attitudes to psychology, the book gives a useful picture of how experimental psychology has developed since the late nineteenth century. As is usual with this kind of book, the illustrations are still irritatingly pointless and a waste of space, but the bite-sized approach makes the book great for commutes and bedtime reading. It's always a good sign if, having read one topic, there's a strong urge to move onto the next one - and I got that here. 

If, like me, you struggled with Hart-Davis's presenting style when he was on TV, don't worry - Pavlov's Dog has a much less mannered writing style. It's light and approachable but with as much content as the format allows. As dogs go, it's best of breed.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.

On…

The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…