Skip to main content

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of science and maths from economics to healthcare, from the lives of individuals who were delinquent as children to measuring the benefit (or not) of giving a poor family a cow. Blastland picks out a number of factors that tend to mislead us - that as humans we aren't consistent in our responses, that things change with location and time, that the way research is undertaken can generate false results, that principles can mislead us and far more. As he points out, what this does is make us aware of the limitations of applied maths (particularly economics) and science. He is not saying we shouldn't use them - they are far better than the alternatives - but we have to be aware of their limitations.

At the end of the book, Blastland comes up with some suggestions for dealing with the hidden half. It isn't going to go away, and there are no easy solutions, but he does have some interesting ideas on mitigation. For example, he suggests we should experiment more (with political policies, for example), remember that we are betting on knowledge rather than making use of certainty and, for me, most importantly that scientists, journalists and politicians should do more to communicate the uncertainty involved. It's not that we want our politicians to be hesitant, but it would be far better if they made it clear that there are very few clear linkages between policies and outcomes. I was particularly struck by some data on GDP figures. The media and politicians often spend ages agonising over a GDP change of, say 0.2 per cent. The headline figures are revised over time as better data is available: Blastland points out that a typical correction might be 0.4 per cent up or down (and can be as high as 1 per cent). This makes it very clear that making pronouncements based on a 0.2 per cent change is futile and highly misleading.

My only criticism is that I felt that the book could have done with even more specific examples: in this kind of book, it's the examples that have the real bite and savour. Blastland spends a bit too long philosophising on the hidden half in a way that feels a little repetitive. It's not there aren't great examples (plenty more than the ones mentioned above), it was just for me that the ratio of examples to musings wasn't quite right. A brief mention also to the cover design - it's very clever (though I couldn't help thinking it had been put on wrong and wanting to re-position it).

We are getting more books now about the reality of applied maths (particularly economics) and science, which is an extremely good thing, provided the message is carried through to journalists and others who have to communicate these matters to the public. An excellent book.
Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…