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A shocking story

This morning I happened to hear On Your Farm on BBC R4, in which Caz Graham was talking to a Herefordshire tenant farmer, Steve Clayton, who with his partner Joyce is being forced to leave his farm and home because the local council has sold the land. Steve couldn't raise enough money to buy it himself, and so he's left with no option but to sell up and move out. Now in his 50s, and after a lifetime in farming, he's not sure what may lie ahead. He has no work and nowhere to live. We heard the sounds of his farm equipment being auctioned off.

I found this a truly shocking story to listen to. I know councils are strapped for cash but surely this situation could have been managed better.

Book review: The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, by Richard Elliott Friedman

In a sense this is a sequel to Friedman's earlier book, Who Wrote the Bible?, but its focus is different and more personal, particularly in the later chapters. Like the first book, it has a detective story element, which is signalled by its being framed in the form of three Mysteries. The first of these, which takes up the first half of the book, is about the progressive hiding of God's face in the course of the Bible: the second and third mysteries concern what this implies for the modern world and its future.

Many people probably think of the Bible as a collection of stories and other texts of varying kinds but not as having a unifying plot. But Friedman says that if we read it as a whole, instead of, as usual, in small extracts, we see that it is really a coherent drama which traces the history of the Jewish people and their relation to God as it developed over a long period. What gives it dramatic unity is precisely the theme of God's progressive withdrawal. This is certainly a surprising idea—Friedman himself finds it "astounding". But he demonstrates it with ample citations. [Read more]

Book review: The Meaning of Belief, by Tim Crane

In 2007 Tim Crane was invited to give the Bentham Lecture at University College London. The lecture is sponsored by the Philosophy Department at UCL and the British Humanist Association. His lecture was badly received. The reason, Crane thinks, is that the audience members were expecting an attack on religion of the kind they were used to, whereas what they got was a call for understanding and toleration.

Crane identifies himself as an atheist, but he disagrees with those he describes as the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The combative attitude of these writers and others who think like them has, he believes, been counter-productive; they want to eliminate religion but they are unlikely to succeed. [Read more]

Book review: The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell

This is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a pThis is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a postscript, we know very little about Arthur—his very historical existence is in doubt—so this is largely a work of imagination.

It is set in the Dark Ages, in the early years of the sixth century. The Romans left Britain a hundred years previously and now the Britons are fighting the invading Saxons. Unfortunately they are also fighting one another.This is the first book in a trilogy, The Warlord Chronicles, telling the story of Arthur. As Cornwell concedes in a postscript, we know very little about Arthur—his very historical existence is in doubt—so this is largely a work of imagination. [Read more]

Strange medical term in Casualty

In the last episode of 'Casualty' the surgeon Connie Beauchamp described a patient as suffering from cor pulmonale. She pronounced this in such an odd way, with the stress on the final 'e', that for a moment I didn't understand what she had said. The stress is normally on the 'a' (third syllable).

It isn't the first time that Connie has come up with odd things in this show. Some time ago, as I noted here, she told a patient to complain about her to the BMA - she should have said the GMC.

Andrew Marr traduces Thucydides

In 'Start the Week' today Andrew Marr referred to Thucydides, the Athenian historian, as 'the father of history' and also 'the father of lies'. This is incorrect; both these epithets have been applied to Herodotus, not Thucydides, who is regarded as a serious and reliable historian, still studied by academics today. But even Herodotus is now thought to be generally reliable and is our only source of knowledge for many features of the ancient world.

Dr Giles Fraser's Latin tag

Giles Fraser's 'Thought for the Day' has figured here before. Today he mentioned the demise of the old one-pound coin and its inclusion of the motto 'fid. def.', which he said was an abbreviation of 'fides defensor'. It isn't: it should be the genitive form, 'fidei defensor'. Quoting Latin and getting it wrong is a regular trap for speakers on 'Thought for the Day' - see this entry.

Book review: Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, two of whose previous books I have already reviewed here, has many talents. She trained as a scientist and obtained a Ph.D in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University. But she then changed course and has been active in numerous other areas, especially feminism and left-wing politics. Throughout her career she has been a freelance writer, producing a wide variety of books and journalism, for which she has won many awards.

The present book is quite different from anything she has written previously. It is based on a journal which she started at the age of fourteen in 1956 and continued intermittently until 1966. The main reason for returning to it now is that it included the account of an ecstatic or mystical experience that happened to her when she was seventeen. As a rationalist and atheist she had not been able to come to terms with this and kept it to herself for many years, but now she feels it is time to try to understand it. [Read more]

Book review: Improbable Destinies, by Jonathan B. Losos

An important controversy in evolutionary biology concerns the inevitability or otherwise of the appearance of humans. According to Steven J. Gould, if the tape of life could be rerun from the beginning it is very unlikely that anything resembling humans would appear. But Simon Conway Morris disagrees. He and those who think like him hold that something very similar to us was pretty well bound to arise, and similar organisms would evolve on any other planets that support complex life (though these are likely to be rare). So who is right? This is the question that Losos tackles in his new book. [Read more]

Book review: Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

This is a complex book. It could be described as science fiction or fantasy, but also as a philosophical or metaphysical novel—perhaps a fictional extension of the kind of thought experiments that Derek Parfit makes use of in Reasons and Persons; a meditation on the nature of human personality and its uniqueness or otherwise. And, finally, it is a thriller. [Read more]

New study confirms the Big Fat Surprise

Nina Teicholz's book The Big Fat Surprise (2014) challenged the conventional view that you should reduce your intake of fat, and especially saturated fat, to reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke. A similar conclusion was reached by Gary Taubes a few years earlier in The Diet Delusion. Both these writers are science journalists, not clinicians, but their books were based on an impressive amount of literature research and, in Teicholz's case, interviews with leading experts in the field.

In spite of these and other heretics, the conventional doctrine that Fat is Bad continues to be widely taught and believed. But the result of the new PURE observational study seems to show pretty convincingly that the heretics are right.

This intercontinental study examined the role of diet in relation to cardiovascular disease in nearly 150,000 people in five regions. The report appears in The Lancet and is reviewed by Richard Lehman in his blog, an extract from which appears in the current BMJ (9 September 2017) in its From the Journals column.

Lehman thinks that observational studies are generally "bunk", but that PURE is an exception and probably takes us "the closest we are likely to get to the 'truth' about diet and cardiovascular disease." He quotes the conclusion of the paper as follows.


High carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower mortality. Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke.


So "we can abandon the saturated fat-cardiovascular disease hypothesis with some certainty."


Book review: A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay

I first tried to read this book many years ago but gave up baffled, probably expecting it to be science fiction of the kind I was used to. Yet it continued to stick in my mind, and recently I decided it was time to give it another go.

Science fiction it certainly isn't, at least as that genre is generally understood. It could be described as fantasy, but that isn't really right either. It has elements of both of these but could also be classed as philosophical allegory (it has been compared to Pilgrim's Progress). It evidently was written out of its author's deep religious and metaphysical preoccupations, not to say obsessions. In other words, it is a very unusual book that defies conventional categorisation. Read more

Book review: The Cradle of Humanity, by Mark Maslin

We are by now familiar with the idea that East Africa had a central role in human evolution, but probably few non-specialists realise how complex the story really is. This is what Professor Maslin writes about in his new book.

He identifies five stages in human evolution based on the fossil record, marked by the successive appearance of (1) the earliest hominins; (2) the australopithecines; (3) Homo and Paranthropus; (4) Homo erectus; (5) the journey towards Homo sapiens. This scheme can be simplified into three phases. First there was the evolution of bipedalism, which led to the spread of Australopithecus species across Africa. Next came the evolution of Homo erectus, and finally we get the evolution of Homo sapiens. [Read more]

Book review: The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

Crystal finds that there are two main ways of telling the story of English. The usual approach is to present a historical overview, starting with Old English and tracing the development of the language through Middle English, Early Modern English, to Modern English. This provides relatively little information about vocabulary. The alternative is to concentrate on words—their origins and uses.

In this book he combines these approaches, to give a series of snapshots of the development of English. History is central to the discussion, but Crystal is flexible and doesn't hesitate to digress from the principal word that is being discussed to include other material related to it. The tone throughout is chatty and informal. [Read more]

Book review: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

As readers of Francis Crick's book The Astonishing Hypothesis will know, Koch collaborated with Crick in the research on consciousness that occupied the latter years of Crick's life. In this book Koch talks about this work and what it tells him about consciousness, and he also considers the philosophical and religious implications of his research. The book is a mixture of science, philosophy, and autobiography. These are not always clearly demarcated from one another and this makes it difficult to discern a sustained line of argument in the book.

Koch was brought up a Roman Catholic and although he has lost his formal religious faith he is not free of the need to search for transcendence that his upbringing inculcated. He tells us that he started studying consciousness to justify his "instinctual belief that life is meaningful". This explains his choice of subtitle.

[I am] reductionist because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us.
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