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Skeptic Book Club

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Here is a list of the books that have been nominated for Skeptic Book Club. Please choose up to six for the next round of book club meetings if you attend or plan to attend book club meetings. Vote by e-mailing the numbers and the first two or three words of the titles of books you like. Please vote by March 17th. Joan Omarzu cjomarzu@charter.net

1. Religion and Science by Bertrand Russell and Michael Ruse (May 29, 1997)
272 pages
In this timely work, Russell, philosopher, agnostic, mathematician, and renowned peace advocate, offers a brief yet insightful study of the conflicts between science and traditional religion during the last four centuries. Examining accounts in which scientific advances clashed with Christian doctrine or biblical interpretations of the day, from Galileo and the Copernican Revolution, to the medical breakthroughs of anesthesia and inoculation, Russell points to the constant upheaval and reevaluation of our systems of belief throughout history. In turn, he identifies where similar debates between modern science and the Church still exist today. Michael Ruse's new introduction brings these conflicts between science and theology up to date, focusing on issues arising after World War II.
This classic is sure to interest all readers of philosophy and religion, as well as those interested in Russell's thought and writings.

2. Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream by William Powers 296 pages
Take four giant steps forward. Turn right; do it again. Turn right again; repeat. Right; repeat. Now imagine living in a space roughly the size of the area just paced off. Without electricity or running water. In the middle of nowhere. Having recently returned from years in the Bolivian rain forest, environmental activist Powers experienced a nearly debilitating form of culture shock upon his reentry into the heart of American consumerism. His salvation came from ardent permaculturist Dr. Jackie Benton, who offered Powers the use of her spartan cabin in rural North Carolina. Living among other “wildcrafters”—organic farmers, furniture artisans, and eco-developers—Powers learned firsthand what it means to be self-sufficient in the midst of a nation that profligately squanders its resources and looks askance at those who choose to live deliberately. While there are no easy answers to be found in such an extreme experiment, Powers’ eloquent memoir reveals the breadth of this conflict and the depth of one man’s commitment to himself and his community.

3. 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang 304 pages
Chang (Bad Samaritans) takes on the "free-market ideologues," the stentorian voices in economic thought and, in his analysis, the engineers of the recent financial catastrophe. Free market orthodoxy has inserted its tenterhooks into almost every economy in the world--over the past three decades, most countries have privatized state-owned industrial and financial firms, deregulated finance and industry, liberalized international trade and investments, and reduced income taxes and welfare payments. But these policies have unleashed bubbles and ever increasing income disparity. How can we dig ourselves out? By examining the many myths in the narrative of free-market liberalism, crucially that the name is itself a misnomer: there is nothing "free" about a market where wages are largely politically determined; that greater macroeconomic stability has not made the world economy more stable; and a more educated population itself won't make a country richer. An advocate of big, active government and capitalism as distinct from a free market, Chang presents an enlightening précis of modern economic thought--and all the places it's gone wrong, urging us to act in order to completely rebuild the world economy: "This will some readers uncomfortable... it is time to get uncomfortable."

4.The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow 208 pages
Starred Review. The three central questions of philosophy and science: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? No one can make a discussion of such matters as compulsively readable as the celebrated University of Cambridge cosmologist Hawking (A Brief History of Time). Along with Caltech physicist Mlodinow (The Drunkard's Walk), Hawking deftly mixes cutting-edge physics to answer those key questions. For instance, why do we exist? Earth occupies a "Goldilocks Zone" in space: just the perfect distance from a not-too-hot star, with just the right elements to allow life to evolve. On a larger scale, in order to explain the universe, the authors write, "we need to know not only how the universe behaves, but why." While no single theory exists yet, scientists are approaching that goal with what is called "M-theory," a collection of overlapping theories (including string theory) that fill in many (but not all) of the blank spots in quantum physics; this collection is known as the "Grand Unified Field Theories." This may all finally explain the mystery of the universe's creation without recourse to a divine creator. This is an amazingly concise, clear, and intriguing overview of where we stand when it comes to divining the secrets of the universe. 41 color illus. throughout, 7 b&w cartoons.

5. Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up by John Allen Paulos 176 pages
Few of the recent books on atheism have been worth reading just for wit and style, but this is one of them: Paulos is truly funny. Despite the title, the Temple University math professor doesn't actually discuss mathematics much, which will be a relief to any numerically challenged readers who felt intimidated by his previous book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. In this short primer (just the gist with an occasional jest), Paulos tackles 12 of the most common arguments for God, including the argument from design, the idea that a moral universality points to a creator God, the notion of first causes and the argument from coincidence, among others. Along the way, he intersperses irreverent and entertaining little chapterlets that contain his musings on various subjects, including a rather hilarious imagined IM exchange with God that slyly parodies Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God. Why does solemnity tend to infect almost all discussions of religion? Paulos asks, clearly bemoaning the dearth of humor. This little book goes a long way toward correcting the problem, and provides both atheists and religious apologists some digestible food for thought along the way.

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6. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris 304 pages
Beautifully written as they were (the elegance of his prose is a distilled blend of honesty and clarity) there was little in Sam Harris's previous books that couldn't have been written by any of his fellow "horsemen" of the "new atheism." This book is different, though every bit as readable as the other two. I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. To my surprise, The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. It should change it for philosophers too. Philosophers of mind have already discovered that they can't duck the study of neuroscience, and the best of them have raised their game as a result. Sam Harris shows that the same should be true of moral philosophers, and it will turn their world exhilaratingly upside down. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris. --Richard Dawkins

7. Microbe Hunters by Paul Kruif 372 pages
This book is also available as a free google book.
A. I first read this book when I was in grammar school (K-6 level)and found it absolutely fascinating. I couldn't put it down. As a graduate of UC-Berkeley (BA, MS in biology), I highly recommend it not only to aspiring scientists, but to all who enjoy 'mysteries' - true life mysteries! AMC. My copy is falling apart, but I consider it an old friend. It is one book that should be in everyone's library. I disagree (as one reviewer said) that it is "racist". I also disagree that it is not for youngsters. Get this book and treasure it!
B. I suspect that Paul De Kruif's "Microbe Hunters" has inspired more future biomedical scientists than any other book. The "Double Helix" by Nobel Laureate James D. Watson is the only competition.
C. "Microbe Hunters" was written in the 1920's before we knew much about DNA, before the electron microscope, before antibiotics, so much in it is dated. Yet "Microbe Hunters" gets across the excitement of research in a way that is lacking in most writings about science and scientists.

8.The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick 544 pages
Starred Review. In 1948, Bell Laboratories announced the invention of the electronic semiconductor and its revolutionary ability to do anything a vacuum tube could do but more efficiently. While the revolution in communications was taking these steps, Bell Labs scientist Claude Shannon helped to write a monograph for them, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, in which he coined the word bit to name a fundamental unit of computer information. As bestselling author Gleick (Chaos) astutely argues, Shannon's neologism profoundly changed our view of the world; his brilliant work introduced us to the notion that a tiny piece of hardware could transmit messages that contained meaning and that a physical unit, a bit, could measure a quality as elusive as information. Shannon's story is only one of many in this sprawling history of information. With his brilliant ability to synthesize mounds of details and to tell rich stories, Gleick leads us on a journey from one form of communicating information to another, beginning with African tribes' use of drums and including along the way scientists like Samuel B. Morse, who invented the telegraph; Norbert Wiener, who developed cybernetics; and Ada Byron, the great Romantic poet's daughter, who collaborated with Charles Babbage in developing the first mechanical computer. Gleick's exceptional history of culture concludes that information is indeed the blood, the fuel, and the vital principle on which our world runs.

9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot 400 pages
Starred Review. Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace. It is also a tale of medical wonders and medical arrogance, racism, poverty and the bond that grows, sometimes painfully, between two very different women—Skloot and Deborah Lacks—sharing an obsession to learn about Deborah's mother, Henrietta, and her magical, immortal cells. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. These cells have aided in medical discoveries from the polio vaccine to AIDS treatments. What Skloot so poignantly portrays is the devastating impact Henrietta's death and the eventual importance of her cells had on her husband and children... Writing in plain, clear prose, Skloot avoids melodrama and makes no judgments. Letting people and events speak for themselves, Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people.
(Also Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010)

10. Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Paul A. Offit, M.D.
Starred Review. In the second book this season (after journalist Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus) to attack vaccine paranoia, Offit—who drew antivaccinist fire for Autism's False Prophets—presents a smart, hard-hitting exposé of vaccine pseudoscience. Offit brings outstanding credentials to the subject: he's a vaccinologist at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and an expert in infectious diseases, and he tackles claims that childhood inoculations cause brain damage, autism, diabetes, and cancer, finding a farrago of misinformation, faulty research, and sly deceptions fed to distraught parents by media hype, ax-grinding activists, and personal-injury lawyers. He embellishes his account with a sprightly history of paranoid medical populism—19th-century critics of the cowpox-derived smallpox vaccine insisted it could turn people into cows—and a blistering attack on celebrity antivaccine ideologues Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Bill Maher and the medical writers who pander to parental anxieties. Offit dwells less than Mnookin on the sociology of the controversy and more on the science. The result is a thorough dismantling of antivaccine notions and a sober warning about the resurgence of deadly childhood infections stemming from declining vaccination rates. Worried parents, especially, will find this a lucid, compelling riposte to antivaccine fear-mongering. Photos.

11. Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julia Scheeres 384 pages
Starred Review. Journalist Scheeres offers a frank and compelling portrait of growing up as a white girl with two adopted black brothers in 1970s rural Indiana, and of her later stay with one of them at a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. The book takes its title from a homemade sign that Scheeres and the brother closest to her in age and temperament, David, spot one day on a road in the Hoosier countryside, proclaiming, "This here is: JESUS LAND." And while religion is omnipresent both at their school and in the home of their devout parents, the two rarely find themselves the beneficiaries of anything resembling Christian love. One of the elements that make Scheeres's book so successful is her distanced, uncritical tone in relaying deeply personal and clearly painful events from her life. She powerfully renders episodes like her attempted rape at the hands of three boys, the harsh beatings administered to David by her father and the ceaseless racial taunting by schoolmates; her lack of perceivable malice or vindictiveness prevents readers from feeling coerced into sympathy. The same can be said for Scheeres's description of their Dominican school, where humiliation and physical punishment are meant to redeem the allegedly misguided pupils. Tinged with sadness yet pervaded by a sense of triumph, Scheeres's book is a crisply written and earnest examination of the meaning of family and Christian values, and announces the author as a writer to watch.

Posted by schadwick
Mar. 10, 2011