Encyclopedia Paranoiaca by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf
|Encyclopedia Paranoiaca by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf|
|Category: Popular Science|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: … or how we should learn to stop worrying and love the world. Life is a lethal, sexually-transmitted existence anyhow.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 400||Date: October 2014|
|Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd|
We're screwed. Wherever we look, whatever we think of doing, there is a reason why we shouldn't be doing it, and people to back that reason up with scientific data. Take any aspect of your daily life – what you eat, how you work, how you rest even, what you touch – all have problems that could provoke a serious illness or worse. And outside that daily sphere there are economic disasters, nuclear meltdowns, errant AI scientists and passing comets that could turn our world upside down at the blink of an eye. Perhaps then you better read this book first – for it may well turn out to be your last…
This is a thoroughly annotated and exact list of the problems the world faces now. And there's no answer to many of them. For every difficulty global warming might cause, there is someone pointing out that mitigating it could be a problem. The numbers add up to nuclear power actually being better than renewables like solar – certainly nobody seems to die falling off house roofs attaching nuclear plants, when they do solar panels. The world is full of superbugs, and our kitchens are no exception. But should we use poisonous plastic to make our chopping boards, because wooden ones seem to kill off the germs on them, yet can't survive so well in a dishwasher. Below our feet it continues – new carpets are dangerously full of toxins. But old ones are too, and also carry our detritus and host dust mites and worse. We can't win.
But there's no point in giving up trying. Everyone knows the problems with not exercising. So you exercise outside – and get poisonous traffic fumes and air pollution just when you're breathing the most. So you exercise indoors – although the air is pretty much the same there (especially if you have carpets).
This example shows exactly the reason for this book, and the reason why it's branded as humour on the back. There is a welter of cycles people can get trapped in when they worry about the nature of the world, and there truly is no way out. We've advanced – if that's really and truly the word – to the stage where we're such a scientific species we know too much about the planet we live on, and see threat everywhere. Inkjet printers give out bad emissions. So get a laser printer. But they're just as bad. Well just open a window and forget it. With that air outside?! People on this planet have gone through two world wars and come out the other side, and while living alongside all the things to get paranoid about here have yet to have a problem.
The comedy, then. Well, it's slight, but it is there. It's remarkable the number of times the authors can quote someone saying 'this is not good, try A, B and C' – when they can point us directly to the research that says A, B and C are just as much of a problem. The sprightly way they guide us through a lot of science – putting in some weird descriptive writing now and again – does highlight their point, that we should just learn to stop worrying and love the world.
They do seem to take umbrage with some of their contributors. A Mr Gerbo turns up to be quoted at length a lot of times, and is always editorialised, seemingly unfairly. But then he is a man for whom the entire practical world is dirtier, germ-wise, than the average loo seat. Beard and Cerf do have other awkward elements to their book, too. They feature a lot of economic factors for why we're screwed – but can only use quotes that are up to seven years old to keep the threats alive. Likewise they quote the Lance Armstrong foundation for research. A lot of it is US-centric.
But this – ie the promulgation of bad science by spin doctors, and scientists with a bug to bear, research to be done and a corporate sponsor behind it all, causing panic headlines everywhere one looks – is not a problem that will go away. Shaking hands is bad for us, says this book – and it was only in the British newspapers the other week that a fist-bump might be better for us, as it passes on fewer germs. Remarkable, then, that the Queen has got to her age, given the fact she hasn't switched earlier.
More idiotic than expecting that change to palace decorum is the concept of the grey goo – given a bottle of chemicals and an AI factor, it will turn the galaxy into grey goo within a month. Just how big is this bottle, I'd like to know. But with the help of this book you can make sure you don't confuse your grey goo with your pink slime. Everything has a reference note. Everything is carefully confirmed as bad for us, in one way or another, and the book does work as a fully thought through and rigorously constructed encyclopedia, with an agenda all its own. So all in all I would say you should read it – but I think you'd have to disinfect it first.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Shelve this volume between Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner. For the completest paranoiac there is A is for Armageddon by Richard Horne, while for the young Danger Is Everywhere: A Handbook for Avoiding Danger by David O'Doherty and Chris Judge is a recent lesson in pseudo-science and risk assessment.
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