Great Books

demon haunted


I was lucky enough to read The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan  at a very young age, probably around twelve or so. Sagan’s case for  scientific skepticism chips away at the reader’s beliefs and biases, but leaves them  with their own chisel and hammer.






Living and working in D.C. makes it easy to forget that amid all the gradations of power, much of politics still comes down to money, ambition, rivalry and deal-making, possibly in that order. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro is probably the most detailed life-study of a major 20th-century politician. It is riveting reading and Caro still hasn’t gotten to Johnson’s presidency.



Meme Machine
Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine applies the rules of evolutionary biology to the thoughts and beliefs in our heads. Her book was published in 2000, so it’s use of “meme” predates sharing image macros on Reddit. Blackmore draws provocative parallels between how organisms and genes evolve in the natural environment and how ideas and beliefs evolve in the environment of our brains. Successful memes, like successful organisms, strike the right balance among fidelity (accurately copying), fecundity (copying widely and rapidly) and longevity (which includes persistently competing well against other memes).




Policies never change until they do. But why do they change? In another parallel between political communication and evolution, Baumgartner and Jones argue that well-established policy regimes go through rapid periods of change before stabilizing again, akin to the punctuated equilibrium model in biology.  The starkest example they offer is on tobacco, which policymakers largely regarded as an an agricultural issue, until doctors and public health advocates disrupted and reshaped the policy landscape.