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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 9, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Books: Bad Science, Bad Schools, Sports, Legends and Fairy Tales

Michael Crichton does his homework, which is a good thing, because his novels depend entirely on his ideas for their success.

It's not as if he's ever created a memorable character in his writing career. But that's a moot point: He doesn't try to write the kind of novel that depends on character.

Instead, with State of Fear, he may have written the most important novel of his career.

There are those who will take this book as an anti-environmental screed. Certainly his villains are eco-terrorists, and the bulk of the novel is devoted to exploding the global-warming bubble that is the current religious craze that inspires the credulous of the world.

But Crichton's real opponent is ignorance, laziness, and fanaticism. He doesn't attack the global-warming myth because he wants the world to bake to death under a carbon-dioxide lid. Rather he attacks it because it's merely the latest in a long and humiliating string of intellectual fads that have led to bad policy and, yes, crimes against humanity.

So when this novel devotes most of its serious content to conversations between people who are flying or driving from one place to another, it's not an accident. The action sequences are there so that somebody will make a movie out of the book. But the conversations are the reason the book exists.

In an essay at the end of the book, Crichton makes the explicit comparison between the bad science of the global-warming myth and the bad science of the eugenics fad that dominated the early part of the twentieth century.

Eugenics was rooted in alarmist nonsense that warned how "inferior races" and "degenerates" (i.e., nonwhites, retarded people, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and Jews) were reproducing faster than the intelligent, white, sane, and Christian people of the world (well, except for the homosexuals). In order to improve the human race, it was necessary to sterilize or simply kill the inferior people and allow the superior ones to predominate.

What we forget today is that eugenics was almost universally regarded as solid science. It had the same kind of consensus that global warming has today, and the same kind of sky-is-falling urgency to it.

That's part of the reason why Hitler's program of murder didn't arouse all that much alarm in the rest of the world: His anti-Jewish actions and rhetoric might sound extreme, but it was widely "known" that there was a sound scientific basis for his ideas.

But the "sound scientific basis" was every bit as ludicrous as the sound scientific basis for the global warming theory.

Here's a handy rule: Whenever you see scientists voting or signing petitions, there is no actual science going on. It's politics; it's religion; but it is definitely not science. It is anti-science. It's what you do when science is actually saying the opposite of what you want to believe.

You can do research into the basis of the false claims that human-caused global warming has been proven, and you'll find that there's almost nothing there, and much serious research and theory to contradict it.

Or you can read Crichton's State of Fear and realize how much of our "knowledge" of global warming is somewhere between propaganda and wishful thinking. And if you doubt him, he cites his sources, which gives you the beginning of a trail leading to the real data.

*

You want to know why American schools are so lousy?

In spite of many dedicated teachers, many committed parents, and lots of money, America's educational system has gotten worse and worse over the past decades. Not because it was so wonderful to begin with, but because at few points in our history of miserable attempts to "save" our schools has the educational establishment based its decisions and actions on anything approaching sound science.

In fact, the wretched situation Michael Crichton's State of Fear describes in the scientific world has been the standard operating procedure in the world of professional education, as gurus with no science behind their silly theories make pronouncements that lead to classroom changes that only baffle children and keep them from learning.

Take the decision to stop teaching children to read using stories they might actually enjoy. Why? Somebody thought children needed "relevant" primers that were about their own lives instead of the actions of heroes; "realistic" stories instead of magical ones that wouldn't prepare them for the real world; and simplified vocabularies that did not challenge them to learn new words, but merely pounded in a few simple words through repetition.

The result? The unbearable tedium of Dick and Jane, replacing fairy tales.

There was even a longstanding theory that parents actually harmed their children if they read to them, because it interfered with the orderly teaching procedures in school. Fortunately, that myth has long since been exploded; but the shocking thing is that it was every taken seriously at all.

If you want some depressing reading that is nowhere near as entertaining as Crichton, read Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform.

Ravitch's history is somewhere between popular and exhaustive. It feels repetitive only because our educational theorists keep making the same stupid and false claims, returning again and again to sentimental theories that are not borne out by any serious research.

Still, even though the book can be tough sledding, I promise you that if you read it, you will suddenly find that school board meetings and parent-teacher conferences will be a completely different experience. Because you will immediately recognize the historical roots of the idiotic things that education professionals solemnly say to you.

You will realize that every teacher your students will ever have has been required to take education courses that inculcate them with theories that do not work, and that the really good teachers tend to be good to exactly the same degree that they ignore what their education professors taught them.

You will also understand why our kids are no longer taught history, geography, or grammar in any meaningful way; why homework increases yet learning doesn't; and why the brightest students are often maddeningly bored while the least talented students are scarcely helped.

And when you realize that the historical roots of many of the most pernicious educational practices are in the theory that students from the lower classes should be trained for trades rather than college regardless of their own desires or even their abilities, you might even get angry.

We don't trust the making of laws entirely to lawyers, yet lawyers generally know something about the law. When it comes to educational policy, we keep electing school boards that leave all the important decisions up to educational professionals -- even though, with rare exceptions, they not only don't know much that's true, most of what they think they know is provably, obviously wrong.

Sadly, however, very few of you will bother to read a book as thick and dull as this one. And why won't you read it? Because you were educated in America, where the entire educational system was geared toward training you that anything that's hard to read will be utterly unrewarding and not worth the effort.

In a way, it's a great scam. The educational theorists who have victimized many generations of students and teachers have succeeded in keeping the American people ignorant enough not to see through the scam.

They give us glasses that make us blind.

Then we elect each other to the school board, where we pretend to oversee the very people who blurred our vision.

*

I enjoy Brian Kilmeade on the Fox News Channel's Fox and Friends morning program, and because of comments on that show I picked up his book, The Games Do Count: America's Best and Brightest on the Power of Sports.

The book consists of reminiscences by various prominent people on the influence of sports in their lives.

The tone of the book is boosterism -- about how sports have had a marvelous influence on our society.

But buried underneath most of the essays is a completely opposite message: that countless talented, gifted, ambitious people have been deeply scarred by the cruelty of a society centered around athletic victories.

The experience of most people with sports is that of being judged inferior and left out of the action, while watching someone else get all the opportunities. What is treasured is some moment of triumph or, often, of less shame than usual.

The fact is that sports teaches people to accept other people's judgment of them, to obey like soldiers in order to make somebody else look good, or to stay out of the way of the people with talent.

I compare it with, for instance, high school and college drama, where you can join with more-talented people and still be part of the achievement when you all do well. You want teamwork? You're at least as likely to find it in the cast of a play as in any athletic team.

Sports are grossly overrated in American culture. And even though Kilmeade's book was an attempt to celebrate sports, ultimately what it exposes, with example after example, is the sour taste that athletics have left in the mouths of many prominent people -- and the arrogance it has taught to those few who excel.

*

Dean Koontz's Life Expectancy is perfunctory at best. The premise of the novel is intriguing -- as a baby is born, his dying grandfather has a vision of five dark days in the baby's life, the first of which is that very day.

This idea would have made a great novel -- if Koontz had made them dark because of believable human dilemmas, or even intriguing fantasy elements.

Instead, the danger on each of those dark days comes from the actions of the same couple of insane, stupid, unbelievable characters. Ultimately, they are who the novel is really about, since they're the only ones who make anything happen.

Silly villains and repetitive dangers make for disappointing thrillers.

*

Richard Barber's King Arthur: Hero and Legend is the definitive scholarly overview of Arthur. The early part of the book lays out with perfect clarity exactly how little is actually known about Arthur, and how untrustworthy our favorite Arthurian stories are.

That there really was an Arthur can be believed; that he was anything like the Arthur of myth is highly unlikely, not least because the earliest sources don't even refer to him as a king.

The rest of the book is devoted to showing how and where the myths grew, as Arthurian stories went through fads at different times in France, Germany, and England.

Barber is a good writer and a penetrating analyst. If you're looking for a romantic exploration of "the real Arthur," you won't find it here, because Barber won't go even an inch farther than the evidence takes him. If you're looking for a scholarly history of a great literary tradition, however, this book will be completely satisfying.

*

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales could have been a feminist attack on the Brothers Grimm. Instead, author Valerie Paradi, while recognizing and deploring the way that European society of the early 1800s marginalized and suppressed women, does not blame the men who were born into the system and neither created nor benefitted from it.

Instead, she tells a fascinating story of how the Grimm family struggled to survive -- and remain in the middle class -- after their father's untimely death. Jacob and Wilhelm, the oldest boys, were sidetracked from their legal studies by the new "folk" movement.

But contrary to myth, they did not roam the German countryside collecting fairy tales from peasants.

Instead, they enlisted the help of their sister Lotte's female friends.

Because the "folk" tales they collected in their great books of fairy tales were, in fact, the stories of women. And Paradi does a splendid job of illuminating what role those stories might have served in the society of women.

Along with the tale of the 19th-century story-gatherers we are also treated to surprising variations on the stories the Grimms collected. So the dark magic of fairy tales is also included here.

And fairy tales are truly dark and cruel at their core. They come from an era when death, dismemberment, and the mistreatment of women and children were not uncommon. Our image of fairy tales as light and fantastic comes from sanitized -- and less meaningful -- versions of the stories.

Which brings me to an extraordinary novel by new writer Mette Ivie Harrison: Mira, Mirror.

Harrison definitely understands that fairy tales are about evil, as she tells the tale of Mira, a young girl who is betrayed by her best friend and finds herself magically entrapped inside a mirror.

That's right -- it's the story of Snow White from the point of view of the mirror. And yet it is far more than that. In fact, Harrison assumes we know that story and spends almost all her time on the far more fascinating and moving story that surrounds it, as Mira learns goodness in the midst of evil and finds both of them inside herself.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. The problem is that it is marketed as a Young Adult novel, so many of the adults who would love this story will pass it by. Overcome your bias and go to the YA section just outside the children's section of Borders or Barnes & Noble. I promise you one of the best books you'll read this year.

Terrible things happen in this book. But we read it aloud with our ten-year-old, and saw once again what Clever Maids so clearly shows, and what the educational theorists discussed in Left Back ignore: Children hunger for stories that show that the evil in the world can be overcome, even if only by magic.

After all, to children all power, dark and light, is magic. Only adults fantasize that there is some clearly defined wall separating the evil of fantasy from real-world evils, and placing the healing power of love and kindness on only one side of that wall.

*

There is no dignity in reviewing the book Sit & Solve Word Puzzles, by George Bredehorn.

After all, the book itself is shaped like, and depicts, a toilet seat.

But inside the book is a marvelous collection of tough but small word puzzles that will challenge and delight people for whom the ordinary crossword puzzle is becoming a bit passé.

Pretend you're buying it as a joke.

Keep it in the bathroom, along with a pencil, and then ignore the desperate people pounding on the door.


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