The Chronicle of Higher Education’s fantastic blog, Arts and Letters Daily links to reviews of two recent books: Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World by Chris Frith and How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Both books receive harsh criticism, but ironically, neither review deters me from going to Barnes and Noble and buying them.
The first review dives into the ongoing debate about free will and the brain. Stuart Derbyshire, director of pain research at the Birmingham University Imaging Centre, argues that Frith has unrealistic expectations about the role that neuroscience can play in answering our most fundamental existential questions:
The fundamental mistake that Frith makes – and this is a common error – is to believe that agency or free will are products only of the human brain. The brain is necessary but it is not sufficient, and chasing agency into the brain will only yield disappointment or, in this case, a sense that agency is illusory. If agency is not merely a product of ordinary brains, then it follows that abnormal brains might not be the whole or only answer when there are psychiatric problems and delusions of agency such as in schizophrenia.
The second review applauds Groopman for recognizing the damaging role that bias and simplistic heuristics play in diagnosing disease, but chides him for offering no better alternative than clinical intuition. Instead, reviewer Charles Lambdin contends that evidence-based medicine is usually the best way to avoid mistakes. Furthermore, he attacks Groopman’s unscientific approach:
One would hope that a book entitled How Doctors Think would be about just that, how doctors make diagnoses, a topic on which much scientific research has been done. Unfortunately, Groopman by-and-large ignores this research, instead giving us a long collection of anecdotes wherein his doctor friends tell us how they think. And this is the book’s main failing, for if you were to write a book purporting to examine how some group of people thinks, you would have to do more than simply ask some of them.
Like I said, both books still sound like good reads.