Richard Dawkins (Editor) - The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003

While bits and pieces of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003 were certainly captivating, I was disappointed overall. Readers of Discover, Natural History, Wired, Audubon, and The Atlantic Monthly will have already read many of the essays. The essays in their original format are better. In this version all of the graphics have been purged. The writings lean much more toward the popular media account of things than your better popular science and nature writing, let alone the better science writing out there not aimed at the masses. Some of the selections were more political or newsbytish in nature than scientific.

The one essay that really stood out, and does not fit the above description, is Elizabeth F. Loftus's "Memory Faults and Fixes." If similar writings had been selected for the rest of the book I would have been more enthralled (and it wouldn't have taken me two months to complete). Here are a couple of quotes to whet your appetite and hopefully encourage you to click on the above link and read the entire essay.

For centuries we have had experience with people who come to court to testify and take the familiar solemn oath. In light of what I have learned about human memory, I propose a more realistic alternative: "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is you think you remember?" (p. 127)

For several decades, I and other psychological scientists have done research on memory distortion, specifically on showing how memories can be changed by things that we are told. Our memories are vulnerable to “post-event information”: to details, ideas, and suggestions that come along after an event has happened. People integrate new materials into their memory, modifying what they believe they personally experienced. When people combine information gathered at the time of an actual experience with new information acquired later, they form a smooth and seamless memory and thereafter have great difficulty telling which facts came from which time. (p. 130)

Daniel Lazare's "False Testament," based largely on The Bible Unearthed, stirred up much controversy when it came out. It deals at least as much with religion, as it does with science, and hence seems a bit out of place.

One of the more surprising inclusions was Gary Taubes's "What if it's all been a big fat lie?" The article reads like Taubes formed a conclusion beforehand and then selectively chose quotes and snippets of information to fit his conclusion. I'm surprised Dawkins included it, especially given some of the critiques that came out immediately after it published. E. O. Wilson, in fact, advocates the exact opposite position with regard to Atkins (although not mentioning the diet directly) in his essay at the end of the book.

Overall, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003 is a rather eclectic mix that doesn't quite live up to most reader's impressions of what they will get based on the title. You're sure to like a few and to not like a few. That much I can pretty much promise.

from the publisher:
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundred of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respected -- and most popular -- of its kind. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003, edited by Richard Dawkins, is another "eloquent, accessible, and even illuminating" collection (Publishers Weekly). Here are the best and brightest writers on science and nature, writing on such wide-ranging subjects as astronomy's new stars, archaeology, the Bible, "terminal" ice, and memory faults.

Authors in this selection include: Natalie Angier, Timothy Ferris, Ian Frazier, Elizabeth F. Loftus, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Steven Weinberg, & Edward O. Wilson.