Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Kitty Genovese witnesses story is fabricated – and so may everything else be

From Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker, I learn that the famous story of how 38 people witnessed the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964 but failed to do anything for half an hour, was basically fabricated by the New York Times under editor A. M. Rosenthal.

The story was recounted uncritically as an example of how the presence of many bystanders can lead to a diffusion of responsibility in such a way that everyone fails to act in my introductory psychology textbook from a few years back. In reality, there were only one or two people who unambiguously witnessed the attack without doing anything about it, and two who did intervene. This was also known at the time.

The true story is less spectacular and would probably not have had the good consequences of the fabricated one, but this could not be known at the time, as mentioned in the article. More importantly, however, the real cost of fabricating good stories like this is that when the truth comes out, it diminishes confidence in all else that is written as well.

H/t: Andrew Gelman

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Monthly book roundup – 2014 April

Books finished in April:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Death with Interruptions (2009) by José Saramago. Silly. Death stops within a country, but continues elsewhere. Much ado about this and also when it starts again. Quite boring, and an annoying meta-narrator, who breaks in to talk about his own narration. Did not finish. Not recommended.

Nexus (2012) by Ramez Naam. Action-filled story about the moral dilemmas related to new technology. The illegal drug Nexus enables users to achieve mind-to-mind contact. The young scientist Kade Lane gets in trouble because he tries to improve it. Everyone interested in the drug has their own agenda. Recommended, I will surely read the follow-up Crux. Recommended.

Crux (2013) by Ramez Naam. Picks up six months after where Nexus ended. Multiple actors are hunting the secrets of Nexus, the drug that enables mind-to-mind communication, and, maybe, control. A possible civil war between humans and post-humans is also looming. Crux is just as action-filled as the predecessor Nexus, and comes back to the same issues about expanding experiences, human tribalism and who should have the right to control.

Why Philanthropy Matters: How the Wealthy Give, and What It Means for Our Economic Well-Being (2013) by Zoltan J. Acs. Most of the book is about the the role of entrepreneurship and the opportunities open for all in American economic development. Acs believes philanthropy underlies American economic success. I learnt much less about philanthropy than I expected from this book.

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (2003) by Atul Gawande. A great book about the science and practice of medicine. Gawande, a surgeon, gives an insider’s view of the medical profession, a profession that often appears hard-nosed, but is as beset with ambiguity, uncertainty, human judgements, customs, mistakes, and need for practice and learning as other ones. He is not without recommendations, though: Gawande details the benefits of computer-based diagnoses, specialization, the field of anesthesia’s success in reducing human, latent errors by analyzing such errors systematically and comprehensively. Recommended.

Zendegi (2010) by Greg Egan. The setting is Iran in the near future. Iran is now a democracy, but radical innovation in brain-mapping primarily used for games face opposition from several quarters, the issue being the moral status of the (incomplete) uploads. In particular, the Cis-Humanist League objects to enslaved “proxies” (uploads). I did not enjoy the book that much, but I did finish it, and it does raise issues that will become relevant in the future.

Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy (2013) by Sudir Venkatesh. Against boxes. Sudir Venkatesh tries to renew himself in New York after the success he had with studying drug gangs in Chicago. He is studying prostitution and drug trafficking, but research progress is often slow and he also has professional doubts. With time he arrives at an understanding about how high and low classes mix to a greater extent in New York than other places, and transcends his pre-conceived conceptions of classes, neighborhoods, and the like. The same type of people, like entrepreneurs, can be found everywhere, everyone has dreams and ambitions, many are driven by the same motives, and the “seekers” connect places. An interesting book, though I did not find the author that rogue.

Stumbling on Happiness (2007) by Daniel Gilbert. We are not good at estimating how happy we will be in the future, and our mind also distorts our memories from the past. Fascinating subject, but I found the book boring, maybe because much of the stuff has become well known. Not finished.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

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