Thursday, May 2, 2013

Spring reading recommendations -- forensic and beyond

Marauding bands of juvenile killers. Gang rapist-kidnappers. Wife beaters.

We’re talking elephants, dolphins and parrots, respectively. That's my forensic psychology angle on Animal Wise, a fascinating new book by nature journalist Virginia Morell.

Not long ago, it was taboo in science circles to claim that animal have minds. But the burgeoning field of animal cognition, having broken out of the strait jacket imposed by 20th-century behaviorism, is now mounting a full-on challenge to the notion of an evolutionary hierarchy with humans at the top. Morell, a science writer for National Geographic and Science magazines, traveled around the world interviewing animal scientists and observing their research projects on everything from architecturally minded rock ants and sniper-like archerfish to brainy birds, laughing rats, grieving elephants, scheming dolphins, loyal dogs, and quick-witted chimpanzees.

She found cutting-edge scientists who not only regard animals as sentient beings, but even refer to their study subjects as trusted colleagues. Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa in Kyoto, for example, has set up his lab so that when the chimpanzees "come to work" each morning, they enter on elevated catwalks and sit higher than the humans, which makes them feel more comfortable. He cannot understand why humans feel so threatened by his discovery that chimpanzees are capable of holding much more information in immediate memory than can we humans.

"I really do not understand this need for us always to be superior in all domains. Or to be so separate, so unique from ever other animal. We are not. We are not plants; we are members of the animal kingdom."


YouTube videos of Ayumu the chimpanzee and Alex the parrot showing their cognitive skills

Animal researchers are realizing that not only do all animals have individual personalities, but some -such as chimpanzees and dolphins - even develop cultures. This engaging and thought-provoking book can be read on many levels. It is highly informative while also being quite entertaining. But on a deeper level, it probes the moral dimensions of science.

Morell’s 2008 National Geographic article in from which the book grew is HERE. Her Slate article, "What are animals thinking?" is HERE.  My Amazon review (if you are so inclined, click on "yes," this review was helpful) is HERE.


The Signal and the Noise

If you haven't yet read Nate Silver's important The Signal and the Noise, it’s past time to grab a copy. Silver’s analytic method is central to forensic psychology. Best known for his spot-on predictions of U.S. presidential races, Silver argues that accurate predictions are possible in some (limited) contexts -- but only when one learns how to recognize the small amount of signal in an overwhelming sea of noise. And also when one approaches the prediction using Bayes's Theorem. This is one of those engrossing books that really stays with you, and has very practical applications in forensic assessments. I find it especially useful in writing reports. Plus, it helps one understand current events involving prediction, like the story of six Italian scientists being sent to prison for failing to predict a deadly earthquake. (Earthquakes are inherently unpredictable, and Silver explains why.) 

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Speaking of forensic report writing, if you want to tune up your own report writing skills, or you are teaching or supervising students, I highly recommend Michael Karson and Lavita Nadkami's book, Principles of Forensic Report Writing, due out at the end of this month. Karson and Nadkami take an innovative and thoughtful approach, helping us to think outside of the box about this essential aspect of our trade.


Other  recommendations

Beyond forensics, here a few other worthwhile books I've read recently:

If American history interests you, check out bestselling author Tony Horwitz's Midnight Rising, about John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry and its role in the abolitionist movement, or Tim Egan's The Big Burn, about the massive fire in the U.S. Northwest that helped change the political landscape and establish the national Forest Service. Both are engrossing and educational; I listened to the audio versions during lengthy road trips.

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If you are into dystopic fiction, I recommend Hillary Jordan's When She Woke. In the not-distant future, the government has gone broke, and can no longer afford to maintain its massive prison system. So, instead of incarceration, law-breakers -- in a modern-day riff on The Scarlet Letter -- are dyed bright colors for the length of their sentences. In a globally warmed Texas ruled by Christian fundamentalists, Hannah Payne wakes up bright red, for the crime of aborting her baby. This edge-of-your-seat tale isn't too far-fetched, given current trends, as laws are being passed in Oklahoma and elsewhere to criminalize abortion, and as the public shaming of sex offenders (who in the novel are "melachromed" blue and killed on sight by vigilantes) becomes more and more entrenched.

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Finally, I'm just launching into Gary Greenberg's hot-off-the-press book on the DSM, The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry, and I can already tell it's going to be a doozy. More on that soon, time permitting....

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