Reading: Embracing the Wide Sky, by Daniel Tammet

I finished Daniel Tammet’s book Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind on 9 Aug 2009.

Embracing the Wide Sky is a popular science book, an overview of various topics related to the mind. Tammet, an autistic savant with extraordinary mathematical and linguistic gifts, is interesting primarily as the owner of a remarkable mind, not as an expert on the mind in general, and this book is thus less compelling than his memoir Born on a Blue Day. Much of it is interesting, but one is still left with the sense that there was no need for this particular person to write this particular book, that any reasonably competent science journalist could have done as good a job of it.

The best chapters are those on memory and perception, which summarize some very interesting research. The chapter on statistics and logical thinking is one of the weakest, contenting itself with defining mean, median, and mode; explaining that the chance of winning the lottery is very low indeed; and listing various familiar logical fallacies. Perhaps because Tammet is used to other people struggling to follow ways of thinking that come naturally to his own mind, he sometimes fails to realize that some things are elementary even to us dear Watsons.

Some of the fallacies enumerated in the logic chapter are on display in the chapter on IQ. Tammet discusses various theories of intelligence, usually in a scrupulously evenhanded way; he seems always to appreciate both sides — but when it comes to the politically radioactive research of Herrnstein and Murray, Tammet suddenly opts for a black-and-white approach (no pun intended), asserting without further argument that they “misinterpreted data on intelligence to lead to some racist conclusions.” He also disregards his own admonitions about statistical thinking in citing the single case of Van Gogh (talented but financially unsuccessful) as evidence against the claim that there is a statistical correlation between IQ and financial success.

One final oddity is the bibliography, in which the majority of the entries look like this: “A Beautiful Mind New York Simon & Schuster” — just the title, city, and publisher, with no punctuation and no mention of the author. These are interspersed with a handful of ordinary entries which include authors, years, and punctuation. So much for the fabled proofreading skills of autistic people.

Overall it’s an interesting enough read, but people who are expecting another Born on a Blue Day are likely to be disappointed.


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