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Book review: Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas tells us that this book began as an attempt to make sense of why some now outmoded belief systems, which he terms collectively magical, were current in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. As he wrote he found that there was a close relationship between these beliefs and the religious ideas of the period; sometimes the two seemed to be closely connected, at others they were in conflict. He therefore enlarged the scope of his study to include an examination of these interactions. Inevitably the result was a very long book, even though he deliberately confined the discussion to England, with only brief glances at Wales; he made no attempt to include Scotland or Ireland, let alone continental Europe.

This is probably the most comprehensive and widely cited study of these subjects to have appeared in the last half-century. Although it is a scholarly work, it scores highly for readability. [Continue reading]

Breast screening error: disaster or blessing in disguise?

The NHS computer error that has resulted in some 450,000 women aged around 70 not having received an appointment for a final breast screen is obviously, and understandably, deeply worrying for the women concerned. Predictably, the media have headlined the estimate that up to 270 of them may have developed cancers that are more advanced and difficult to treat than they would have been if diagnosed earlier. But this depends on a number of assumptions. Leaving aside the fact that this is the upper limit of an estimated 135-270 range (compare the "up to" speeds quoted by ISPs - how many customers achieve them?), the situation, as usual, is more complicated than the headlines imply.

New Scientlst has a good discussion of the question (Why breast screening error stories are getting death stats wrong). This article makes the important point that, for some women, the failure to notify them may have done them a favour. The current NHS estimate is that, for every 200 women in the 50-70 age range screened, one will be spared an early death but three will have unnecessary treatment for cancers that would not have been a problem in their lifetime.

... it means that up to 800 women may have been saved from harm by not sending them their final screening appointment letter, as they avoided possible reduction in their life expectancy through unnecessary treatment.

The New Scientist article makes the important point that the women who received unnecessary treatment would never know this and would presumably be forever grateful, believing that their lives had been saved by the 'harrowing treatment process'. So this is an 'invisible' harm that is difficult to quantify.

Book review: The Mind Is Flat, by Nick Chater

Sigmund Freud did not invent the notion of the unconscious—in one form or another it goes back to antiquity—but he undoubtedly popularised it. Thanks largely to him, many people today think of their minds in terms of the iceberg metaphor, which implies that much of what goes on in our minds is largely or completely unknown to us. The idea of the unconscious is deeply infused in art, literature, and many other aspects of our life; in fact, it is so widespread that it is practically impossible to escape.

But why has it remained so popular? Probably because it corresponds with how we think of ourselves intuitively. (At least, this is true for Westerners; whether the idea is so deeply ingrained in other cultures I'm not sure.) And yet some psychologists and philosophers have rejected the notion of an unconscious mind. This where Chater stands, although, as he tells us, he came to this view only after a long struggle. [Continue reading]

Book review: Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

At the end of the third volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, Confusion, a lot of threads were left dangling. Here they are all tidied up pretty completely, against the background of life in post-war Britain, which still has plenty of hardships to be endured more or less stoically. Rationing of food, clothing, and fuel is still there or is even increasing under the Labour government, and there are the famous London smogs, one of which Howard describes vividly. [Continue reading]