Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide / Peter Del Tredici -- Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010

For at least a century, American botanists have raised the alarm over the invasion of non-native plant species. The immigration to North America of people from all over the world has brought with it food crops, ornamental plants, and stow-away seeds that have found a congenial new habitat in the Americas. The primary concern is that these non-native species are sometimes "invasive," meaning they exist without natural predators and therefore spread out of control. Their success crowds out many native species, thus reducing the diversity of the native ecosystem and damaging the health of the environment.

Despite the apparent threats, Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, is not so alarmed about non-native invasives. Starting from the premise that our native ecosystem has been irreparably transformed by urban development, native species are now as alien to the new urban ecosystem as non-natives. For Del Tredici, the important question in the urban setting is not whether the plant thrived in a by-gone local ecosystem, but whether the plant provides "ecosystem services" that would not otherwise be provided to the city.

In place of the native/non-native distinction, Del Tredici distinguishes plants that grow spontaneously in the urban environment versus plants that require cultivation. In the concrete jungle, Ailanthus altissima (the tree-of-heaven) is able to grow without any help from us, and according to Del Tredici, without this species, our urban tree canopy would be greatly impoverished. Replacing them with "native" species and maintaining natives would require an enormous effort for little or no increased benefit. Among the ecological benefits that spontaneous plants can provide to the city are temperature reduction, food and habitat for wildlife, erosion control, riparian stabilization, nutrient absorption, soil building, and phytoremediation or the ability to absorb and store heavy metals thereby cleaning contaminated sites.

Del Tredici's argument is persuasive, but only as long as we accept that our urban environments will be built without caring that they be hospitable to formerly native species. Careful urban planning can increase the areas that are compatible with native plants and thereby preserve the local biological heritage. Del Tredici would, however, point out that this reflects a cultural value judgement and can not be defended on the basis of biodiversity or ecological services. On the other hand, invasives are often able to spread rapidly outside of the urban environment and into relatively undisturbed ecosystems. Such escapees from the city likely pose all the threats to native species about which botanists warned us.

Del Tredici's argument in favor of spontaneous plants makes up just 23 of the book's 374 pages. The rest of the book is, as the subtitle states, a field guide in which spontaneous urban plants are cataloged and described in a manner traditional to such field guides. Each entry includes, however, information on the ecological functions and cultural significance of the plant described. This is consistent with Del Tredici's two primary goals, "to teach people how to identify the plants that are growing in urban areas, and to counter the widespread perception that these plants are ecologically harmful or useless and should be eliminated from the landscape." Each entry also includes five or six useful color photographs of the plant or its near cousins.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Library Ethics / Jean Preer -- Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited, 2008

The following review is scheduled to be published in The Library Quarterly, 81(1), 2011.

There are two common approaches to thinking about ethics: descriptive and normative. Descriptive ethics attempts to understand the ethical standards employed by a person, institution, or society. Normative ethics attempts to justify specific ethical standards. Jean Preer’s Library Ethics is mainly descriptive. She writes, “this book will examine how our understanding of library ethics has evolved along with the development of librarianship itself” (p. xiii) and “librarians developed rules in practice that were determined by institutions, customs, and local needs. Indeed, ethics relates to ‘custom,’ the word deriving from ethos, the way things are done” (p. 2.). Often works of descriptive ethics are inherently conservative. They guide us by describing prevailing practices. Preer’s work does a fair job of avoiding this trap by giving fair accounts of countervailing ethical tendencies. In the end, the reader gains a firm understanding of the main ethical challenges facing the profession as well as the evolving answers to those challenges as codified in the American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics, the ALA Library Bill of Rights, and other documents. Moreover, the reader is poised to consider these issues more deeply and with fresh eyes.

Early on, Preer addresses the professional aspirations of 19th and early 20th century librarians. A code of ethics is presented as an essential element of any profession. While the aspiration to professional status may seem self-serving, the 1938 ALA Code gave guidance to library workers who sought to understand what the profession expected of them. One year later, the ALA Library Bill of Rights was a promise to patrons, communities, and the world as to what they could expect from the profession.

In tracing the subsequent development of these documents, Preer describes a transformation of ethical imperatives from concrete obligations to broad assertions of professional values. Her history begins with statements by eminent librarians, most importantly Charles Knowles Bolton’s 1909 library code. Bolton prescribed library administrators’ obligations to the library’s board, staff, and patrons. The 1938 ALA Code of Ethics preserved Bolton’s approach with its implicit value of library service; however, according to Preer, the social conditions and the practice of librarianship gradually changed the profession’s ethical foundations. In 1975, the ALA adopted a Statement on Professional Ethics in which specific obligations gave way to an assertion of values; furthermore, the explicit value of access replaced the implicit value of service.

Preer presents the re-conceptualization of library ethics from obligations to values as an advance, but it is hard to see how this is so. To provide concrete help in behaving ethically, a code must not be couched in overly general, ambiguous statements of value, particularly when the code includes multiple conflicting values, e.g., freedom of information and respect for copyright. This is not to say that statements of value are useless, but they must be able to specify obligations that direct our actions. Perhaps a more useful way to think about this history is that the elements of a general formula have been emphasized differently over time. Consider the basic ethical formula: “Librarian A has an obligation to B (a patron, community, or society) to do or not do action X.” Bolton’s code and the 1938 ALA Code more or less explicitly specified the formula’s variables, but by 1975, the object of our obligations (B) had become amorphous and the substance of our obligations (X) had become abstract. Given these changes, we indeed might want to characterize our code as asserting “values.” On the other hand, we simply may have abandoned the difficult work of identifying our obligations in favor of bromides that will pass in the ALA Council.

The more consequential evolution that Preer identifies is our shift from valuing service to valuing access. In the 19th and early 20th century, our ability to provide access was relatively limited. We, therefore, emphasized our role as educators. Preer quotes Alvin Johnson, president of the New School, as observing, “Not buildings nor even book collections, but trained, intelligent, enterprising library service makes a real library” (p. 10); but as the publishing industry expanded, as our collections grew, and as we developed increasingly sophisticated tools for controlling information, our emphasis shifted toward helping each patron access whatever information she or he could identify. The role that information plays in a democratic society ennobled this effort, but when access is the paramount value, the librarian’s primary role is technocratic. We identify the requested item or meme and provide it, increasingly “just in time” rather than “just in case.” We become, essentially, unfiltered search engines.

It is noteworthy that with the expansion of free, full-text internet access to increasing shares of the information universe, access is slipping out of the hands of librarians and into the hands of advertisers, like Google. If our primary value is access, this trend will undermine our reason for being and potentially doom the profession. The following might be as self-serving as developing a “professional” code of ethics, but resurrecting the venerable value of service could give us a more lasting future. At the same time, it will resurrect important ethical problems that faded with the valorization of access.

When service is paramount, other ethical obligations arise. Preer describes an early role of librarians as educators who sought to raise the intellectual and cultural standards of the community. She quotes ALA President Arthur Bostwick’s 1909 presidential address, saying that the books to be collected “must be morally beneficial, contain accurate information or satisfy the esthetic sense in its broadest meaning” (p. 90). Today, most librarians recoil from a role that seems to objectify goodness, truth, and beauty, but this might be only because of our recent, overriding commitment to ostensibly neutral access. Against this, the explosion of readily available information and the commercial provision of this information leaves patrons in need informed advice about which information sources to take seriously and which to ignore. A new day may be dawning for the services of the reader advisor.

Clearly, a move back to valuing service over access would resurface numerous ethical issues. Many of these issues are valuably illuminated by Preer’s fourth and fifth chapters, “Access: What Information” and “Conflicts of Interest: Philosophical.” Her fourth chapter focuses on issues of censorship and obscenity, but it also discusses quality assessment and selection criteria. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be the service that librarians add to ready online access. In her fifth chapter, Preer addresses significant ethical pitfalls on this path. It is difficult to know how we can set aside our “personal” beliefs when selecting items for their goodness, truth, and beauty. Indeed, what counts as a “personal” belief and whether we should set them aside merits examination. Different criteria might be needed for writing general guides versus offering specific advice to individual patrons. In any case, the expertise of the librarian would certainly be at a premium with this restored educational role. We would no longer be technocratic experts in document delivery, but we would become qualified subject specialists whose task would be to provide our patrons with the best of what they want, not merely anything that approximates it. This would require knowing the subject matter, the available resources, and the specific needs of the patron. In school and academic libraries a certain amount of paternalism would be in order just as teachers have an obligation to use their expertise to guide the research of their students. The ethics of librarians would begin to look more like the ethics of teachers.

Preer’s eighth chapter, “Confidentiality,” deserves special attention. Preer notes that confidentiality (or privacy) initially appears in conflict with access, but she does an admirable job of explaining how freedom of expression is predicated on freedom of inquiry which in turn requires a safe environment for inquiry. This can only come about when researchers have reasonable assurances that their research will not be made known against their will. Preer goes on to apply this principle to several circumstances and patron populations. The chapter ends with a succinct discussion of privacy in the era following Sept. 11, 2001 and the advent and implications of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Throughout Library Ethics, Preer traces the ethical attitudes within the library profession and how these attitudes became expressed in codes, statements, and particular policies. It is, as she declares, an examination of library ethics based on practice. Preer largely escapes the conservativism of descriptive ethics through the depth and sensitivity of her treatment of the issues. One might say that Library Ethics begs the normative ethical questions in a good way. The reader is left understanding many of the ethical issues that have challenged librarians as well as understanding how and why ethics codes and statements were promulgated. Equipped with this knowledge, the reader is primed to ask the ultimately more important normative questions.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains / Nicholas Carr -- NY: W.W. Norton, 2010

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is a thoughtful examination of how digital communication technology might inexorably be changing fundamental human mental capacities. His argument begins by noting that our brains are not like computer hardware with a fixed, physical configuration that changes only insofar as it naturally degrades. Instead, brain circuitry is part of a living, changing organism, that is reconfigured by use and disuse. This phenomenon, known as “neuroplasticity,” is well established in the scientific literature.

Following Marshall MacLuhan’s thesis in Understanding Media, Carr argues that the medium that transmits information more profoundly affects our lived experience than the information content that it transmits. As cases in point, Car presents the changes that took place with the advent of typographical spaces between words, the printing press, and finally, the “electric media,” culminating in the internet.

Prior to the printing press, reading and writing was done by a tiny minority of people working as professional scribes. These people became practiced at the careful examination of texts that were written in scriptura continua, i.e., text written without spaces between words. Reading scriptura continua meant that reading was tantamount to solving a puzzle, accomplished by sounding aloud the letters to slowly form the coded message. Consequently, readers became practiced at the careful examination of individual characters and the translation of these symbols into sounds. The assimilation of the meaning was slow and interrupted.

With the advent of spaces between words, words could be quickly recognized as wholes, allowing a text to be read easily, quickly, and silently. According to Carr’s thesis, the shift from reading scriptura continua to reading text with spaces would have caused a significant reconfiguration of the brains of readers, activating and expanding new neurocircuits. It would have reduced certain basic mental capacities while it improved others. As reading became less difficult, readers experienced a state of mind Carr calls “deep reading,” in which readers could become completely engrossed in the content of the text. Reading became a meditative act. This also changed writing in that authors could assume that readers were “attentive” and “deeply engaged both intellectually and emotionally,” thus allowing more complex literary forms.

As the printing press expanded the universe of readers, more and more people developed the mental capacities for deep concentration and sustained attention. Deep reading fostered deeper thinking and the development of more complex mental schemas that foster long-term memory and understanding. With changes to brain circuitry, these capacities could be employed not only when reading, but during other activities.

Of course, all of this changed with the advent of what McLuhan called the “electric media,” which is becoming mature in the internet. This is Carr’s main concern. Unlike the deep reading fostered by books, the internet is fostering short, superficial bursts of reading and viewing. Its designers are seeking to constantly interrupt us and lure us to a new Web site where new content and advertisements can seize our attention briefly before moving us on to the next Web site. We find ourselves scanning information for interesting fragments and multi-tasking because we are lured out of one task before it is complete to begin another. We are not reading in the traditional sense, we are “power browsing.”

Proponents of this new form of information acquisition suggest that the wealth of information now available to us will allow us to make more and various connections between intellectual content and generate novel ideas, but Carr argues that while power browsing may be exhilarating, and may seem to be connecting us quickly to just the information we seek, the gains are ephemeral. Citing research on working memory and long-term memory, he notes that power browsing does not allow us the time to fix the information presented to our working memory in long-term memory. It is out of long-term memory that we construct our conceptual schema that allows us a deep understanding of the world. As a result, power browsing not only diminishes our capacity for sustained concentration, it undermines the sort of intelligence that has been promoted by the literary mind.

Carr's thesis is provocative, but he is at pains not to overstate it. Throughout The Shallows, Carr reminds us that the internet is not only impoverishing specific intellectual powers, it is improving others. For example, experienced Web surfers are able to quickly identify on a Web page the item or fragment of information that they seek. This ability to pick out what is critical in a cluttered visual field is a "bottom-up" brain mechanism that transfers to other contexts just as the "top-down" ability for sustained concentration translates across contexts. Nonetheless, Carr’s sympathies are clearly with deep reading.

Certainly, proponents of the internet will down play what is lost with the decline of deep reading and play up what is gained with the ascent of power browsing, but Carr’s warning is hard to ignore. Neuroplasticity makes our changing reading habits much more significant than one might originally think, and I expect that many people who already have developed the habit of deep reading will recognize the cognitive changes that Carr observes coming from working with electronic media, particularly the internet. Perhaps it is because the assessment of the value of this change is coming from a deep reader, but it certainly seems that something very valuable is being replaced with something terribly, terribly shallow.

It is also interesting to consider Carr's claims in the context of Jaron Lanier's recent book, You Are Not a Gadget (reviewed in this blog). Lanier warns that the internet is increasingly dehumanizing us by reducing us to fragmented content contributors to a vast network of computers. He warns that our very personhood is being reduced to what can be indexed in social networking metadata and presented by Web search engines. "You are not a gadget" is Lanier's rallying cry to resist this dehumanization. Unfortunately, if Carr is right about the restructuring of our brains, one might argue that the internet is, indeed, slowly, but inexorably, turning us into gadgets.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Merchants of Doubt / Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway -- N.Y.: Bloomsbury Press, 2010

If I were to nominate a "Book of the Year," it would certainly be Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Their history of "how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming" is timely and important.

Meticulously researched, Merchants of Doubt traces the formation and development of a contrarian cabal of scientists. Funded by commercial interest groups, these scientists implemented a concerted strategy to discredit scientific research that might lead to the regulation of industry. In some instances, the effort led to the defamation of the scientists behind the research.

Four names stand out in the origins of the effort: Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer. All were physicists who had worked on important defense projects during the Cold War and all were ardent anti-communists. Two of their early efforts to affect the public debate surrounding scientific conclusions were the defense of the tobacco industry and the defense of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

In the 1960s, Seitz led the effort (paid for by the tobacco industry) to sew doubt on the connection between tobacco and cancer, despite the industry's full knowledge that smoking caused cancer. This was done through the "Council for Tobacco Research," formerly the "Tobacco Industry Research Council," which had been renamed to avoid its obvious connection to the tobacco industry. Seitz was following the footsteps of C.C. Little whose work for the tobacco industry also attempted to sew doubt about the dangers of smoking. There is "no proof" served as the public relations mantra of the industry and it was lent credibility by a small number of scientists on their payroll. Eventually, they could delay public acceptance of the science no longer. Tobacco was regulated and the industry was convicted of racketeering.

Robert Jastrow lead the effort to promote the perception that a space-based anti-ballistic missile system would not only be possible, but would ensure the safety of the public, adopting the premise that a nuclear war was winnable. This effort pitted him against Carl Sagan whose research with four other scientists suggested that even a limited nuclear exchange would plunge the world into a "nuclear winter." Later research suggested that the consequences would not be a severe as Sagan et al. thought, but they would be sufficient to destroy global food production. So contrary to Jastrow's claims, a nuclear war could not be won. Nonetheless, Jastrow pressed his claims by creating the George C. Marshall Institute, with Fred Seitz as the founding chair. In the end, not only has it been accepted that a limited nuclear war would have dire consequences for the planet's ecosystem and vital global economy, but that the possibility of a workable space-based nuclear defense shield is a fantasy.

As the debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative wound down, one participant in the debate, William Nierenberg, co-founder of the Marshall Institute, was appointed by President Reagan to chair the Acid Rain Peer Review Panel, charged with reviewing the results of U.S.-Canadian research on acid rain. His panel included Fred Singer who was suggested to him by the White House. Nierenberg's panel recommended significant reductions in sulfur emissions to control acid rain; however, after showing the draft to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Nierenberg returned the report to the committee with changes that significantly reduced the level of confidence in the danger of sulfur emissions.

More amazingly, Fred Singer, charged with writing the final chapter, could not draft anything that the other eight members of the committee could accept. Still, Singer's chapter became an appendix that completely rejected the force of the Panel's report. To top it off, at the behest of the OSTP, Neirenberg attached -- without the consent of the committee -- an executive summary which belied the report's conclusions. These changes confused the public reception of the panel's conclusions, resulting in significant misunderstandings of the science of acid rain.

After leaving the Acid Rain Peer Review Panel, Fred Singer, supported by the Marshall Institute, began promoting a counter narrative to the science establishing the depletion of ozone by CFCs. He was joined in this by Fred Seitz and Patrick Michael, an agricultural climatologist who would later participate in casting doubt on the effects of green house gasses on the climate. The counter narrative to ozone depletion once again stressed the uncertainty of the science, despite the fact that the relationship had been firmly established among the experts in the field.

Beginning in 1998, Fred Seitz and, shortly after, Fred Singer took up the cause of discrediting the dangers of second hand smoke on behalf of the tobacco industry. In this effort, the tobacco industry's public relations firm APCO Associates formed The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition led by lobbyist Steven Milloy to help sway public opinion against the conclusions of the EPA which was warning of the dangers of second hand smoke. Milloy and TASSC coined the tag line "junk science" to smear whatever scientific conclusions (or scientists) were the target of their anti-environmentalist campaigns. This tag line is currently being used by Milloy to attack climate science.

By now the basic pattern of attack was well established: find any reason -- even assert demonstrable falsehoods -- to cast doubt on the scientific conclusions that might possibly call for commercial regulations, and make use of non-peer reviewed mass media channels to confuse public opinion.

By 1979, climate science was arriving at the conclusion that green house gasses are a significant threat to the planet's climate. Of all environmental threats, green house gases, particular CO2, strikes at the core of the world's industrial economy. So it is no surprise that the merchants of doubt would quickly turn there guns on climate science and its scientists. The first responses came from economists Tom Shelling and William Nordhaus, but other familiar actors soon joined the fray, particularly William Nierenberg.

In 1988, James Hansen's testimony to Congress asserting empirical evidence of climate change, raised the stakes, and the Marshall Institute responded, enlisting Jastrow, Seitz, and Nierenberg. Singer joined the attack by publishing an article he purported to be co-authored by Roger Revelle, an eminent scientist who had warned the world of the threat of global warming. Singer's article suggested that Revelle had changed his mind about the certainty of global warming, but Revelle's family and closest friends denied that he had changed his mind. Singer appears to have taken advantage of an ailing (indeed dying) octogenarian to advance Singer's own political agenda. Also joining the global warming deniers was Patrick Michaels who previously had risked depleting the ozone by defending CFCs.

Perhaps the most amazing attack of the doubt merchants is a recent attack on Rachel Carson's indictment of DDT in her book Silent Spring. In this instance, the campaign appears to be generated by a number of libertarian think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Hoover Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Oreskes and Conway suggest that attacking Rachel Carson and the long settled debate about the dangers of DDT is a deeply strategic move. They write that if the deniers could effectively suggest that "Carson was wrong, then the shift in orientation [that Silent Spring inaugurated]might have been wrong, too. The contemporary environmental movement could be shown to have been based on a fallacy, and the need for government intervention in the marketplace would be refuted." Whether this is the deniers' intent or not, the campaign against Carson at very least shows the extent to which the merchants of doubt are willing to go to attack environmental science.

With the amazing advance of science and technology, our ability to affect the planet has been significantly increased. Understanding the consequences of those effects is critical to our survival, whether they are various carcinogens, ozone depletion, acid rain, or global warming. Oreskes and Conway have made an unimpeachable case that the ideological agenda of libertarian think tanks and lobbyists and their hired scientists is to discredit whatever scientific research supports regulation. This is a grave threat to the planet and to the quality of our life on it. Oreskes and Conway's expose of these machinations should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand current environmental debates.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Kingdom of God Is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mysitical Teaching But as a New Concept of Life / Leo Tolstoy -- Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961

Leo Tolstoy's reputation as a novelist much overshadows his reputation as an author of non-fiction, but a great deal of his literary output is non-fictional. He was particularly concerned in the later stages of his career to express his views on religion and non-violence. His two most important works in this regard are My Religion also known as What I Believe and The Kingdom of God Is Within You. What he attacks in Kingdom gives ample reason for understanding why his views have been dismissed.

The work begins with an exposition of what Tolstoy thought was the central philosophy of Christ, expressed in Mathew 5:39, "I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (KJV). From this, Tolstoy constructs the moral philosophy of "non-resistance to evil:" a radical rejection of violence in all of its forms. Not only does this imperative proscribe serving in the army, it rejects serving as a police officer, and enacting punishments of any kind.

Tolstoy recognizes that all governments depend upon the threat of punishment and so consequently, he rejects government. Equally, he criticizes revolutionists inspired by a sense of justice to commit acts of violence, but he saves his deepest scorn for leaders of the Christian churches, who he sees as distorting and rejecting true Christianity. As worldly powers, Christian churches have made accommodations with secular powers and even vigorously endorsed various forms of violence at least since Constantine. His criticisms go beyond established institutions and their leaders as Tolstoy hold accountable upper and middle class individuals who accept the benefits of violent economic, social, and political arrangements.

With the depth and breadth of his critique, it is no wonder that his books were banned by Czarist Russia, and that he found no meaningful support from other governments, revolutionary socialist parties, the Christian church, or many people in the literate classes. His reputation as a "crank" was all but assured by his uncompromising attachment to the principle of non-violence.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to find fault with the basic thrust of his arguments. If we are to understand the message of Christ to be of historical significance, it must depart from the political and moral compromises that putatively Christian institutions have made. Such institutions could have engaged in exactly the same behavior as they have while embracing any number of secular ideologies, and had Christ's message been consistent with these actions and arguments, his contribution to the history of moral ideas would not be noteworthy.

If there is a weakness in Tolstoy's critique of law and punishment, it lies in his failure to recognize the possibility that self-imposed laws can be legitimately enforced by self-imposed punishments. A truly democratic society may adopt rules for behavior and employ punishments to guard against the weakness of will that characterizes us all, though one might argue that each person must willingly accept the legitimacy of the governing institution.

In defense of Tolstoy's critique of even ostensibly democratic governments, one can point out that no actual government is born of institutions that can confer truly democratic legitimacy, certainly not the U.S. government with its plutocratic electoral system. Consequently, the legitimate use of violence by a government can only occur under hypothetical circumstances.

Tolstoy's moral demands are strict, but they establish an ideal that deserves the deepest respect.

Heart of Darkness / Joseph Conrad -- London: Hesperus Press, 2002

Not long ago I watched "Apocalypse Now: Redux" which inspired me to finally read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The work was much less shocking than I had expected. This is probably due to the explicit descriptions of brutality that flood the world today, but despite this, Conrad's dream-like prose remains powerful and deeply affecting. His sometimes subtle observations of the brutality of the exploitation of the Congo by Belgian commercial interests remains haunting, perhaps even more so for anyone who has read Adam Hochschild's history of this era, King Leopold's Ghost. Among the most striking aspects of the work is Conrad's ability to quickly and succinctly describe characters in a way that makes them seem highly multi-dimensional.

The Dance of Persons and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy / Thomas M. Norton-Smith -- Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010

In The Dance of Persons and Place Shawnee philosopher Thomas Norton-Smith brings his background in analytic philosophy to bear on the question of the legitimacy of the world view(s) of American Indians or at least as he understands them. The standard he uses for assessing the world view is based largely on the work of the American philosopher Nelson Goodman who argued against ontological objectivity in favor of multiple well-formed world versions.

Overall, the work is successful, but not without making a number of controversial commitments along the way. For example, Norton-Smith suggests that acceptable world versions might dispense with fundamental canons of reason. In place of these, Norton-Smith would put world-creating activities of the kind he argued for in his articles in the Philosophy of Mathematics. His views are well-argued and founded, in part, on his experiences crossing the boundaries from a "Western" philosophical background into the community of American Indians.

Originally skeptical of Goodman's views, Norton-Smith adopted an ontology along the lines of Goodman in the course of learning the Shawnee language, particularly as he noticed that the Shawnee language employed the same phonemes for all animate objects, blurring the distinction between humans and animals. Upon accepting a Goodmanesque view, Norton-Smith developed his understanding of American Indian philosophy. According to this understanding, there are four common themes in American Indian philosophy: "relatedness and circularity as world-ordering principles, the expansive conception of persons, and the semantic potency of performance."

While Norton-Smith is at pains to emphasize that his exposition of the American Indian World version is "an interpretation" -- suggesting that others are equally legitimate -- his treatment of the "Western" world version is perhaps insufficiently nuanced, allowing scientific realism to stand for all of "Western" culture. This misses the numerous other world versions coming out of Europe which included much that is antithetical to scientific realism, e.g., belief in spiritual beings and miracles. Indeed, these beliefs have been (and remain) more common in the U.S. than scientific realism and may have some things in common with the American Indian world view.

Norton-Smith's juxtaposition of American Indian philosophy and scientific realism makes one wonder if a more significant comparison might be made between the world views of literate versus non-literate peoples. The trappings of ethnocentric ontological legitimacy might find their roots in the products of written language as opposed to the narrower characteristics of science realism. In any case The Dance of Person and Place is an extremely valuable contribution to improving the cross-cultural exchange of ideas.