When Books about Science Aren’t Fact Checked, I Can’t Trust Anything in Them

This weekend, I started reading This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin. He is a neuroscientist who had previously been a professional musician, and the book explores why we enjoy music and how it affects the brain.

It started off interestingly, showing that this was a book by a scientist exploring a topic in which he had personal experience. But then I got to a few areas where he made ridiculous statements, a couple of which were outlandish, and one that was just false. This showed that the book had not been fact checked, and made me wonder about everything else in it: if there were mistakes like this, they cast doubt on everything the author says.

The author was discussing the way information is stored in the brain, comparing it with the way data is stored on computers. He says:

People who work with image files all the time are able to look at the stream of 0s and 1s and tell something about the nature of the photograph—not at the level of whether it is a human or a horse, perhaps, but things like how much red or gray is in the picture, how sharp the edges are, and so forth. They have learned to read the code that represents the picture.

This is simply ridiculous. You cannot tell anything about the contents of any file from “the stream of 0s and 1s.” You could tell something about some types of files if you look at the hexadecimal interpretation of those 0s and 1s, but only if they contain metadata (such as the type of file, the creation date, etc.). There is nothing in a file that gives you any idea of its contents by simply looking at the raw data.

He doubles down shortly after the above statement:

Similarly, audio files are stored in binary format, as sequences of 0s and 1s. The 0s and 1s represent whether or not there is any sound at particular parts of the frequency spectrum. Depending on its position in the file, a certain sequence of 0s and 1s will indicate if a bass drum or a piccolo is playing.

I think the only polite thing that I can say is that this is fantastical. The idea that “a certain sequence of 0s and 1s” in any way suggests which instrument is playing, which note is played, or anything at all is ludicrous. Audio files are sampled 44,100 per second, meaning that in each second of music, there are 44,100 discrete segments, combined in “frames,” of audio data. Each of these frames of data contains an abstraction of the sound, and it is not broken up into sections for which instrument is playing, what note is played, etc. The fact that a scientist can write this, and that a publisher fact checked it, is literally beyond belief.

Finally, there’s this:

The research on the development of the first MRI scanners was performed by the British company EMI, financed in large part from their profits on Beatles records. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” might well have been titled “I Want to Scan Your Brain.

Alas, this is the kind of thing that, perhaps, one may have remembered hearing, but that a fact checker should have corrected. It was the CT scan that EMI developed; the history of the MRI is quite complex and took a long time to become a viable diagnostic tool. It began in the 1950s, and took a couple of decades to become useful.

It is beyond disappointing to read this sort of error. I know about these things, and was able to detect them, but I don’t know much about the other things – such as how the brain works – that the author discusses. So there’s no way of knowing whether he is correct, and I simply cannot read a scientific book with this doubt in my mind.

9 thoughts on “When Books about Science Aren’t Fact Checked, I Can’t Trust Anything in Them

  1. Kirk, I thought it was funny that at the bottom of your comments their is an option to ‘Shop Related Products’ and the book (on Amazon) is one of them. It’s only £2.74… what do you expect haha!!

  2. I quite agree. I’m afraid that your experience is far from unique. I am a doctor and the central nervous system is my speciality. I come across outrageous statements on an almost daily basis; usually written in magazines or journals aimed at the educated who have little or no science background. You’ll find a lot of this in quasi-psychological magazines, certain women’s magazines and, of course, books.
    Serious scientific publications are rigorously peer-reviewed. Even then, the occasional slip-up occurs.
    And I won’t even elaborate on the rubbish that is posted on the internet in the name of science!

  3. 44100 *samples* per second, not frames. Could be that I’m being dense and not getting that the link to the MP3 page on Wikipedia is a joke.

    • You’re right. I’ve amended it to explain that samples are in frames. Since he’s talking about data, it’s the way the data is recorded on a disk that is important. There are 1,152 samples in a frame, at least in the current MP3 specification, and other codecs also store samples in a similar way.

  4. The quotes that you included from the book are bizarre. I can’t imagine why Danial Levitin would think interpreting a ‘stream of 0s and 1s’ would be possible, nor why he would think anyone would want to. No one who works with audio files would want to spend time looking at 44,100 x 16 bits of data for a given second of a recording, even if they could get something out of it.

    In the days of physical film, movie editors had the ability to look at each individual frame, representing 1/24th of a second, if we wanted to. But we would never do that, except around an edit point, or when an artifact was detected. No one (except a few crazy film-history students) would have time or interest in individually examing the 130,000 frames of a 90-minute feature film. Examining a digital data stream would be many times less useful.

  5. I found that book very disappointing on multiple levels; I came away from it with little to no more comprehension of how our brains enjoy and respond to music than when I started. And nonsense such as you are describing didn’t help.

    I love music, I play guitar, I love good popular science books about the brain and about music, but I haven’t found one I really enjoyed. Gary Marcus’ “Guitar Zero” was pretty good – a cognitive scientist who has always been told he is unmusical wants to play the guitar – and I enjoyed many of the disparate cases in Oliver Sacks’ “Musicophilia”, but I’d love to find a big meaty book that delves into the details and delivers; I know there’s tons of stuff we don’t know, but there’s tons of stuff we do, so get it out there, science writers!

  6. Perhaps Levitin could rewrite the first quoted paragraph as “People [who are programmers of software like imagemagick, etc.] who work with image files all the time are able to *use the computer software they write* to determine how much red or gray is in the picture, how sharp the edges are, etc.”

    For example, imagemagick can generate a histogram of unique colors in an image: https://stackoverflow.com/a/16108077/9571827

    Imagemagick can also evaluate sharpness: https://www.imagemagick.org/discourse-server/viewtopic.php?t=26501

    But this is, of course, a far cry from being able to evaluate a stream of 0s and 1s in your head to determine colors and sharpness. Or being able to identify what instruments are being played in an audio file from their “0s and 1s”. If these things are possible at all, this would either require Rainman-level abilities or the mind of God.

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