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.