5 Jan 2010

Legend, Science and Science - Some Books

A few months back, I ended up pondering the true origins of Robin Hood, so a Medieval historian I know recommended that I read Robin Hood by J.C. Holt, which is a widely respected book on the subject with the sub-title 'People's hero or lawless marauder' although when I say it out loud, I like to add in 'talking fox' to the options as well.

Holt writes that the surest aspects of the tale of Robin Hood are based on 5 massively long poems, and one tiny bit of a play, and its from these that countless other stories are spun out. The essential bits being about archery, hiding in woods and either battling against or winning the king's favour.
Among the more satisfying things about Robin Hood that I learned were that

  • the nearer the stories get to Nottingham, the more likely they are to be balls, and the nearer to South Yorkshire, the more believable.
  • that Maid Marian was an 18th century invention derived from baudy French novels
  • pretty much everywhere named after Robin Hood have nothing to do with Robin Hood, and were cheap marketing ploys. And Little John's grave in Hathersage can be added to the unverifiable pile.
Another confusing element to the legend is the fact that so many people near the period when he was supposed to have lived had the same or similar name. One great example of the legend and name taking off was in 1498 when loads of armed blokes turned up pissed in Walsall demanding that some of their friends should be released from prison. At first, when the leader was arrested, he told the magistrate that his name was Robin Hood, and when that didn't work, tried on the story that what the army of armed blokes were actually doing was just a friendly May Day celebration. It didn't work.

Holt's book was entertaining but it was so scholarly that I almost felt too edified, less so with Pikhal by Alexander and Ann Shulgin.

Pihkal is story of both a chemical group and two people's lives. Alexander Shulgin was a chemist who spent a lot of time in pharmaceutical research, as well as working for major drug companies and consultancy work. Shulgin also developed a keen interest in the Phenylethlamine group of chemicals which include drugs such as MDMA as well as hundreds of others. He made a point of testing them on himself as well as consenting friends and 'researchers' and made sure that he kept detailed notes of their effects. The title stands for Phenylethlamines I Have Known And Loved, and each chapter has a combination of his life story tied in with scientific but accessible descriptions of his conclusions about various compounds.

The other 'voice' in the book is that of Ann Shulgin, and how she came to meet Alexander (or Shura as he is referred to). Ann's background was in Psychiatry, and both are credited with clinical use of substances like MDMA to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Much of ths work ended when many of the drugs came under schedule I status in the US.

I must admit that I didn't enjoy Ann's sections of the book as Alexanders, but that's probably because it becomes a bit more chick flick (love! jealousy! Am I fat and useless?! will he come round to loving me!?), and I preferred the more philosophical (and psychadelic) parts written by Alexander.

The second half of the weighty tome is actually an extensive appendix on all of Shulgin's experiments with phenylethlamines, as well as detailed methods on their production. Not surprisingly, many legal authorities are not too keen on the book.

The 83 year old Shulgin still has his blog 'Ask Dr Shulgin' to this day.

My brother bought me Bad Science by Ben Goldacre for christmas, which was good as I read his newspaper column every weekend, and secondly because I asked my brother to get it for me.

I can't credit Goldacre enough for having a writing style that engages humorously whilst managing to cram in an awful lot of detailed explanation of good and bad research methods. For an excellent primer in how journalism can be incapable of critically evaluating research, I would point to the chapters on the great MMR [non]scare and the AIDS 'denialists' making a career for themselves out of what can only be described as dangerous bullshit.

Its no surprise reading that homeopathy and Gillian McKeith are massive frauds, as is anyone else who describes themself as a 'nutritionist' - a meaningless title that Goldacre recommends everyone adopts in order to somewhat disarm those who apply it to themself with any kind of seriousness. These sections can only be described as first class hatchet jobs.

If it wasn't so funny and entertaining, it would just leave you with despair and anger, and I read enough to cause that anyway.

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