Thursday, September 18, 2014

Over one century of the science of human-caused climate change

How long has science been concerned about greenhouse gases?

Originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 10, 2013.

Public domain image by NASA. Earth's western hemisphere, as seen from space. © Wikimedia Commons.

The metaphor of the Earth's atmosphere as a greenhouse was born in the nineteenth century when it was discovered that atmospheric gases trap heat.  So-called greenhouse gases — including carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane — permit short-wave radiation from the sun to pass through to the Earth but prevent long-wave radiation from the Earth from departing into space. (The metaphor is a bit of a misnomer, as part of what makes a greenhouse hot is the heating of the glass itself, whereas clearly Earth is not surrounded by glass.)

All other things being equal, the temperature will rise as more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere. This is linked to a complex set of natural processes. For example, carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the combustion of carbon-based fossil fuels like coal and oil, is naturally removed from the atmosphere when it dissolves into the ocean or is absorbed into plants which return the carbon to solid form.

The first scientist to speculate that the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels could heat the planet was Svante Arrhenius of Sweden in 1896. This is discussed in Spencer Weart's book The Discovery of Global Warming (2008).

In the 1930s, scientists knew that the planet had warmed over recent decades, but they didn't know why. The English scientist Guy Stewart Callendar (1898-1964) said it was caused by the greenhouse effect, but his theory, proposed over three decades after Arrhenius's, was not taken seriously. Callendar's archived correspondence is kept today at the library of the University of East Anglia.

In the 1950s, scientists began to investigate the possibility that carbon dioxide was indeed raising the average global temperature. Finally, in 1960, their results showed that the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide was rising each year and that this could indeed explain the rising global temperatures.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is measured in parts per million (ppm). Scientists can get air samples from millions of years ago by drilling into glaciers that formed in the eras since the dinosaurs roamed the earth (when there was no ice on the planet). Samples obtained in this way indicate that carbon dioxide levels naturally fluctuated between 200 and 280 ppm for millions of years. However, this level has risen steadily since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Today, in 2013, the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are at 394 ppm, according to the advocacy group CO2Now. The advocacy group recommends 350 ppm or lower as a necessary goal. That was the actual level in 1987.

Scientific issues related to climate change and its effects include the melting of the ice caps and the rising of sea levels; ocean saltiness and circulation patterns; greenhouse gases, measured at the tailpipe or at their natural sources; possibly mitigating factors like aerosols, the ozone layer and its depletion, and clouds; the capability of forests and oceans to store carbon; the archaeological climate record, analyzed through fossil shells or ice bubbles trapped in glaciers; ecosystem observations; temperature changes; and animal behavior trends, including reproduction and migration, as a response to temperature changes.

One of the most complicated issues is feedback loops by which a small amount of warming could generate more warming. For example, if warming causes plants to die, reflective snow to melt, and water to evaporate, then all of these occurrences will contribute to further warming. The resulting warming trend would be largely out of human control.

Individual governments contribute to research. Sam Bodman, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce, said before a Climate Change Science workshop in Dec. 2002: "Overall, we have spent more than $20 billion since 1990 on climate research — three times as much as any other country." (Bodman later served as U.S. Secretary of Energy from 2005-2009.)

However, because the greenhouse effect concerns the planet as a whole, a full understanding of it would mean nothing less than a full understanding of the planet. Scientists from diverse nations and disciplines have to share information to form a more complete picture.

Periodic reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the UN in 1988, synthesize previously published research with this purpose in mind. The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) will be delivered in stages between September 2013 and October 2014.

Famous international climate treaties include the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Copenhagen Accord in 2009.

The greenhouse effect is natural and self-regulating. There is supposed to be some carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane in the atmosphere. It is what makes the planet warm and habitable. The risk, however, is that industrial contributions of greenhouse gases might tip the natural cycles off balance. Indeed, there is evidence that this is already happening. There might be a threshhold at which the self-regulating patterns are entirely interrupted and derailed. Scientists are not yet sure what that threshold might be, whether tailpipe emissions are likely to bring the world to that point, or indeed whether they already have.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Did you ignore climate change today?

George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) based on Oxford, England, gave his first book talk on Sept. 3 at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. about his new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

The book is timely, with the massive demonstration called the People's Climate March scheduled for this Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014 in New York City, in advance of the international climate summit that will begin two days later.

Coming from an anthropological point of view, with experience as a communicator about climate change, Marshall's opening question is: "What explains our ability to separate what we know from what we believe, to put aside the things that seem too painful to accept? How is it possible, when presented with overwhelming evidence, even the evidence of our own eyes, that we can deliberately ignore something — while being entirely aware that this is what we are doing?" (p. 1) Climate change, he argues, is difficult for the human mind to understand and act upon. "If there are any grounds at all for regarding climate change as a ‘perfect’ cognitive challenge, it is not because of its specific qualities but because it is so multivalent — that is to say, it is so open to multiple meanings and interpretations." (p. 94)

He finds that many people are aware of the risks, but that, even when presented with information, they find ways to compartmentalize it or downplay it rather than to act on it. "Is there something innate in this issue that enables people to disregard it in this way? How else would it be possible for people to know that climate change is a threat but not feel that it is a threat?" (p. 45) To answer this question, he explores the separation between the "rational" and "emotional" brain.

Considering the work of Daniel Gilbert, Paul Slovic, Daniel Kahneman and others, he points out that climate:

- doesn’t have personal agency
- doesn’t trigger our moral sense of indecency or disgust
- doesn't change abruptly enough for humans to take notice or feel a sense of urgency
- introduces "dread risk" (risk that is catastrophic in scale) which may prompt us to emotionally shut down and try to rationalize or ignore the problem - introduces "unknown risk" (risk that is new and unpredictable) which means it is difficult for us to comprehend and prepare for
- reminds us of our mortality and provokes a "terror management" response by which we try to push away the uncomfortable knowledge
- is the subject of public debates, which, even if one side is educated and expert and the other side is laughable, creates the hard-to-shake impression that the jury is still out

Thus, climate change is, quoting Gilbert, “a threat that our evolved brains are uniquely unsuited to do a damned thing about.” (p. 46)

Yet another social reality is that, in general, people tend to avoid political controversy that will threaten their standing in their social group. This applies to scientists, too, who may otherwise be drawn to study climate change, but who, anticipating hostility and misunderstanding, may choose a different field.

Marshall says that information about climate change will be better received when it is communicated not only by professional campaigners, but by ordinary people. He also says it should not be exclusively framed as an "environmental" issue - portraying it as an issue about "gases" is particularly useless - but should be framed as being fundamentally about a large number of important issues.
"The visual and metaphorical language that surrounds climate change marks it, irredeemably, as an environmental issue. These images, constantly reinforced in every news story and media item, create a tightly interlinked schema by which climate change is detached from the other issues (employment, economy, crime, defense) that people care most about." (p. 131)
Climate change does, in general, increase the number of extreme weather events. These weather events cause significant property destruction and disruption to people's lives, and can also take a toll on ecosystems. When someone's house has been destroyed, they do not, however, want to talk about blind forces of nature and the probability, expressed in raw numbers, that the same thing will happen again to themselves or someone like them. Still less do they want to be told that they are contributing to the changing climate by driving their car to the hardware store to buy wood to rebuild their house. They just want to rebuild and to focus on the support they receive from their community.

With an issue this large, that affects every conceivable area of life, part of choosing the frame is deciding what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

On the one hand, people tend to employ an "optimism" bias by which they imagine that their lives and their local environments are better than average and that their futures and their children's futures will be comparatively rosy. On the other hand, when specific dangers associated with climate change are articulated to them, they may feel unable to prevent catastrophe and thus sink into agentic paralysis. Either way, no action is taken. The situation is either cast as someone else's problem or else as unavoidable and incurable.

Often, environmental campaigns proclaim a deadline by which the world must either be saved or lost, as in a phrase such as "we have ten years to save the planet". These slogans backfire, not only because it takes merely ten years to prove them to have been overstated and oversimplified, but because, when a fuller explanation of the meaning is given, "the campaign is immersed back into the tangle of probabilities, uncertainties, and cost-benefit analysis that it originally sought to avoid." (p. 62) In other words, there are facts behind the sound bites, but it is difficult to know when to invoke the complexity and when to chant the slogan.

People do not relish even slightly reducing their living standard today to avoid the mere possibility of a disaster in the future, even if it is rational (on paper) to do so. It is especially difficult when "the future" does not refer to one's own lifetime but to future generations. And it is nearly impossible when the beneficiaries are randomly selected, unknown people rather than one's own family and friends. It is one thing to bail out a flooded basement in one's own house or perhaps in the house of a relative or neighbor, and another thing to stop in one's travels to assist with a house that one has no personal connection to. There tends to be a "bystander effect"; even if a problem is recognized, without a clear plan of action, people tend to expect that "someone else" is in charge or has a plan to fix it. Thus, appealing to people to worry about the environments on distant islands fifty years in the future does not capture many people's imagination or attention, and adding more people at events, rallies, mailing lists, and so forth may only increase the bystander effect and thus the collective inaction. Marshall suggests changing the script: First, ask how much money it would take to pay you off to give you the right to cause damage to the climate that your own children will have to live in. Next, we need "to talk less about the costs of avoiding climate change and more about the lousy deal we are getting in return for a marginally higher living standard." (p. 71)

Historically, environmental campaigns have encouraged consumers to "go green" by making minor changes to their consumption. This backfires because the recommendations are easily construed as being based in personal criticism and blame. Among those who are predisposed to resist or contradict information about climate change, exhortations to "go green" stoke resentment and resistance (e.g. I am going to throw this recyclable bottle in the trash just to prove that I can and that it's my choice, and you can't make me put it in the recycling container), while among those who already care about climate change, reminders to reduce consumption often provoke exculpatory narratives to justify their behavior (e.g. I try to fly as little as possible, but I was so exhausted after studying the melting ice caps all year that I really needed to fly my whole family for a vacation).

Furthermore, a focus on personal consumption fails to strike at the root of the systems that drive production. As long as products and services are for sale, someone is going to buy them eventually. Encouraging people to buy them more slowly is not necessarily a radical change in favor of sustainability. Energy policy needs to change, and for that, social movement and political will - not just individual virtue - is needed.
"The focus on tailpipe gases and disregard for wellhead fuels has been the single most important factor in all government and policy framings. Radical environmentalists alone have attempted to connect two issues that, in the minds of most mainstream experts, operate in entirely independent realms. This does not, on its own, explain why we ignore the risk of climate change, but it does explain the fundamental disconnection that works through all narratives and policies on the issue." (p. 169)
Marshall's book explains very well why climate change in particular is so difficult for people to understand and to deal with rationally, and he proposes some reasonable, insightful, achievable steps to shift the discussion. As he said at Harvard Book Store (I am reconstructing the line from memory): "I spent twenty years as an activist trying to convince people to have the discussions that I wanted them to have. Now I want them to have the discussions that they want to have." But, he added, "If they happen to have the discussions that I want them to have, I'm happy."

Monday, September 8, 2014

'God Is Not One': A book on acknowledging religious differences

Religions are different. They have different aims and fill different needs. It is respectful to acknowledge this, rather than to pretend otherwise, says Stephen Prothero. Originally posted to Helium Network on May 7, 2010.

"No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same," Stephen Prothero says in the opening to his 2010 book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter. "Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, essentially the same..." Writing in response to a philosophy embraced by academia after Huston Smith's 1958 book "The World's Religions", Prothero aims to explain, to the contrary, why religious differences are significant and important.

Prothero says he teaches his students to use a four-part analytical framework: each religion identifies a problem in the human condition, proposes a solution, provides a technique for achieving that solution and points to exemplars or role models. In Christianity, for example, the problem is sin, and the solution is salvation. Judaism's central lament is exile, Buddhism is concerned with suffering, and so forth. This framework emphasizes differences between religions.

Those who side with Huston Smith often brush aside differences in creeds and sacraments as minor and inessential, while alleging that some other characteristic unifies all religions. Prothero says this claim stems from "naive theological groupthink - call it Godthink" and "ignorance" with the dangerous consequence that humans will never recognize or understand religious conflict. It may also be the mere hope for a united religion, expressed by people who "are not describing the world but reimagining it." In fact, the differences between religions are quite significant. A Confucian knows she is not a Catholic, and so should anyone who spends five minutes talking to her; it is actually disrespectful, says Prothero, to suggest otherwise.

When we rigorously study religions with the intent of observing their differences, might we run the risk of concluding that one is better than all the others? Well, yes - but only in the sense that each is devoted to its own unique focal point. Prothero makes an athletic analogy:
"Different sports have different goals: basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink puts. So if you ask which sport is best at scoring runs, you have privileged baseball from the start."
To observe that Christianity is the best at addressing sin and salvation, then, is not to disparage the religions that are concerned with other philosophical problems entirely. This specialization also occurs in more pragmatic areas:
"If you want to help the homeless, you will likely find the Christian Social Gospel more useful than Hindu notions of caste. If you want to find techniques for quieting the mind through bodily exercises, you will likely find Hindu yogis more useful than Christian saints."
Acknowledging one religion as superior in this limited, focused way does not lead directly to bigotry. To the contrary, observing and understanding our differences is the first step to tolerating and respecting each other. This is true not only of interreligious relations but of interracial relations and of human partnership in general. "Who," he asks,
"is so naive as to imagine that the success of a relationship depends on the partners being essentially the same? Isn't it the differences that make things interesting? What is required in any relationship is knowing who the other person really is. And this requirement is only frustrated by the naive hope that somehow you and your partner are magically the same."
Expressed so simply, this seems uncontroversial and has a memorable charm.

Image by Vaikunda Raja. © Creative Commons. Hosted by Wikimedia Commons.

At a book talk in Boston on April 27, 2010 - the day after he gave an "On Point" radio interview with Tom Ashbrook - an audience member spoke out of turn and asked the author, "Are you a relativist?" Prothero answered quickly, "I'm not a relativist and I think the book is profoundly anti-relativist." Neither one of them defined what they meant by "relativism." Given his disavowal of that mysterious philosophy, it may be surprising that, throughout his exposition of the world's religions, Prothero seems to betray admiration for philosophies that would be best described as relativist: Confucian virtue ethics interpreted as art rather than science; the Buddhist belief that a teaching's truth is determined by its usefulness and that all is empty, even the self; the Zen intuitive approach to nonduality and satori; the Jewish tradition of arguing without assuming that one possesses the truth; and the work of mystic Sufi poets such as Rumi, who referred to a place "beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing".

The meat of the book is in the lively illustrations of the world's major religions, and through these portraits, Prothero succeeds in making his point: God, or at least Religion, is not one.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Stuck in the globe

The first matter of business is that we are stuck here. We are on Earth, and only light comes in here.
Unlike an aquarium, this little world [a sealed glass globe containing shrimp and algae] is a closed ecological system. Light gets in, but nothing else--no food, no water, no nutrients. Everything must be recycled. Just like the Earth. In our larger world, we also--plants and animals and microorganisms--live off each other, breathe and eat each other's wastes, depend on one another. Life on our world, too, is powered by light. Light from the Sun, which passes through the clear air, is harvested by plants and powers them to combine carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and other foodstuffs, which in turn provide the staple diet of the animals.
- Carl Sagan
We work hard to survive, and often we work hard for our mutual destruction, too.
Yet somehow we human beings, made of the same material as the stars, the eucalyptus, the jaguar, and the rose, we who inherit four billion years of survival have managed to create a culture in which the power of the mysteries has been denied and power itself has been redefined as power-over, as domination and control....In a warped way, such an achievement is almost grimly inspiring. We are like a friend I had in the sixties who, while wheelchair-bound, paraplegic, and needing constant care, managed to deal drugs successfully until he killed himself with an overdose of heroin. We have overcome every handicap and surmounted every obstacle to self-destruction.
- Starhawk

Can you make a difference?

Stuck inside systems much larger than ourselves, it can feel at times that we have no power whatsoever. It isn't always obvious that any of us can make a difference even in our own lives, let alone in the lives of anyone else. But if we have no power, how, then, do we manage to survive or to self-destruct? This, at least, we do by our own power. It is possible to reach a conclusion that we can influence the larger systems, too.
"Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?" someone asks, as though he were asking: "Are you bullish or bearish about the market?" The only answer can be that, if we have as little control over our institutions as an outsider has over the fluctuations of the market, then we are all lost. We mold our institutions and are molded by them. We are the hammer and the anvil.
- Max Lerner
If we reject this power and let the winds carry us, we may feel resignation and acceptance, but we may also feel frustration because we are letting other people's purposes replace our purposes.
More and more the individual feels himself frustrated and impotent in the midst of a mechanical world order which has become an irresistible "march of progress" toward ends of its own.
- Alan Watts
What we do today matters because it defines our happiness right now, provides for our happiness in the future, and becomes part of the narrative of the past.
You are a historical agent. History is not something that has happened in the past and that is made up of names and dates and places of kings and generals, history is what you make in your home, in your place of work, in the streets, in your community and in the world and your actions--your actions or your inaction is directly affecting the fate of the world that you live in and should be treated with that gravity.
- Eddie Vedder


Carl Sagan. Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Ballantine Books, 1998. p 66.

Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery. New York: Harper Collins, 1987. p 6.

Max Lerner. It Is Later Than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy. New York: The Viking Press, 1939. p 57-8.

Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman (1958). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p 96.

Eddie Vedder of the band Pearl Jam, in an interview with Ann Powers, "The Power of Music," The Nation, January 13, 2003. Posted online December 23, 2002.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Start with an idea

"All beliefs are bald ideas," said the French painter and poet 
Francis Picabia. It means that a belief is the starting point of an idea, but it takes a little bit extra to turn a belief into a full-fledged idea.

Do we need ideas? For writing, certainly, and yes, indeed, for life itself. Ideas are like little magnetic building blocks that attract each other and click together. Eventually they make something worth having, doing or being.
We don’t do anything without an idea. So they’re beautiful gifts. And I always say, you desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook — you can pull them in. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole — whatever it is you’re working on — but now you have even more bait. Thinking about that small fragment — that little fish — will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script — or a chair, or a painting, or an idea for a painting.
- David Lynch
Tapping into a great idea can feel like tapping into a larger version of ourselves, something that connects us to a broader, deeper experience of the world.
In this sense, great ideas are like the stars seen on a moonless night away from the cities of man with their "light pollution." To contemplate the starry sky is to intuit the existence of cosmic law imperceptible to our physical senses, and to intuit this by means of a capacity in our psyche that is almost never activated in the course of what is called our "real life," but which would more aptly be termed "life on the surface of ourselves." Great ideas are each like a great world, a solar world, pouring out invisible life-giving energy into the inner space of the human soul and, like the starry worlds above us, these ideas can never exist alone, but are always inextricably part of a galaxy, or cosmic community, of other great solar worlds of varying magnitude, age and magnificence.
- Jacob Needleman
Ideas can be unstable and dangerous. If not nurtured properly, they can collapse and take down other things with them.
Every idea is a complicated and delicate machine. In order to know how to handle it, it is necessary first of all to possess a great deal of purely theoretical knowledge and, besides that, a large amount of experience and practical training. Unskilled handling of an idea may produce an explosion of the idea; a fire begins, the idea burns and consumes everything round it.
- P. D. Ouspensky


P. D. Ouspensky. A New Model of the Universe: Principles of the psychological method in its application to problems of science, religion, and art. Translated by R. R. Merton. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997. (Originally published New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931.) p. 138.

Jacob Needleman. Why Can't We Be Good? New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2007. p. 142.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The constraint of the truth: Jonah Lehrer's over-imaginative book on creativity

When Jonah Lehrer's third book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, imploded and took its author down with it, it had already sold hundreds of thousands of copies during the first half of 2012. The book has some merits despite Lehrer's admitted partial fabrication of its content, but overall it remains under the pall of scandal.

Originally published to Helium Network on Aug. 20, 2012.


The difficulty was that Michael C. Moynihan, another journalist with a keen interest in Bob Dylan, had attempted to track down the source of Lehrer's material about the singer-songwriter. Eventually, despite Lehrer's claims to have found the quotes in unreleased footage, Moynihan had proved that the alleged Bob Dylan interview didn't exist."I'm deeply sorry for lying," Lehrer told Moynihan. The story was revealed in Moynihan's article in "Tablet Magazine" on July 30, 2012.

The Bob Dylan quotes aren't the only ones that are suspect. Lehrer had also interviewed Milton Glaser, designer of the popular "I 'heart' NY" logo. When Glaser read "Imagine," he had a funny feeling that something wasn't right. Glaser told Ryan Kohls that "half of it I know I didn’t say. Substantially nothing in there was false...[but] the vernacular wasn’t right."

Sam Harris, author of a recent essay on "Lying," wrote that he is "slow to judge" fellow writers for errors for which they may be "guilty of nothing more than poor research practices." For Harris, the plagiarism was less important than the lie. Harris took the moment to caution that many "smart, well-intentioned, and otherwise ethical not seem to realize how quickly and needlessly lying can destroy their relationships and reputations."

Whether the writer was well-intentioned or not, when a book on creativity titled "Imagine" turns out to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, it tempts readers to lampoon it in obvious ways. Some of Lehrer's lines provide direct fodder, such as this concluding bit from his "Coda":

"There is no more important meta-idea than knowing where every idea comes from. If we want to increase our creative powers, then we have to put this research to work in our own lives. We can imagine more than we know."
Well, now the public has learned where certain ideas came from, and it indeed had significant results for Lehrer. As Lehrer said of Crockett Johnson's famous children's book "Harold and the Purple Crayon," in which a boy steps into a magic world where the laws of gravity still apply, "the book is a delicate blend of the familiar and the fictional. Harold has a surreal tool, but it operates amid the usual constraints."


Roxane Gay suggested in "Salon" that Lehrer's rocketship to fame and the cavalier way in which he self-destructed indicate his privilege as a white man in the magazine profession. "Only entitlement can explain why someone would choose to lie in plain sight," she wrote.

In July 2012, Lehrer resigned from his position as a staff writer at the "New Yorker." A month earlier, the "New Yorker" had discovered that he had blogged content for them that he had previously published in the "Wall Street Journal," and the second scandal about the book was too much. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of the troubled book, requested that retailers return unsold copies. Lehrer has not tweeted since the scandal, except to post an apology speech he delivered in February 2013 upon invitation from the Knight Foundation. As of Jan. 2014, Lehrer's own website still lists the book as available for sale; his bio, however, no longer appears on the site, having been deleted some months after the scandal.

Evaluating the book

When it is discovered that part of a work presented as non-fiction has been embellished, it disincentivizes others from thoroughly reviewing and analyzing the work. Who can know how much of the work is invented? When Lehrer reports that the Nike athletic slogan "Just do it" was derived from the last words of a murderer about to be executed, can he be believed (without resorting to the prior reporting of the "New York Times")? When it comes to weightier topics such as neuroscience, Lehrer describes the brain with the accessible style that is his trademark, but, unfortunately, no one who wants their own work to be taken seriously would be well-advised to cite "Imagine" as a source about how the brain works. So, researchers may as well spend their time seeking other sources.

Despite these setbacks, the casual reader can at least examine the general idea of the book. One of the book's strengths is its examination of some of the contradictory facets of creativity. For example, on the one hand Lehrer says that people are at their most creative when they are relaxed: half-asleep, showering, watching comedy, having down-time at work. On the other hand people who struggle against depression and other physical and emotional adversities tend to be more creative. Relaxation and effort thus both play a role.

For another example, creative genius often requires the investment of a great deal of perspiration, yet insight cannot be forced by deliberately going epiphany-chasing. People who get high scores on "creativity tests" are often daydreamers who have the special capacity to realize when their daydreams are generating insights and to seize the moment to follow up with a labor-intensive effort. They do not crank out the insights on command.

"Outsider thinking" is another hallmark of creativity. This means approaching a subject from a fresh point of view. Young people often exhibit this kind of thinking, simply because they have not yet had time to habituate themselves to particular opinions or methods. Older people can experiment with being "outsiders" when they attempt to solve problems that blend their usual competencies and skill sets with areas less familiar to them, or when they work with new groups of people.

Lehrer finds that a combination of solitary work, teamwork with longstanding colleagues and collaboration with new colleagues is the best recipe for creative success. The members of the working group should be ready to accept criticism from each other, because this is the way in which they will get honest feedback about what seems clever and inspired and what does not. Indeed, it sounds like a useful safety measure.

Image of Salle des Fetes, Paris, France from the Goodyear Archival Collection, Brooklyn Museum Archives, and posted to Wikimedia Commons. © Photo taken at the Paris Exposition of 1900. No known copyright restrictions.