Hilary Mantel is a novelist. I haven’t read any of her books. I have read her review of magician Derren Brown’s Tricks Of The Mind in yesterday’s Guardian. Near the end of her mostly negative assessment she tries to set up a weak joke: she “hopes” that “no intellectual snobbery” will prevent Richard Dawkins from reciprocating Brown’s admiration for the Oxford prof. This is ironic because, as you might suspect from someone who used to write for The Spectator, snobbery is Mantel’s undoing. After listing some minor errors in the text she writes:
Are these points worth making? Yes, because this book of weak jokes is serious in aim; he wants to straighten out the way we think. Some aspects of English grammar are a dark mystery to him.
Her criticism would be more persuasive if she hadn’t made it five sentences after she failed to understand the difference between the comparative and the superlative. (Does her snipe gain anything from the word “dark”? Perhaps she wasn’t lapsing into cliché but making clear that she wasn’t referring to a “bright” mystery.)
The essence of her attack on Brown is that he oversimplifies:
Brown is fascinated by how human beings work, but the flow of scepticism is all one way. He has faith in the objectivity of scientists and in the peer-review process, neglecting to say that in science you get what you pay for.
She should have a word with the petroleum lobby. Its members have several orders of magnitude more money than all the climate research institutes on the planet put together so maybe Big Oil’s shills should “pay for” a new consensus on global warming that’s a little less embarrassing for their sponsors than the present one.
He stomps brutally on alternative medicine; if a treatment can be shown to work, he says, it’s not alternative, it’s scientific – it’s really one of ours. So heads I win and tails you lose.
That is exactly why science is the most successful human endeavour ever. Scientists don’t care whether a drug is harvested from a glass retort or the roots of the chumbawumba tree. Evidence-based medicine is about the reproducible effects of treatments. It is as blind to white coats as it is to pointy black hats. That’s why it works and alternative medicine doesn’t. Evidence-based medicine is what works—and nothing else.
Here is Mantel’s horrible last sentence. It reads like an example of clumsy English from an old-fashioned grammar textbook, the sort of thing chalk-frosted schoolmasters would invite their students to correct for ambiguous antecedents and circumlocution:
It would be gratifying to think that Professor Dawkins will work through these pages keenly and add to his repertoire of card tricks, which will be the talk of north Oxford well into the new year.
Ms Mantel has more in common with Mr Brown than she thinks. It takes the swagger of a conjuror to write something like that after sneering at someone else’s prose and before a plug for your own novel.