David Walsh 2014. A Bone of Fact. Sydney: Picador. 368 pp.

The glitzy binding and short chapters give the initial impression that this is an arty sort of memoir that is light on content (ideas, information, originality). Persisting, I quickly realised that initial impressions were wrong, as is nearly always the case. Which is why they are initial. Such Bayesian thinking comes naturally to Walsh, although I didn’t notice it ever being labelled as such by him. With this book, the major force acting against the reader not the writing, but physical discomfort: the very tight binding makes it especially difficult to hold the pages open long enough to read them.

But by about one-third of the way into reading this, I had stronger hands and had started accumulating a list of pros and cons, with the cons limited in number and mostly trivial. A worthy read.


  • The tight binding. Would be much better to read as an ebook and just put the printed copy on the shelf to look at.
  • There is often a leap from one idea to another seemingly unrelated thought, or an early event to a much later action or interest, with the reader left to guess at the missing steps in between. So causes are sometimes unclear. This is probably intentional, either stylistic or perhaps designed to conceal.


  • A lack of trust in his memory, and a willingness to trot out evidence that his lack of trust is well-founded. But he presses on with the memoir anyway.
  • A similar lack of trust in anything anything unsupported by evidence and a disdain for others who willfully promulgate opinions that are contrary to the observed evidence.
  • A very clear understanding of sampling bias and the many contexts in which people are misled. … eg …
  • Lots of thoughtful asides about an eclectic range of authors, film-makers, xxx including Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Phillip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison


  • People overestimate the influence fortune, both good and bad, have on their lives.

The short chapters and staccato writing style mean that it is a bit of a battle to extract an underlying theme or message. But I think it would have to be the philosophy that by understanding the gaps in evidence and knowledge, and acting on what that realisation implies, one can go far. For example one could emerge from an unremarkable upbringing and become a successful millionaire gambler and build an art museum. Then one could write a book that concealed rather than revealed the intervening steps.

More to be added here when I delve into the final sections…


The Age, 5 November 2016 carried a review by John Bailey of a new exhibition at MONA On the Origin of Art wherein various scientists (and other ~ists) curate sections, apparently with the collective message that the origins of art are biological and evolutionary. The extreme viewpoint being that of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller arguing that art is about attracting a mate. This tells us more about Miller than it does about early artists. Nearly all the prehistoric art seems to have nothing to do with sex and it is hard to imagine prehistoric male humans going to such abstract lengths to attract a mate. Much better to offer potential mate a safe place to sleep and some food, which would surely be uppermost in the priorities of prehistoric females. Other contributors might have more to say, Stephen Pinker for example.