Friday’s cognitive curiosities: a trip to the book shop in the age of unenlightenment

My first curiosity is an essay from the Financial Times. I have mixed feelings about the FT. It’s pretty impossible for a paper like that to be neutral, but the FT doesn’t even try. I am constantly disappointed with its sneaky political undercurrent. At the same time, I cannot find a news outlet that would be as well presented and lack the dogma. Anyway, the essay is titled The age of unenlightenment, written by Robert Armstrong.

The author is thinking of why it seems that we are getting dumber.

the age of unenlightment robert armstrong
Spring is in the air, finally. West Pier, Dún Laoghaire Harbour

I used to think that older generations always denounce younger ones because it is a kind of tradition. However, given that the human brain is indeed getting smaller (and chances are we aren’t getting smarter), maybe there is some merit to their nagging?

A book by Sloman and Fernbach entitled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone offers clever demonstrations of how much we take for granted, and how little we actually understand. An example: try drawing a picture of a bicycle, with the chain, all the bits of the frame, and the pedals all in the correct place. It is not so easy. In an experimental setting, half of people set this task fail it. If that’s too basic, explain how a flush toilet works. Easy? Well, unless you described how a trapway creates a siphoning effect, you got it wrong.

Granted, I am trained as a doctor, however I knew 80% of the basics about how the body functions before I went in to college. It never fails to impress me that most people haven’t a clue about how their body works, but they really think they do. Women endlessly discuss what’s good for their skin, but seem to miss the crucial detail that virtually non of the miracle co-enzymes and ultra-proteins in their creams get absorbed past the epithelium. Guys in the gym would authoritatively discuss the benefits of “fast carbs” immediately after a gym session and how to prevent “knots” forming in muscle tissue, but ask them about insulin or myosin – and they haven’t a clue. And I don’t mean they don’t know the terms, but they just don’t understand the basics. A much more florid and familiar example is of people who love talking about geopolitics. They rarely know where the “enemy” actually is on the map.

Robert Armstrong continues:
Technology has encouraged us to confuse access to information with knowledge. Education treats teachers as customer-service professionals rather than people who know things that students don’t, and offers students inflated grades, meaningless credentials and a false sense of their own wisdom. Journalists are encouraged to give their audiences what they want, rather than telling them what they need to know.

I agree with all of the above. There is a sense in the above lines that it was different in another time. I sincerely doubt that it was. However, I do feel that the rate at which raw information is becoming available is rising. Still, as few people know what to do with it as back in the proverbial day. It seems Mr Armstong’s conclusion is that the books he has read on the matter (listed below) focus more on the problem than on proposing solutions. Frankly, I’ve never read a book that was any good that proposed solutions. Observing what’s going on in plain sight and asking the right questions is usually more than enough. Here are the books:

  • The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, Macmillan
  • The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols, Oxford University Press
  • #republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, by Cass Sunstein, Princeton University Press
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli review
A fine Friday afternoon in Dublin

While we are speaking about books, I’ve been into the book shop and looked over the newest books in the psychology section. I sat in Hodges and Figgis’ leather chair and flicked through a few books. I always do that before I decide to read a book: I’ve bought too many “recommended” books that turned out to be either poor quality (as in, I couldn’t even finish them) or insidiously venomous making me wish I hadn’t come across them at all. In any case, I tend to really engage with the books I read, so there is a courtship ritual before I commit to reading the entire work. It went like this:

  • The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

“The Art of Thinking Clearly by world-class thinker and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli is an eye-opening look at human psychology and reasoning — essential reading for anyone who wants to avoid “cognitive errors” and make better choices in all aspects of their lives.”

Mmm, it’s a very practical rewrite of Daniel Kahneman’s and Nassim Taleb’s thoughts. I would have thought that the former were practical enough. The back of the book featured praise by Sam Harris. I found Harris interesting initially but soon was uncannily repelled from his lopsided philosophy. I would be more careful in my choice of allies than Mr Dobelli. Could be a light read for someone unfamiliar with cognitive biases, but if you have any respect for your little grey cells, go straight to Kahneman. My (binary) rating for this book is: Nay.

Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck review
The sun setting over Howth
  • Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck

“After decades of research, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., discovered a simple but groundbreaking idea: the power of mindset. In this brilliant book, she shows how success in school, work, sports, the arts, and almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with agrowth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed”

Psychology classics retold – and not in a very compelling way. Nay.

  • Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

“We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In Against Empathy, Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”

I thought there was some merit in this book, but Daniel Goleman said a lot of the same stuff better. It may seem that he proposes the opposite to what this book is about, but that’s only an illusion. Perhaps, given the denigration of the intellectual and analytical approaches in the media, this books attempts to restore the balance and say that a quest for empathy isn’t going to solve our problems? It’s a nay from me, though the tone of the book is pleasantly contrarian.

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom review
Hopefully, I will find a yay in my next book shop trip

P.S. If you want to see some beautiful nature photos and are interested in travel, my friend Charis blogs about the island I was recently on – Cyprus. I was there with her for some of the trips she describes. I will write more about my escapade to the Eastern Mediterranean at some stage.

19 Comments Add yours

  1. boomerbob says:

    It’s one of the most infuriating endeavors – the search for a good read. Once you buy it, it’s yours forever, unless of course, you can find someone to hand it off to.

    I’ve just begun reading Ian Kershaw’s series about Adolph Hitler. So far, they’re not going to be one of those engrossing series that captivate you to the point you can’t put it down, but it is turning out to be incredibly enlightening, changing the entire perspective on how Hitler became Hitler; not as much as many of us have always thought, through his own agility in politics, but almost entirely due to the atmosphere in post WWI Germany and their ease in accepting his extreme ideology.

    I’m finding it a bit disturbing as I see a lot of correlating events and attitudes existing in the U.S. today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting: it seems that history books like the above are extremely popular here too. The Irish love reading about the 1910-1920 period. I’ve often found it a little too skewed in terms of opinion vs fact, but that’s History for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. guybon says:

    There is TED presentation about it. The media gets faster and dumber.
    Besides the media there is the consumer. There are more people. So if if the ratio smart-dumb stays the same there will be more dumb people than before. If it is that simple than Who is to blame ? The provider or the consumer ? What do schools teach ? What do we learn in depended of them ?

    Like

  3. You wrote that Daniel Goleman said something better, in which of his books?

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    1. Emotional intelligence ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve read it and I still have a copy 😉👍

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I love reading philosophical, intellectual, enlightenment and personal development books

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      1. The ones I finish reading recently are the three popular books on Law of attraction (Think and grow rich by Napoleon Hill, You can heal your life by Louise L. Hay and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne). So, have you any favorite?

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      2. Oh, that’s very pop psychology!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh okay, kindly recommend me one from your favorites.

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      4. Thinking Fast and Slow by D. Kahneman?

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Thanks Martina, I’ve seen that book on a shelf before but I was looking for another book when I saw it. I will get it and read it now that you’ve recommended it. Thanks again 🙂👍

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Np, let me know what you think of it! Especially, after reading The Secret etc 👍

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Alright, I will get back to you after I finish reading it.

        Like

  5. Hi Martina,
    I have finished reading Thinking Fast and Slow. The book is awesome and the author explain a lot about how our subconscious and conscious mind affect our decision making, way of living, perspective and lot more.
    Kind regards,
    Ajibola.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I sent you a request to connect on LinkedIn. I was looking all over the place so as to give you feedback on the book 🙂

        Like

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