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      Posting these cat-cartoons-without-the-cartoon was a long journey that I don’t know if I’ll repeat soon again. A daily blog is tough … even when you have your material handed to you! But, I couldn’t have done it without the artwork … Continue reading →
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      A happy young lady shares a table at a tony restaurant with her cat; they both wear festive, cone-shaped party hats. The woman gaily says to the tuxedoed server, “One martini and one glass of milk.” The cat does not … Continue reading →

The smartest book I’ve read

Posted by joeabbott on November 1, 2015

imageOn my fiftieth birthday my mother gifted me with a copy of You are Now Less Dumb by David McRaney. After I’d unwrapped it I read the cover inscription, “Happy 50th Birthday, Joe! I just glanced through this book from your “wish list” and in very short order I felt more dumb … Good luck with it! Momma!” I got the feeling this book would be an intellectual powerhouse.

I have a small affair with brainy books; I seldom read novels and prefer historical non-fiction … especially that relating to the physical sciences. I loved Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, was so engaged with A. Douglas Stone’s Einstein and the Quantum I’m now reading a second book on Einstein, and I’ve read any number of books on the elements and their stories (enjoying Theodore Gray’s Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe and The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean). And, besides those, I’ve been engaged with the history of Hawaii, how tea came to be the worldwide drink it is, and the ubiquity of salt. While the topics may seem anodyne, their stories are not!

So, You are Now Less Dumb hit my list as a teaching vehicle but it’s taken me a while to pull it from the bookshelf and place it on my nightstand. I sometimes have a couple books going at once and so I grabbed AsapSCIENCE: Answers to the World’s Weirdest Questions, Most Persistent Rumors, and Unexplained Phenomena as a companion read … thinking they’d be in the same ballpark.

And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

AsapSCIENCE (by Mitchell Moffit and Greg Brown) is written for high school students who are curious why farts small bad, whether eating boogers can harm you, and if the “5 second rule” really applies. The science is sound but the topics range from the narrow band of low brow questions you might hear amongst tittering teens. Now, don’t get me wrong: the book is intended to be fun and funny, presented with levity and accessible to people of all ages, but mostly the young. It’s a great hook to engage youth in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) topics but less good for those looking for a solid couple of pages to end the day on.

And I read it at the wrong time. I read it at the same time I was reading Your are Now Less Dumb … about the “smartest” book I’ve ever enjoyed.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time I started the book … I was looking for historical science, for stories about discoveries, and exposure to material relating to the physical world. And this book is not that topic.

The book takes the form of some 17 chapters, each dealing with a fallacy that is popularly believed and then explains the truth. Fallacies often include the words “bias” or “effect” and the truths are then backed up by any number of scientific studies, typically psychological in nature.

When I first started the book, I wasn’t ready for this sort of thing and found myself a bit lost, a little confused as to when the “story” would start, and I continued slogging through it in hopes that I’d be getting to the “good stuff” soon enough. It wasn’t until about the third chapter that the rhythm of the book hit me and I started to understand what the author was attempting … about then, the “good stuff” didn’t come to me, but I started understanding it was all the good stuff!

The fallacy that was my light bulb, appropriately enough (due to his studies in electricity), was The Benjamin Franklin Effect that goes

THE MISCONCEPTION: You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.

THE TRUTH: You grow to like the people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

The chapter then covers varying studies backing the truth of the matter and explains how the human mind works. In this case, the effect is named for Benjamin Franklin who wrote about his experience in running up against one of his detractors early in his bid for public offices. Rather than launch a smear campaign against said detractor or challenging that person to some sort of contest to prove his position, he actually requested the detractor loan him a book. Back in the late 1700s, books were valuable commodities and as public face was important, the confused detractor loaned it to him. In several days time, Ben returned the book with a thank you and found that the detractor’s attitude slowly but certainly changed. Whereas the detractor had previously spoken ill of Benjamin and his policies, he now found a growing ally. You see, you grow to like the people for whom you do nice things … even if you’re not sure why you did the nice thing.

That chapter continues to support the second part of that clause (you … hate people you harm) and the book as a whole follows that model throughout.

Other chapters that captured my attention include:

The Backfire Effect – I like this chapter because it helped explained some of the behaviors I experience when talking to rationale people (whom I like and respect) about seemingly black-and-white topics. Our views/opinions differed but I was never able to get them to “see my point of view” and their arguments seemed to devolve into chaotic chatter.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking after your beliefs are challenged with facts.

THE TRUTH: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger

Deindividualization – I like this chapter because I’ve often wondered if I’d get caught up in looting and rioting, or if I’d be the “voice of reason” I think I’d be. Sadly, after reading this chapter, I’m unsure.

THE MISCONCEPTION: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.

THE TRUTH: Under the right conditions, you are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hive mind.

The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight – and this chapter was lovely in that it explained why we live in a Lord of the Flies sorta world. Or, maybe not why, but showed that we do and how it takes effect.

THE MISCONCEPTION: You celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view

THE TRUTH: You are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others

Coda

Overall, You are Now Less Dumb has its challenging moments, the material and studies are thick with intellectual viscosity, but was an exceedingly pleasurable read. I found that I was starting to make time for reading … as opposed to my usual “knock out a few pages before I go to sleep”. I’ll definitely need to read it again, but it’s opened my eyes to not only see the world, but seeing myself and how I behave in that world. Fabulous stuff.

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