Books I found interesting or that influenced me in 2018

Here’s an overview of some books I found interesting (you might also) and/or influenced me this year:

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt: presents an interesting introduction to the field of moral psychology and theories of moral reasoning. Interesting discussion of Haidt’s views on human nature especially human groupish-ness, righteousness, and selfishness hypocrisy. Argues we can’t understand morality, politics or religion unless we understand human groupishness and related psychological drives such as to join teams, engage in “us Vs them” thinking (also related “good [us] Vs evil [them]” battles), manage our social reputation etc. Reading this book encouraged me to interpret social groups (of various kinds) as tribal moral communities and to consider both the positive and negative consequences of shared moralities, such as enhancing cooperation between non-kin people, shutting down open thinking, etc.

Think Again: How to Reason and Argue by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: part social critique; part manifesto on need for high(er) quality arguments and reasoning; and part guidebook.

Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong On GMOs by Mark Lynas. Part autobiography, focussed on Lynas’s initial activism against genetic modification (GMOs) and later shift to GMO advocate; part critique of related social movements, NGOs and their tactics; and part critical analysis of the whole issue and how emerging biotechnologies have been developed and regulated. In his view, pretty much everyone “got it wrong”, including himself, resulting in unnecessary controversy and misguided policy. Latter part of book tries to define a new approach. An interesting book on many levels.

The Believing Brain by Michael Schermer: argues the human brain is a “belief engine” and, as part of this, that psychologically we’re hard-wired to routinely make “type 1” errors (false positives) – i.e. incorrectly concluding / believing that something is real (e.g. a causal effect). Also discusses tendencies to see patterns in natural events and ascribe reasons (often both are erroneous). Enter the skeptics (like Schermer, founder of The Skeptics Society), as an attempted corrective to such error-making.

The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber: this book presents a theory of human reasoning. The cognitive science chapters are hard going – I suspect I only partially understood them (at best) – but the core theses they present are simple, are clearly examined in relation to relevant evidence, and have interesting practical implications. In contrast to the dominant image of individual reasoners – independently exercising their capacity for reason to produce better beliefs or better decisions – they argue reasoning isn’t geared towards such solitary use.

The Social Leap by William von Hippel: a lively account of our evolutionary history, looking to our evolutionary past and evolutionary processes to explain human behaviour. Good fun, well written.

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics by Richard Thaler: an autobiography / memoir that also provides a nice “101” overview of behavioural economics and presents an interesting case of a major intellectual counter-movement (“behavioural economics”) which spilled-over into government policy and other contexts, though there’s little analysis of this process. Begins with a framing quote from Vilfredo Pareto asserting that the foundation of all social science is psychology.

Them: Adventures With Extremists by Jon Ronson: a fun read documenting Ronson’s activities following around a mixture of odd folk (e.g. David Icke), conspiracy theorists, and extremists. Explores related beliefs in a comical way (e.g. conspiracy theories about shadowy secret rulers of the world), but it also has a serious side as well. Ronson himself at times begins to think more like his ‘subjects’ as he spends more time with them and gets involved in their activities. Interesting.

Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science (edited by Kaufman & Kaufman): An interesting collection of papers on the drivers of ‘pseudoscience’, forms of contemporary pseudoscience, and emerging forms of “science activism” (or interventions) seeking to counter it.

Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future by Pilkey & Pilkey-Jarvis: a bit polemical, but presents some useful cases on the misuse and failures of predictive mathematical models, and builds on these to argue that our faith in models is excessive / misplaced.

Some interesting themes in my list, especially my growing interest in psychology and cognitive science. Maybe I should do another degree (no). What have you found interesting this year?

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