Some of the book seems self-evident, some seems to be mere padding, and little of it moves with the sparkling aha...

THE KNOWLEDGE ILLUSION

WHY WE NEVER THINK ALONE

A tour of the many honeycombs of the hive mind, courtesy of cognitive scientists Sloman (Brown Univ.) and Fernbach (Univ. of Colorado).

You know more than I do, and you know next to nothing yourself. That’s not just a Socratic proposition, but also a finding of recent generations of neuroscientific researchers, who, as Cognition editor Sloman notes, are given to addressing a large question: “How is thinking possible?” One answer is that much of our thinking relies on the thinking of others—and, increasingly, on machine others. As the authors note, flying a plane is a collaboration among pilots, designers, engineers, flight controllers, and automated systems, the collective mastery or even understanding of all of which is beyond the capacity of all but a very few humans. One thought experiment the authors propose is to produce from your mind everything you can say about how zippers work, a sobering exercise that quickly reveals the superficiality of much of what we carry inside our heads. We think we know, and then we don’t. Therein lies a small key to wisdom, and this leads to a larger purpose, which is that traditional assessments of intelligence and performance are off-point: what matters is what the individual mind contributes to the collectivity. If that sounds vaguely collectivist, so be it. All the same, the authors maintain, “intelligence is no longer a person’s ability to reason and solve problems; it’s how much the person contributes to a group’s reasoning and problem-solving process.” This contribution, they add, may not just lie in creativity, but also in doing the grunt work necessary to move a project along. After all, even with better, more effectively distributed thinking, “ignorance is inevitable.”

Some of the book seems self-evident, some seems to be mere padding, and little of it moves with the sparkling aha intelligence of Daniel Dennett. Still, it’s sturdy enough, with interesting insights, especially for team building.

Pub Date: March 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-18435-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 26, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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