Swedish intellectual Johan Norberg has penned a readable, optimistic, and data-driven book on the progress the world has made over the last 200+ years. As the title–Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future–suggests, Norberg focuses on ten aspects of human well-being. Each one has improved dramatically over the last couple centuries:
The next generation
As I was listening to the Audible version in the car, the section on poverty really got to me, especially this part:
According to some statisticians, 28 March 2012 was a big day for humanity. It was the first day in modern history that developing countries were responsible for more than half of global GDP, up from thirty-eight percent ten years earlier. This convergence makes sense. If people have freedom and access to knowledge, technology and capital, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to produce as much as people anywhere else. A country with a fifth of the world’s population should produce around a fifth of its wealth. That has not been the case for centuries, because many parts of the world were held back by oppression, colonialism, socialism and protectionism. But these have no diminished, and a revolution in transport and communication technology makes it easier to take advantage of a global division of labour, and use technologies and knowledge that it took other countries generations and vast sums of money to develop. This has resulted in the greatest poverty reduction the world has ever seen.
If you want a fantastic summary of some of the greatest achievements in human history, check it out. You can see a lecture by Norberg in the video below.
I’m behind on my book reviews, so I’m once again going to forego the mini-reviews and instead post the books’ descriptions with an accompanying video.
Annie McKee, How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017): “”I’m working harder than I ever have, and I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore.” If you’re a manager or leader, these words have probably run through your mind. So many of us are feeling fed up, burned out, and unhappy at work: the constant pressure and stress, the unending changes, the politics—people feel as though they can’t give much more, and performance is suffering. But it’s work, after all, right? Should we even expect to be fulfilled and happy at work? Yes, we should, says Annie McKee, coauthor of the bestselling Primal Leadership. In her new transformative book, she makes the most compelling case yet that happiness―and the full engagement that comes with it―is more important than ever in today’s workplace, and she sheds new light on the powerful relationship of happiness to individual, team, and organizational success. Based on extensive research and decades of experience with leaders, this book reveals that people must have three essential elements in order to be happy at work: A sense of purpose and the chance to contribute to something bigger than themselves; A vision that is powerful and personal, creating a real sense of hope; Resonant, friendly relationships. With vivid and moving real-life stories, the book shows how leaders can use these powerful pillars to create and sustain happiness even when they’re under pressure. By emphasizing purpose, hope, and friendships they can also ensure a healthy, positive climate for their teams and throughout the organization. How to Be Happy at Work deepens our understanding of what it means to be truly fulfilled and effective at work and provides clear, practical advice and instruction for how to get there—no matter what job you have” (Amazon).
Steven L. Peck, A Short Stay in Hell (Strange Violin Editions, 2012): “As a faithful Mormon, Soren Johansson has always believed he’ll be reunited with his loved ones in an eternal hereafter. Then, he dies. Soren wakes to find himself cast by a God he has never heard of into a Hell whose dimensions he can barely grasp: a vast library he can only escape from by finding the book that contains the story of his life. In this haunting existential novella, author, philosopher, and ecologist Steven L. Peck explores a subversive vision of eternity, taking the reader on a journey through the afterlife of a world where everything everyone believed in turns out to be wrong” (Amazon).
Terryl L. Givens, Fiona Givens, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saves Us (Deseret Books, 2017): “In a world increasingly prone to doubt, a foundation in Christ is the only sure basis of a durable discipleship. And for Latter-day Saints, the Jesus Christ revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith is, in some very significant ways, a different kind of Christ than the Jesus of modern Christianity. The Christ of the restored gospel collaborated with Heavenly Parents for our salvation even before the foundation of the world, “does not anything” save it be for our benefit (2 Nephi 26:24), and is determined to patiently guide and nurture every one of God’s children into an eternal heavenly family. Most significantly, this Christ does not rescue us from a condition of original sin or depravity. Rather, He is primarily a healer of the wounds incident to a long-planned sojourn, one intended to immerse us in the trials, pains, and soul-stretching of this mortal schoolroom. He is not only the most remarkable being in the history of religious thought; He is, in fact, The Christ Who Heals” (Amazon).
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Donald Goldsmith, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004): “Our true origins are not just human, or even terrestrial, but in fact cosmic. Drawing on recent scientific breakthroughs and the current cross-pollination among geology, biology, astrophysics, and cosmology, Origins explains the soul-stirring leaps in our understanding of the cosmos. From the first image of a galaxy birth to Spirit Rover’s exploration of Mars, to the discovery of water on one of Jupiter’s moons, coauthors Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith conduct a galvanizing tour of the cosmos with clarity and exuberance” (Amazon).
The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal About Mormon History, ed. Matthew J. Grow, R. Eric Smith (BYU Religious Studies Center, Deseret Book, 2017): “Three months before his death, Joseph Smith established the Council of Fifty, a confidential group that he believed would protect the Latter-day Saints in their political rights and one day serve as the government of the kingdom of God. The Council of Fifty operated under the leadership of Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young, playing a key role in Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign and in preparing for the Mormon exodus to the West. The council’s minutes had never been available until they were published by the Joseph Smith Papers in September 2016, meaning that the council has been the subject of intense speculation for 170 years. In this book of short essays, fifteen leading Mormon scholars explore how the newly available minutes alter and enhance our understanding of Mormon history. The scholars narrate and analyze the contributions of the records of the council to key questions, such as Joseph Smith’s views of earthly and heavenly governments; the presidential campaign; Mormon relationships with American Indians; explorations of possible settlements sites, such as Texas and California; the “lost teachings” of Latter-day Saint leaders of that era; and the leadership style of Brigham Young” (Amazon).
Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012): “In Did Jesus Exist? historian and Bible expert Bart Ehrman confronts the question, “Did Jesus exist at all?” Ehrman vigorously defends the historical Jesus, identifies the most historically reliable sources for best understanding Jesus’ mission and message, and offers a compelling portrait of the person at the heart of the Christian tradition. Known as a master explainer with deep knowledge of the field, Bart Ehrman methodically demolishes both the scholarly and popular “mythicist” arguments against the existence of Jesus. Marshaling evidence from within the Bible and the wider historical record of the ancient world, Ehrman tackles the key issues that surround the mythologies associated with Jesus and the early Christian movement. In Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman establishes the criterion for any genuine historical investigation and provides a robust defense of the methods required to discover the Jesus of history” (Amazon).
Eli J. Finkel, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work (Dutton, 2017): “Eli J. Finkel’s insightful and ground-breaking investigation of marriage clearly shows that the best marriages today are better than the best marriages of earlier eras. Indeed, they are the best marriages the world has ever known. He presents his findings here for the first time in this lucid, inspiring guide to modern marital bliss. The All-or-Nothing Marriage reverse engineers fulfilling marriages—from the “traditional” to the utterly nontraditional—and shows how any marriage can be better. The primary function of marriage from 1620 to 1850 was food, shelter, and protection from violence; from 1850 to 1965, the purpose revolved around love and companionship. But today, a new kind of marraige has emerged, one oriented toward self-discover, self-esteem, and personal growth. Finkel combines cutting-edge scientific research with practical advice; he considers paths to better communication and responsiveness; he offers guidance on when to recalibrate our expectations; and he even introduces a set of must-try “lovehacks.” This is a book for the newlywed to the empty nester, for those thinking about getting married or remarried, and for anyone looking for illuminating advice that will make a real difference to getting the most out of marriage today” (Amazon).
Darrin M. McMahon, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (Basic Books, 2013): “Genius. With hints of madness and mystery, moral license and visionary force, the word suggests an almost otherworldly power: the power to create, to divine the secrets of the universe, even to destroy. Yet the notion of genius has been diluted in recent times. Today, rock stars, football coaches, and entrepreneurs are labeled ‘geniuses,’ and the word is applied so widely that it has obscured the sense of special election and superhuman authority that long accompanied it. As acclaimed historian Darrin M. McMahon explains, the concept of genius has roots in antiquity, when men of prodigious insight were thought to possess—or to be possessed by—demons and gods. Adapted in the centuries that followed and applied to a variety of religious figures, including prophets, apostles, sorcerers, and saints, abiding notions of transcendent human power were invoked at the time of the Renaissance to explain the miraculous creativity of men like Leonardo and Michelangelo. Yet it was only in the eighteenth century that the genius was truly born, idolized as a new model of the highest human type. Assuming prominence in figures as varied as Newton and Napoleon, the modern genius emerged in tension with a growing belief in human equality. Contesting the notion that all are created equal, geniuses served to dramatize the exception of extraordinary individuals not governed by ordinary laws. The phenomenon of genius drew scientific scrutiny and extensive public commentary into the 20th century, but it also drew religious and political longings that could be abused. In the genius cult of the Nazis and the outpouring of reverence for the redemptive figure of Einstein, genius achieved both its apotheosis and its Armageddon. The first comprehensive history of this elusive concept, Divine Fury follows the fortunes of genius and geniuses through the ages down to the present day, showing how—despite its many permutations and recent democratization—genius remains a potent force in our lives, reflecting modern needs, hopes, and fears” (Amazon).
Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (HarperCollins, 2016): “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. Basing his argument on groundbreaking scientific findings, Bloom makes the case that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations—who to give money to, when to go to war, how to respond to climate change, and who to imprison—are too often motivated by honest, yet misplaced, emotions. With precision and wit, he demonstrates how empathy distorts our judgment in every aspect of our lives, from philanthropy and charity to the justice system; from medical care and education to parenting and marriage. Without empathy, Bloom insists, our decisions would be clearer, fairer, and—yes—ultimately more moral. Brilliantly argued, urgent and humane, AGAINST EMPATHY shows us that, when it comes to both major policy decisions and the choices we make in our everyday lives, limiting our impulse toward empathy is often the most compassionate choice we can make” (Amazon).
I have always found the ocean to be frightening and incredibly alien. The temperature and lack of oxygen in space are certainly scary, but add creatures that are weird and often predatory to the mix? No thank you. But this makes Godfrey-Smith’s exploration all the more absorbing. He weaves together philosophy, science, and personal anecdotes (he’s an avid scuba diver) in a way that causes the reader to reflect on the strangeness of life and especially the oddity of consciousness. He explains,
Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien (pg. 9).
Yet, the neurons of an octopus operate differently than those of vertebrates, spanning the creature’s entire body:
“Smart” is a contentious term to use, so let’s begin cautiously. First, these animals evolved large nervous systems, including large brains…A common octopus…has about 500 million neurons in its body…Humans have many more–something like 100 billion–but the octopus is in the same range as various smaller mammals, close to the range of dogs, and cephalopods have much larger nervous systems than all other invertebrates…When biologists look at a bird, a mammal, even a fish, they are able to map many parts of one animal’s brain onto another’s. Vertebrate brains all have a common architecture. When vertebrate brains are compared to octopus brains, all bets–or rather, all mappings–are off. There is no part-by-part correspondence between the parts of their brains and ours. Indeed, octopuses have not even collected the majority of their neurons inside their brains; most of the neurons are found in the their arms (pg. 50-51).
And that’s just getting started. These scientific and philosophical reflections go back to some of the deepest questions that have been with humanity for thousands of years:
What is it to be alive?
What is to be?
What is it to be conscious?
While I would have preferred a little more philosophy (even some speculation), the book is nonetheless an eye-opening read. You can see Godfrey-Smith speaking on the subject at Google below.
So, I’m way behind on my book posts (much like I was behind on my TV/movies posts). So, I’m going to forego the mini-reviews and instead post the books’ descriptions with an accompanying video.
Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation (Bantam Books, 2010): “This groundbreaking book, from one of the global innovators in the integration of brain science with psychotherapy, offers an extraordinary guide to the practice of “mindsight,” the potent skill that is the basis for both emotional and social intelligence. From anxiety to depression and feelings of shame and inadequacy, from mood swings to addictions, OCD, and traumatic memories, most of us have a mental “trap” that causes recurring conflict in our lives and relationships. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, shows us how to use mindsight to escape these traps. Through his synthesis of a broad range of scientific research with applications to everyday life, Dr. Siegel has developed novel approaches that have helped hundreds of patients free themselves from obstacles blocking their happiness. By cultivating mindsight, all of us can effect positive, lasting changes in our brains—and our lives. A book as inspiring as it is profound, Mindsight can help us master our emotions, heal our relationships, and reach our fullest potential” (Amazon).
John Gottman, Nan Silver, What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal (Simon & Schuster, 2012): “In this insightful book, celebrated research psychologist and couples counselor John Gottman plumbs the mysteries of love and shares the results of his famous “Love Lab”: Where does love come from? Why does some love last, and why does some fade? And how can we keep it alive? Based on laboratory findings, this book shows readers how to identify signs, behaviors, and attitudes that indicate a fraying relationship and provides strategies for repairing what may seem lost or broken” (Amazon).
Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (Modern Library, 2002): “No religion in the modern world is as feared and misunderstood as Islam. It haunts the popular Western imagination as an extreme faith that promotes authoritarian government, female oppression, civil war, and terrorism. Karen Armstrong’s short history offers a vital corrective to this narrow view. The distillation of years of thinking and writing about Islam, it demonstrates that the world’s fastest-growing faith is a much richer and more complex phenomenon than its modern fundamentalist strain might suggest. Islam: A Short History begins with the flight of Muhammad and his family from Medina in the seventh century and the subsequent founding of the first mosques. It recounts the origins of the split between Shii and Sunni Muslims, and the emergence of Sufi mysticism; the spread of Islam throughout North Africa, the Levant, and Asia; the shattering effect on the Muslim world of the Crusades; the flowering of imperial Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries into the world’s greatest and most sophisticated power; and the origins and impact of revolutionary Islam. It concludes with an assessment of Islam today and its challenges” (Amazon).
Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2017): “People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism. As Tom Nichols shows in The Death of Expertise, this rejection of experts has occurred for many reasons, including the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement. Nichols has deeper concerns than the current rejection of expertise and learning, noting that when ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy-or in the worst case, a combination of both. The Death of Expertise is not only an exploration of a dangerous phenomenon but also a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age” (Amazon).
Angus Deaton, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality (Princeton University Press, 2013): “The world is a better place than it used to be. People are healthier, wealthier, and live longer. Yet the escapes from destitution by so many has left gaping inequalities between people and nations. In The Great Escape, Angus Deaton–one of the foremost experts on economic development and on poverty–tells the remarkable story of how, beginning 250 years ago, some parts of the world experienced sustained progress, opening up gaps and setting the stage for today’s disproportionately unequal world. Deaton takes an in-depth look at the historical and ongoing patterns behind the health and wealth of nations, and addresses what needs to be done to help those left behind. Deaton describes vast innovations and wrenching setbacks: the successes of antibiotics, pest control, vaccinations, and clean water on the one hand, and disastrous famines and the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the other. He examines the United States, a nation that has prospered but is today experiencing slower growth and increasing inequality. He also considers how economic growth in India and China has improved the lives of more than a billion people. Deaton argues that international aid has been ineffective and even harmful. He suggests alternative efforts–including reforming incentives to drug companies and lifting trade restrictions–that will allow the developing world to bring about its own Great Escape” (Amazon).
Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014): “To most of us, learning something “the hard way” implies wasted time and effort. Good teaching, we believe, should be creatively tailored to the different learning styles of students and should use strategies that make learning easier. Make It Stick turns fashionable ideas like these on their head. Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners. Memory plays a central role in our ability to carry out complex cognitive tasks, such as applying knowledge to problems never before encountered and drawing inferences from facts already known. New insights into how memory is encoded, consolidated, and later retrieved have led to a better understanding of how we learn. Grappling with the impediments that make learning challenging leads both to more complex mastery and better retention of what was learned. Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and durable learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another. Speaking most urgently to students, teachers, trainers, and athletes, Make It Stick will appeal to all those interested in the challenge of lifelong learning and self-improvement” (Amazon).
Dan Ariely, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations (TED Books, 2016): “Every day we work hard to motivate ourselves, the people we live with, the people who work for and do business with us. In this way, much of what we do can be defined as being “motivators.” From the boardroom to the living room, our role as motivators is complex, and the more we try to motivate partners and children, friends and coworkers, the clearer it becomes that the story of motivation is far more intricate and fascinating than we’ve assumed. Payoff investigates the true nature of motivation, our partial blindness to the way it works, and how we can bridge this gap. With studies that range from Intel to a kindergarten classroom, Ariely digs deep to find the root of motivation—how it works and how we can use this knowledge to approach important choices in our own lives. Along the way, he explores intriguing questions such as: Can giving employees bonuses harm productivity? Why is trust so crucial for successful motivation? What are our misconceptions about how to value our work? How does your sense of your mortality impact your motivation?” (Amazon).
Monica C. Worline, Jane E. Dutton, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations (Berrett-Koehler, 2017): “Suffering in the workplace can rob our colleagues and coworkers of humanity, dignity, and motivation and is an unrecognized and costly drain on organizational potential. Marshaling evidence from two decades of field research, scholars and consultants Monica Worline and Jane Dutton show that alleviating such suffering confers measurable competitive advantages in areas like innovation, collaboration, service quality, and talent attraction and retention. They outline four steps for meeting suffering with compassion and show how to build a capacity for compassion into the structures and practices of an organization—because ultimately, as they write, “Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities”” (Amazon).
Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (University of Chicago Press, 2006): “For a century and a half, the artists and intellectuals of Europe have scorned the bourgeoisie. And for a millennium and a half, the philosophers and theologians of Europe have scorned the marketplace. The bourgeois life, capitalism, Mencken’s “booboisie” and David Brooks’s “bobos”—all have been, and still are, framed as being responsible for everything from financial to moral poverty, world wars, and spiritual desuetude. Countering these centuries of assumptions and unexamined thinking is Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, a magnum opus that offers a radical view: capitalism is good for us. McCloskey’s sweeping, charming, and even humorous survey of ethical thought and economic realities—from Plato to Barbara Ehrenreich—overturns every assumption we have about being bourgeois. Can you be virtuous and bourgeois? Do markets improve ethics? Has capitalism made us better as well as richer? Yes, yes, and yes, argues McCloskey, who takes on centuries of capitalism’s critics with her erudition and sheer scope of knowledge. Applying a new tradition of “virtue ethics” to our lives in modern economies, she affirms American capitalism without ignoring its faults and celebrates the bourgeois lives we actually live, without supposing that they must be lives without ethical foundations” (Amazon).
Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012): “The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. Nagel’s skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form teleological rather than mechanistic. In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility” (Amazon).
Christopher H. Achen, Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press, 2016): “Democracy for Realists assails the romantic folk-theory at the heart of contemporary thinking about democratic politics and government, and offers a provocative alternative view grounded in the actual human nature of democratic citizens. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence, including ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters―even those who are well informed and politically engaged―mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents’ control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly. Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters. Now with new analysis of the 2016 elections, Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government” (Amazon).
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (HarperCollins, 2017): “By the end of an average day in the early twenty-first century, human beings searching the internet will amass eight trillion gigabytes of data. This staggering amount of information—unprecedented in history—can tell us a great deal about who we are—the fears, desires, and behaviors that drive us, and the conscious and unconscious decisions we make. From the profound to the mundane, we can gain astonishing knowledge about the human psyche that less than twenty years ago, seemed unfathomable. Everybody Lies offers fascinating, surprising, and sometimes laugh-out-loud insights into everything from economics to ethics to sports to race to sex, gender and more, all drawn from the world of big data. What percentage of white voters didn’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s black? Does where you go to school effect how successful you are in life? Do parents secretly favor boy children over girls? Do violent films affect the crime rate? Can you beat the stock market? How regularly do we lie about our sex lives and who’s more self-conscious about sex, men or women Investigating these questions and a host of others, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz offers revelations that can help us understand ourselves and our lives better. Drawing on studies and experiments on how we really live and think, he demonstrates in fascinating and often funny ways the extent to which all the world is indeed a lab. With conclusions ranging from strange-but-true to thought-provoking to disturbing, he explores the power of this digital truth serum and its deeper potential—revealing biases deeply embedded within us, information we can use to change our culture, and the questions we’re afraid to ask that might be essential to our health—both emotional and physical. All of us are touched by big data everyday, and its influence is multiplying. Everybody Lies challenges us to think differently about how we see it and the world” (Amazon).
Terryl L. Givens, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis (Oxford University Press, 2017): “Feeding the Flock, the second volume of Terryl L. Givens’s landmark study of the foundations of Mormon thought and practice, traces the essential contours of Mormon practice as it developed from Joseph Smith to the present. Despite the stigmatizing fascination with its social innovations (polygamy, communalism), its stark supernaturalism (angels, gold plates, and seer stones), and its most esoteric aspects (a New World Garden of Eden, sacred undergarments), as well as its long-standing outlier status among American Protestants, Givens reminds us that Mormonism remains the most enduring-and thriving-product of the nineteenth-century’s religious upheavals and innovations. Because Mormonism is founded on a radically unconventional cosmology, based on unusual doctrines of human nature, deity, and soteriology, a history of its development cannot use conventional theological categories. Givens has structured these volumes in a way that recognizes the implicit logic of Mormon thought. The first book, Wrestling the Angel, centered on the theoretical foundations of Mormon thought and doctrine regarding God, humans, and salvation. Feeding the Flock considers Mormon practice, the authority of the institution of the church and its priesthood, forms of worship, and the function and nature of spiritual gifts in the church’s history, revealing that Mormonism is still a tradition very much in the process of formation. At once original and provocative, engaging and learned, Givens offers the most sustained account of Mormon thought and practice yet written” (Amazon).
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013): “Despite the recent ferocious public debate about belief, the concept most central to the discussion—God—frequently remains vaguely and obscurely described. Are those engaged in these arguments even talking about the same thing? In a wide-ranging response to this confusion, esteemed scholar David Bentley Hart pursues a clarification of how the word “God” functions in the world’s great theistic faiths. Ranging broadly across Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, Hart explores how these great intellectual traditions treat humanity’s knowledge of the divine mysteries. Constructing his argument around three principal metaphysical “moments”—being, consciousness, and bliss—the author demonstrates an essential continuity between our fundamental experience of reality and the ultimate reality to which that experience inevitably points. Thoroughly dismissing such blatant misconceptions as the deists’ concept of God, as well as the fundamentalist view of the Bible as an objective historical record, Hart provides a welcome antidote to simplistic manifestoes. In doing so, he plumbs the depths of humanity’s experience of the world as powerful evidence for the reality of God and captures the beauty and poetry of traditional reflection upon the divine” (Amazon).
Charles Duhigg, Smarter, Faster, Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity (Random House, 2016): “At the core of Smarter Faster Better are eight key productivity concepts—from motivation and goal setting to focus and decision making—that explain why some people and companies get so much done. Drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics—as well as the experiences of CEOs, educational reformers, four-star generals, FBI agents, airplane pilots, and Broadway songwriters—this painstakingly researched book explains that the most productive people, companies, and organizations don’t merely act differently. They view the world, and their choices, in profoundly different ways…What do these people have in common? They know that productivity relies on making certain choices. The way we frame our daily decisions; the big ambitions we embrace and the easy goals we ignore; the cultures we establish as leaders to drive innovation; the way we interact with data: These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive. In The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charles Duhigg explained why we do what we do. In Smarter Faster Better, he applies the same relentless curiosity, deep reporting, and rich storytelling to explain how we can improve at the things we do. It’s a groundbreaking exploration of the science of productivity, one that can help anyone learn to succeed with less stress and struggle, and to get more done without sacrificing what we care about most—to become smarter, faster, and better at everything we do” (Amazon).
Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011): “This book is a long-awaited major statement by a pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, on one of our biggest debates — the compatibility of science and religion. The last twenty years has seen a cottage industry of books on this divide, but with little consensus emerging. Plantinga, as a top philosopher but also a proponent of the rationality of religious belief, has a unique contribution to make. His theme in this short book is that the conflict between science and theistic religion is actually superficial, and that at a deeper level they are in concord. Plantinga examines where this conflict is supposed to exist — evolution, evolutionary psychology, analysis of scripture, scientific study of religion — as well as claims by Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Philip Kitcher that evolution and theistic belief cannot co-exist. Plantinga makes a case that their arguments are not only inconclusive but that the supposed conflicts themselves are superficial, due to the methodological naturalism used by science. On the other hand, science can actually offer support to theistic doctrines, and Plantinga uses the notion of biological and cosmological “fine-tuning” in support of this idea. Plantinga argues that we might think about arguments in science and religion in a new way — as different forms of discourse that try to persuade people to look at questions from a perspective such that they can see that something is true. In this way, there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise” (Amazon).
Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (Crown, 2013): “From John Locke to Sigmund Freud, philosophers and psychologists have long believed that we begin life as blank moral slates. Many of us take for granted that babies are born selfish and that it is the role of society—and especially parents—to transform them from little sociopaths into civilized beings. In Just Babies, Paul Bloom argues that humans are in fact hardwired with a sense of morality. Drawing on groundbreaking research at Yale, Bloom demonstrates that, even before they can speak or walk, babies judge the goodness and badness of others’ actions; feel empathy and compassion; act to soothe those in distress; and have a rudimentary sense of justice. Still, this innate morality is limited, sometimes tragically. We are naturally hostile to strangers, prone to parochialism and bigotry. Bringing together insights from psychology, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy, Bloom explores how we have come to surpass these limitations. Along the way, he examines the morality of chimpanzees, violent psychopaths, religious extremists, and Ivy League professors, and explores our often puzzling moral feelings about sex, politics, religion, and race. In his analysis of the morality of children and adults, Bloom rejects the fashionable view that our moral decisions are driven mainly by gut feelings and unconscious biases. Just as reason has driven our great scientific discoveries, he argues, it is reason and deliberation that makes possible our moral discoveries, such as the wrongness of slavery. Ultimately, it is through our imagination, our compassion, and our uniquely human capacity for rational thought that we can transcend the primitive sense of morality we were born with, becoming more than just babies” (Amazon).
Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Random House, 2017): “Social scientist Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, has sparked a global conversation about the experiences that bring meaning to our lives—experiences of courage, vulnerability, love, belonging, shame, and empathy. In Braving the Wilderness, Brown redefines what it means to truly belong in an age of increased polarization. With her trademark mix of research, storytelling, and honesty, Brown will again change the cultural conversation while mapping a clear path to true belonging. Brown argues that we’re experiencing a spiritual crisis of disconnection, and introduces four practices of true belonging that challenge everything we believe about ourselves and each other. She writes, “True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism. But true belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity. It’s a personal commitment that we carry in our hearts.” Brown offers us the clarity and courage we need to find our way back to ourselves and to each other. And that path cuts right through the wilderness. Brown writes, “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand”” (Amazon).
Brian C. Hales, Laura H. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015): “In the last several years a wealth of information has been published on Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. For some who were already well aware of this aspect of early Mormon history, the availability of new research and discovered documents has been a wellspring of further insight and knowledge into this topic. For others who are learning of Joseph’s marriages to other women for the first time, these books and online publications (including the LDS Church’s recent Gospel Topics essays on the subject) can be both an information overload and a challenge to one’s faith. In this short volume, Brian C. Hales (author of the 3-volume Joseph Smith’s Polygamy set) and Laura H. Hales wade through the murky waters of history to help bring some clarity to this episode of Mormonism’s past, examining both the theological explanations of the practice and the accounts of those who experienced it first hand. As this episode of Mormon history involved more than just Joseph and his first wife Emma, this volume also includes short biographies of the 36 women who were married to the Prophet but whose stories of faith, struggle, and courage have been largely forgotten and ignored over time. While we may never fully understand the details and reasons surrounding this practice, Brian and Laura Hales provide readers with an accessible, forthright, and faithful look into this challenging topic so that we can at least come toward a better understanding” (Amazon).
I read an embarrassing number of books (I’m in danger of having no life) but if I met you at a party (which I wouldn’t, because I have no life) and you mentioned a book that you’d read and I’d also read it, I might not admit it.
I’d lie because unless it was really, really special, I wouldn’t remember enough to talk about it intelligently.
The gist of the response thereafter is that it’s fine if you don’t remember the books you read, because (in this case) you can still harvest them for good ideas. And I think this is fine. It’s a perfectly valid reason to read books. Another valid reason would be the food analogy. You probably can’t remember (in any great detail) what you had for lunch last month, but it’s pretty important that you ate something right? Otherwise you’d starve. And so maybe books are kind of like food for your brain. Even if you don’t remember the specifics of any given meal, it still helps to have a high-quality diet. Another valid response.
But here’s one more: you can store what you remember about a book in your cyberbrain.
The idea of using computers–and especially the Internet / cloud–to augment human memory is an old one. And it’s not theoretical. It’s exactly what I do with my Goodreads reviews. I try to write a review of every book I read I also take lots and lots of notes in Evernote. Then, I promptly forget what I read. Sometimes I literally forget that I read a book at all. But when I go back and reread my reviews, a lot of my initial impressions come back.
Over my lifetime, I’ve certainly read thousands of books. And for the most part, I can’t remember them. I kind of have a big hole in my memory between the first few books I really loved as a kid in elementary school and middle school and the books that I started reviewing on Goodreads. In between, I really only remember a few books. The only exception is the ones I have on my shelves. If I pick up those paperbacks, I can basically always remember the overall plot and sometimes a surprising amount of detail. I just need the cues provided by the cover art–and maybe just the existence of a physical reminder–to trigger all those memories.
The Goodreads reviews are like that, but even better.
So review your books, kiddos. It’s like a diary of your literary life, and it can help you keep hold of memories that would otherwise be totally lost.
The Handmaid’s tale as a TV show is apparently a big deal. I don’t know about that. I really liked the book when I read it a few years ago, but I dreaded it being made for TV and haven’t checked the show out. Anyway, because the show is a big deal, I see lots of references to it on Facebook. Here’s one that stood out:
Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.
The line is from the book, and it made it into the show, too. Of course it did.
The sentiment is very, very far from unique. In fact, it’s pretty close to universal among the left-wing of American politics. It’s actually pretty common on the right, too, since it’s more about populism than it is about left/right ideology. It crops up all the time. Just as one more example, here’s another left-leaning author in another overtly ideological (but not nearly as aesthetically accomplished) book:
“Everybody’s history is one long slog of all the horrible shit we’ve done to each other.”
“It’s not all that,” Tak said. “A lot of it, yes, but there’s good things, too. There’s art, and cities, and science. All the things we’ve discovered. All the things we’ve learned and made better.”
“All the things made better for some people. Nobody has ever figured out how to make things better for everybody.”
“I know,” Tak said.
So, that’s one theory of human existence: in all of our history (and for hundreds of years into our imagined future) progress for everyone is impossible.
I understand the idea of living in a fantasy world if the fantasy is better than reality. I can even understand extending this wishful thinking to fantasies that don’t actually seem very nice. That’s what conspiracy theories are all about, after all. Some people would rather believe in a world where things happen for a reason (and that reason is the Illuminati) rather than believe in a world where things are pretty random and chaotic because the Illuminati running everything is less scary than nobody running anything. OK. Not my cup of tea, but OK.
What I don’t understand is choosing to live in fantasy world that is so much grimmer than reality for no discernible benefit.
Which makes you wonder: what motivates this belief–contradicted by all available evidence–that universal improvement is impossible?
There are millions of books in the world (and almost definitely hundreds of millions—last they checked, Google had the count at 129,864,880, and that was seven years ago). The rabid and/or competitive readers among you will now be asking yourselves: yes, yes, now how will I read them all?
Well, you won’t.
Well, this should be obvious, but it still stings. I’ve experienced an existential crisis or two based on this very realization. Furthermore, as the author continues, “My to-read list is tantalizingly endless, and I often find myself thinking about the fact that my reading time/life is finite when I’m trying to get through a book that I know I should like but is boring (or annoying) me. As Hari Kunzru put it recently in the New York Times Book Review: “I used to force myself to finish everything I started, which I think is quite good discipline when you’re young, but once you’ve established your taste, and the penny drops that there are only a certain number of books you’ll get to read before you die, reading bad ones becomes almost nauseating.””
So how many books have you got left in you? Using the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator combined with three reader categories, you can get a good idea of how many books you’ll get through before you kick the bucket:
25 and female: 86 (61 years left)
Average reader: 732
Voracious reader: 3,050
Super reader: 4,880
25 and male: 82 (57 years left)
Average reader: 684
Voracious reader: 2,850
Super reader: 4,560
30 and female: 86 (56 years left)
Average reader: 672
Voracious reader: 2,800
Super reader: 4,480
30 and male: 82 (52 years left)
Average reader: 624
Voracious reader: 2,600
Super reader: 4,160
35 and female: 86 (51 years left)
Average reader: 612
Voracious reader: 2,550
Super reader: 4,080
35 and male: 82 (47 years left)
Average reader: 564
Voracious reader: 2,350
Super reader: 3,670
40 and female: 85.5 (45.5 years left)
Average reader: 546
Voracious reader: 2,275
Super reader: 3,640
40 and male: 82 (42 years left)
Average reader: 504
Voracious reader: 2,100
Super reader: 3,260
45 and female: 85.5 (40.5 years left)
Average reader: 486
Voracious reader: 2,025
Super reader: 3,240
45 and male: 82 (37 years left)
Average reader: 444
Voracious reader: 1,850
Super reader: 2,960
50 and female: 85.5 (35.5 years left)
Average reader: 426
Voracious reader: 1,775
Super reader: 2,840
50 and male: 82 (32 years left)
Average reader: 384
Voracious reader: 1,600
Super reader: 2,560
55 and female: 86 (31 years left)
Average reader: 372
Voracious reader: 1,550
Super reader: 2,480
55 and male: 83 (28 years left)
Average reader: 336
Voracious reader: 1,400
Super reader: 2,240
60 and female: 86 (26 years left)
Average reader: 312
Voracious reader: 1,300
Super reader: 2,080
60 and male: 83 (23 years left)
Average reader: 276
Voracious reader: 1,150
Super reader: 1,840
65 and female: 87 (22 years left)
Average reader: 264
Voracious reader: 1,100
Super reader: 1,760
65 and male: 84 (19 years left)
Average reader: 228
Voracious reader: 950
Super reader: 1,520
70 and female: 87.5 (17.5 years left)
Average reader: 210
Voracious reader: 875
Super reader: 1,400
70 and male: 85 (15 years left)
Average reader: 180
Voracious reader: 750
Super reader: 1,200
75 and female: 89 (14 years left)
Average reader: 168
Voracious reader: 700
Super reader: 1,120
75 and male: 87 (12 years left)
Average reader: 144
Voracious reader: 600
Super reader: 960
80 and female: 90 (10 years left)
Average reader: 120
Voracious reader: 500
Super reader: 800
80 and male: 89 (9 years left)
Average reader: 108
Voracious reader: 450
Super reader: 720
A couple months ago, I gave a talk on “trials and their purpose“, which basically become a discussion of the problem of evil in Mormon thought. I read a number of books in preparation for it, including David B. Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, Michael Austin’s Re-reading Job, and N.T. Wright’s Evil & the Justice of God. Two books that I didn’t finish prior to the talk was Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil and Gregory Boyd’s God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict. The latter in particular I wish I had finished in time. Boyd, a Princeton-educated theologian and pastor, approaches the problem of evil from what he calls the warfare worldview: the perspective that this world is a battlefield between spiritual forces of good and evil. He argues that the
biblical authors generally assume the existence of intermediary spiritual or cosmic beings. These beings, variously termed “gods,” “angels,” “principalities and powers,” “demons,” or, in the earliest strata, “Leviathan” or some other cosmic monster, can and do wage war against God, wreak havoc on his creation and bring all manner of ills upon humanity. Whether portraying Yahweh as warring against Rahab and other cosmic monsters of chaos or depicting Jesus as casting out a legion of demons from the possessed Gerasene, the Bible as well as the early postapostolic church assumes that the creation is caught up in the crossfire of an age-old cosmic battle between good and evil. As in other warfare worldviews, the Bible assumes that the course of this warfare greatly affects life on earth (pg. 18).
Boyd traces God’s conflict with the forces of chaos and evil from the Old Testament (e.g., the hostile waters of creation, Leviathan, Rahab, the gods of Ps. 82, etc.) to the New Testament (e.g., Jesus’ exorcisms, Christus Victor atonement theology). According to Boyd, the evils of this world are not only caused by the free will of human beings, but the free will of demonic beings as well. The book is fascinating and certainly interesting for Mormons, whose own teachings and scriptures depict a pre-mortal “war in heaven” that continues today. Boyd’s analysis brings new meaning to Mormon’s words: “Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually” (Moroni 7:12).
You can see an interview with Boyd below in which he discusses some of these ideas.
Several years ago, philosopher Harry Frankfurt released his brief essay On Bullshit through Princeton University Press. The basic idea was that bullshit was different from a lie. A liar knows (and cares about) what the truth is and attempts to hide or distort it. Bullshitters, on the other hand, are more interested in persuading without any regard for the truth. The rhetoric could be true or false, but the only thing that truly matters to a bullshitter is that the audience is convinced. In short, liars conceal the truth. Bullshitters (sometimes) conceal their disinterest in the truth.
You can see Frankfurt discussing this concept in the fairly new video below.
When I shared Jason Brennan’s newest book Against Democracy on my Facebook wall, I got a little push back in both the thread and even in a personal email. How could anyone be against democracy? Isn’t this just elitist snobbery at best and totalitarianism in the making at worst? In short, no. Following the election, I finished off Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance and Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, both of which showed convincingly that our country consists of a politically ignorant and misinformed electorate. Brennan surveys this literature to demonstrate that voters often choose policies that would make us all worse off. He then dives into the political psychology literature and finds that political participation tends to make us mean and dumb (I told him that chs. 2-3 alone were worth the price of the book). Brennan divides the electorate into three categories:
Hobbits: the typical nonvoter; mostly ignorant and apathetic to politics and social science.
Hooligans: pretty much everyone else; consumes political information in a highly-biased way and ignores evidence contrary to their position.
Vulcans: rare; rational and scientific; can articulate opposing views well; interested in, but dispassionate about politics.
When judged from an instrumentalist point of view (i.e., judging institutions and systems based on their performance, not some supposed intrinsic value), the case for democracy seems far weaker than is often assumed. The evidence he presents helps him build his case for epistocracy: the rule of the knowledgeable. Yet, this isn’t some technocratic bureaucracy, but a way to mitigate the negative outcomes of poor voter knowledge.
The book is packed with tons of information and rigorous arguments. I hardly do it justice with the description above. Even if you’re not convinced to be an epistocrat, the solid social science alone makes the book worth reading. One of the most interesting books I’ve read in some time.
You can see an interview with Jason Brennan discussing the book below.