Skip to main content

Brainwashing – Kathleen Taylor ****

Here we see a prime example of that rarest of species – a book that is both academic and readable. It makes no concessions on content, yet Kathleen Taylor writes well enough to keep the attention of the interested lay person.
The topic is a controversial one. “Does brainwashing even exist?” is a legitimate question – but you’ll have to read the book to find the answer.
This isn’t a “true crimes”, “revel in real human horror stories” type book, but the first section does contain a few rather unsettling case studies as it reveals examples that could be labelled brainwashing. Taylor is catholic in her coverage, though – as well as explicit attempts to brainwash by totalitarian military regimes you will find religious cults, advertising and even the apparently innocent activity of education.
The book is in three sections. The first examines the different activities that could be and/or are described as brainwashing, the second examines the brain itself, its surprising fluidity and the different activities and mechanisms that could be the subject of attempts at thought control, and the final section looks at the possible future developments in brainwashing, and whether it is possible to have strategies for resistance.
Few criticisms can be raised here. Surprisingly, one of these might be that Taylor is too scrupulously fair – so a lot of statements are bordered around by qualifications and “excepts” and “despites”, which is honest but breaks up the flow of a good read. It’s also a long book – only around 300 pages, but of tight-packed, smallish text – and for the lay reader she probably goes into too much detail on the workings of the brain. That’s really all that comes between this book and a five star rating.
One of the best things about reading Brainwashing is Taylor’s light touch with language – she really does write as if a real person is sharing with you something that fascinates her, and she knows you will be interested in too. It’s a delight. Also Taylor is quite happy to take on some heavyweights for their oversimplifying – you might even say brainwashing – approach in putting across a scientific message. So for example, she points out how Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore misinterpret the idea of faith by associating its dangers with religion, thus blundering into blaming religion for most of the world’s woes without considering how totally religion-free inter-human disasters from the Chinese cultural revolution to Nazi Germany have been even more destructive. Taylor isn’t supporting religion, but rather pointing out the over-dependence on simplistic views that is a common feature of brainwashing, and that is being incorrectly used to put down religion here – her standpoint should be obvious, but it takes guts to oppose names like Dawkins and Blackmore.
Altogether a thoughtful, insightful and thoroughly well-written book on a subject that is often mentioned but rarely understood.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…