Skip to main content

Deceit and Self-Deception [The Folly of Fools] – Robert Trivers ***

This book was, as a reality show contestant would say, a roller-coaster ride (reality shows: there’s a subject of self-deception that Robert Trivers doesn’t cover but could have had great fun mining). At first sight I thought it was going to be deadly dull. I haven’t heard of Trivers, but I gather from the bumf he’s a bit of a big name academic in his field. That usually means a boring writer. Add to it that the book’s (UK) cover looks half finished and it’s a big fat tome (which usually means repetitive and padded) and, to be honest, it was touch and go whether I started it. But I’m glad I did.
Trivers writes in a very approachable fashion – none of the academic-speak here – and I was genuinely fascinated by the early part of his exploration of self-deception. This isn’t the sort of book it’s possible to read in one go (unless you’ve a lot of spare time), but each time I came back to it I really wanted to read on. Trivers makes a strong case that self-deception plays an important role in driving society and individuals, often because self-deception is an important tool in deceiving others (it’s easier to deceive if you believe the deceit yourself). This goes all the way from individuals to whole countries, and Trivers provides good evidence, for example, for the way that this trait is responsible for everything from animal behaviour to the unwavering US support for Israel, whatever that country does.
However there were flaws. The book is too long, and in some sections it felt rather that he was stretching the truth (indulging, in fact, in self-deception) to apply his chosen topic of expertise to the area the chapter was covering. There was a feel of ‘You can sort of consider this behaviour to be self-deception. Kind of.’ Trivers was probably weakest when talking about country level self-deception, where his analysis of wars was simplistic and often lacking in balance. It seemed wherever the US or the UK was involved they could do no right. I found fascinating that when talking about the horrific use of aerial bombing on civilian targets in the Second World War he lists Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden, but doesn’t see fit to mention London, Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester etc. You would think from his analysis of this aspect of the Second World War that the Germans were innocent victims of US/UK imperialism.
I also felt the side-comments where he allowed his own self to come through were a bit off-putting. I’m not sure I want to know about his drug misuse and sexual adventures. All that was missing was the rock and roll.
Without doubt there’s a huge amount of excellent material here. It’s worth buying the book for the section on NASA’s self-deception over the two Shuttle disasters alone – it is both fascinating and horrifying. But overall the book doesn’t work as well as it could have done.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…

The Science of Food - Marty Jopson ****

This is a tasty little volume, packed with kitchen-based science. I must admit, when I saw that the author was the One Show's science expert and Marty Jopson's author photo has that 'Hey, I'm a mad scientist, kids!' look, my heart fell - I was sure the book would be the written equivalent of a 'Wow, look, aren't I clever, I can make this go bang!' science show - but, in fact, it's packed full of (appropriately) meaty scientific content.

I was really pleased that Jopson didn't stick purely to the chemistry of cooking, but launched with the working of some familiar kitchen gadgets - there was genuinely fascinating reading to be had about apparently humdrum equipment in the form of the physics and materials science of a knife and chopping board. And Jopson took us into industrial kitchens too, to reveal, for example, the remarkable process required to make puffed wheat.

Inevitably, the chemistry of cooking - how, for example, proteins denature and em…