Monday, 10 October 2011

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

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