Skip to main content

The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt *****

Don’t be put off by the title of this book (or the subtitle ‘why good people are divided by politics and religion’). Although they are technically correct they don’t give a full sense of the glory of what is certainly the best popular science book I have read this year, and comes easily into my top ten ever.
Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who specializes in morality. We are inundated with books about human behaviours and traits – and many of them are rather tedious – but this is a totally different beast. Not only is it a real page turner but it is full of ‘Oh! Is that why?!’ moments when the reader gets an explanation for some strange behaviour of human beings that they have never fully understood.
I ought to say that this isn’t like a book about general relativity, say, where even though there are alternative theories, the core has been vastly tried and tested over the years. What is presented here is the work of Haidt and his team and there may well be psychologists who disagree with his model in its entirety. But the great thing is that, if there are, his model explains why they do.
I don’t want to over-inflate the importance of this, but I felt a bit like I did as a teenager when reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. The idea that the Foundation’s mathematics could predict the way human society behaved into the future was entrancing. But, in the end, it was fiction. Reading Haidt’s ideas I got a similar jolt, but based on sensible relatively simple observations. It’s almost too right to be wrong.
The Righteous Mind suggest that we make moral decisions intuitively and then justify them using rational argument. It presents six dimensions (care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation) as the framework in which we make these moral decisions. And shows how the two main political wings differ in that the left almost entirely bases its thinking on the first two dimensions (with a touch of the third), while the right tends to use all six much more evenly. This apparently simple observation results in some truly impressive insights.
Every politician should be forced to read this book before taking office. And everyone who believes that people from the opposite end of the political spectrum is evil, wrong and stupid should also read it. As should every wild-eyed scientific atheist who proclaims that religion is entirely bad and without redeeming features. And every fundamentalist religious supporter who believes liberals and atheists should be burned.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the way that Haidt, a left wing intellectual atheist, comes to realize that his own position and views are blinkered, just as much as any right wing religious bigot. Truly brilliant.
Hardback:  
also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…