Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book 40: Suspicious Minds


"From inside our head, our thoughts and beliefs seem to be the product of an impartial, accurate understanding of reality. Once again, however, we have been tricked. Just as our ability to see the world depends on extensive behind-the-scenes processing and sophisticated guesswork, so too does our ability to understand the world."

Dates read: April 3-9, 2016

Rating: 6/10

As I've mentioned before, I grew up in a quasi-rural area. When I was a kid, we had a septic system in our yard (we finally got hooked up to sewer service around when I started high school, if I'm remembering correctly). And to this day, the water that comes out of the faucet in the house I grew up in comes from a well. Which means that it's not fluoridated. And combined with my soft teeth, I have six crowns at the age of 30. But I live in a decent-sized American city now, so when I have kids, they'll at least have fluoridated water and be protected from cavities, right? Wrong! The people of Washoe County, Nevada have decided that fluoride in the water isn't for them. That putting a chemical that has no adverse effects and helps prevent tooth decay in the water is a sinister plot of some kind is, of course, a classic conspiracy theory.

Suspicious Minds is a book by Dr. Rob Brotherton on this very topic: conspiracy theories. Unlike what you might be thinking, it's not a reference catalog for all the theories out there, or a deep dive into any particular theories. Rather, Brotherton examines the psychology behind them. If so many of them sound completely ludicrous (the New World Order...really?), why do we believe them? How do they perpetuate?

Brotherton examines the history of conspiracy theories (despite feeling like conspiracy theories are especially prevalent in our era, they've been around and popular for hundreds of years) and some of the logical fallacies that underlie them (for example, the assumption that the "bad guys" are incredibly competent). He dismisses the notion than all conspiracists are paranoid crazies, but does cite research that shows that they are more likely to be hostile and close-minded than non-believers. One of the tidbits I found most interesting was that he showed how not only are people who believe in conspiracy theories more likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, they are more likely to believe in ones that directly contradict each other (say, simultaneously believing that Princess Diana faked her own death and that she was killed by the British royal family). He then goes into the processes that underlie our acceptance and belief in conspiracy theories (like our inability to accurately assess our own lack of knowledge and understanding) and why the brain holds on to them even in the face of evidence in opposition.

My quibbles with the book are probably fairly unusual, in that I wanted more academic detail. I thought I was going to get a fairly research-heavy book that went into at least some depth about the brain science underlying cognition. In fact, Brotherton spends a solid half of the book talking about history, defining "conspiracy theory", and gently pointing out that these theories require strained or even broken logic. Only in the second half does he even begin to get into the thought processes underlying conspiracy, and he never gets especially deep into it. It's clearly a book written for a generalist audience, which is fine, but with a background in the subject I wanted more.

Tell me, blog you believe in any conspiracy theories?

PS: If you're interested in conspiracy theories, check out this list for books about them!

**I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review**

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