Read in Ned: Coming To An Understanding

Tom Lambrecht, Nederland.  Many Americans are still digesting the outcome of one of the most acrimonious elections in our nation’s history. The combative tone of this Presidential campaign is not confined to our nation either; worldwide, the tone of political discord seems to grow more and more strident.

As the dust has settled, both sides are asking questions like, “Why did ‘They’ win?” and “Why do ‘They’ vilify Us?” There has been widespread criticism from the Left and the Right of not only the other side, but mainstream media, social media, and a phenomena labelled “fake news.” And many of the most jaded observers were surprised by the election results – how could the professional pollsters – people who make their living with statistics – have collectively erred in their predictions? A trio of books (two just published) at the Nederland Community Library can aid us in understanding what happened and the mindset of both sides as well as provoking critical analysis of the sources we get our news from and the credibility of the data they provide.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is a fascinating look at the human mindset with emphasis on politics and religion, published during the 2012 Presidential campaign that gave Barack Obama his second term. The book is objectively written with a wry sense of humor which makes his scholarly analysis go down easier. Haidt is a moralistic psychologist whose career has been spent researching how a person’s culture and upbringing influence their beliefs. Proceeding from our beginnings as social animals to the development of reason and political philosophies, his research leads him to some surprising conclusions.

Cathy O’Neill is a mathematician and data researcher who cut her teeth in the corporate world at a hedge fund just before the 2008 crash, and her personal tale sets the stage for the narrative that follows. Weapons of Math Destruction analyzes examples of the numerous failures of the “Big Data” that business and governments rely upon and the impacts on those affected by them. O’Neill spotlights failures (or “WMDs” as in the book title) in sectors ranging from social media to targeted advertising to critical ones in the criminal justice system.

Daniel Levitin’s latest title, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age is aimed at enabling the reader to “avoid the extremes of passive gullibility and cynical rejection.” The author reinforces with graphic examples that by tweaking the axis of a graph or the break-points on a map showing birthrates, one can skew a viewer’s perceptions of fact. His chapter on “identifying expertise” is particularly relevant in our modern world of armchair Internet pundits. Another must-read is a succinct lampooning of the classic conspiracy-theorist delight: the “faked” Apollo 11 moon landing, Levitin coolly levels the commonly-advanced “evidence” offered by non-believers.

Needless to say, I’ve only skimmed the surface of these three densely-written titles, but all merit a close look. Time spent with O’Neill’s and Levitin’s books will be enriching for both the  “You can’t believe anything you read” set and the “I saw it on the Web so it must be true” faction. Even critical thinkers will learn a few new truth-stretching tricks here. And reading Haidt’s book is somehow reassuring in a time when politics and religion seem to have stretched much of the world to the breaking point. By understanding thought processes that go all the way back to our beginnings spent squatting on the ground, we can hopefully gain some perspective on the folks on the other side of the aisle.

Tom Lambrecht is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.