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

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…