Books that changed minds

I really enjoyed this piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education in which 12 scholars named books that changed their minds and discussed why. All are worth reading, here are three that were of particular interest to me.

On Daniel Coyle's The Secret Race:

Like all academics, I am intolerant of plagiarism. It is anathema to me, and though I am capable of a "hate the sin, love the sinner" position in individual cases, I have never been able to understand why people do it. The rewards are so meager, the risks so high, and doing the work for real is so much more satisfying. Hamilton, though, as he describes the milieu for young professional cyclists in the 1990s, portrays a world in which being invited to dope is the sign that you’re being taken seriously. It’s not just that if you don’t dope, you’re definitely not going to win; doping is a prerequisite for staying in the game.

It turns out that doping isn’t like plagiarism at all. Because what became clear to me as I read The Secret Race is that when I was a Ph.D. student, in the 1990s, although I would rather have died than plagiarize, if someone had said to me, "The only way you are going to be able to do top-quality scholarship and get a tenure-track job is if you take a cognitive-enhancement drug that is illegal and dangerous to your health—everyone who gets the jobs and who is able to publish good work is taking it, and you owe it to yourself to stay in that peer group"—I would have taken the drug with very little agonizing.

We have to design society so it isn't a rigged game, or we shouldn't be surprised when people cheat.

On Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:

Jaynes taught psychology at Princeton, back in the days before psychologists had walled themselves off from literature, and he noticed that in the Homeric epics, the gods took the place of the human mind. In the Iliad we do not see Achilles thinking. Achilles acts, and in moments of strong emotion, he acts as the gods instruct him. When Aga­memnon steals his mistress and Achilles seethes with anger, Athena shows up, grabs him by the hair, and holds him back. Jaynes argued that Athena popped up in this way because humans in archaic Greece had no words for inner speech. So when they felt compelled by this strong internal force, they attributed that sensation to the gods. "The gods take the place of consciousness."

Moreover, Jaynes thought that in these moments, the ancient Greeks heard with their ears the gods speak. He thought that the inability to name the sensation as internal altered the sensation so that in moments of powerful feeling, moments when one feels pushed from within by one’s own overwhelming rage or joy, the Greeks heard the cognitive trace of that emotion audibly, as if it were coming from outside. "Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips? They were voices whose speech and direction could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices."

I'd never heard of this theory of the Greek Gods, that they might represent our own inner voices. It certainly explains their human foibles.

Finally, on Virginia Valian's Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women:

In Why So Slow?, Valian clearly and persuasively reviews evidence on implicit bias: stereotypes and associations that can affect behavior without conscious awareness. Our implicit assumptions about men and women influence actions and decisions in subtle and pervasive ways. We might, for example, judge a man "a natural leader" but a woman as "bossy and aggressive" for exhibiting the same behavior, or we might offer a job to a male candidate over a female candidate because he better fits our implicit prototype of what someone in that role is like. Such disparities might seem small, but over the course of a lifetime they have large and lasting effects.

The remarkable and terrifying thing about implicit bias is that it operates even in people who explicitly endorse egalitarian beliefs. Good intentions aren’t enough to override our unconscious psychological processes. And because they’re unconscious, we often don’t realize there’s a problem to be fixed. In fact, women are just as likely to exhibit implicit bias against women as are men.

Anyone who's read books like Daniel Kahneman's classic Thinking, Fast and Slow knows the human mind has all sorts of bugs. I suspect someday we'll turn to computers for adjudicating many legal cases or making medical diagnoses specifically to circumvent all of our implicit biases and other faulty mental shortcuts. It's not imminent. I mean, we won't even let computers call balls and strikes in baseball when we have mountains of evidence that computers would do a vastly superior job, and that's just a form of entertainment.

But as the saying goes about the arc of the moral universe, if we want to optimize for justice, we have centuries of human behavior to indicate we can't get of our own way. Computers continue to replace humans in many jobs in which they're superior; why would it be any different with objectivity?