Non-Fiction Reviews

Good Thinking

What you need to know to be
smarter, safer, wealthier and wiser

(2015) Guy P. Harrison, Prometheus Books,
£12.99 / Can$18.00 / US$17., trdpbk, 288pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88064-1


This may well have promised my becoming "safer, wealthier and wiser", but what it did make me was a little sad if not a tad depressed: in short it is absolutely brilliant!

Now, I am almost sure that I am not Guy Harrison's target reader. True, I do believe in things like UFOs, but here only because I belief that that not all flying objects to a casual observer have been appropriately identified. Similarly, I subscribe to the notion of Father Christmas, but usually only in the run-up to the festive season and really, if truth be told, to enter into the spirit of the occasion. However, I do seem to rally with Guy Harrison against some of the issues he raises such as the success of alternate medicines and the bigotry of the Islamic State; the intense peddling of fake food including the empty calories of sugar. And a load of others too including: the paucity of information in politicians verbose utterances (I spent many years working with politicians); the degradation of environmental thinking by the so-called 'green movement'; and above all the propensity of our species to overpopulate, erode landscapes, contaminate land and water so encouraging species to extinction. All this might drive me to distraction were it not for my largely putting such unpleasantness to the back of my mind. However with Good Thinking I have possibly found a kindred spirit in Guy Harrison as he reminded me of all I sought– as far as is possible for an environmental scientist -- to disregard, and that truly made me sad if not a little depressed.

In reality, I suspect Harrison's target readers are those embedded through accident of birth in heavily religious communities, or through curiosity are (or who have friends) tempted by things like conspiracy theories. Growing up in, or moving into, such neighbourhoods there must be considerable social and peer pressure to conform to the local belief system. Yet, for a more rationale mind, beliefs that are based, on pure-faith as opposed to logical deduction leads to an intellectual confrontation. The same goes for those tempted by conspiracy theories such as (of the past decade or so) those following the 11th September 2001 that the US government had knowledge of, or even a hand in, the New York World Trade Centre event. For those whose thought-processes are more logical, this tension is quite real and pose genuine questions. For example, if there is nothing in UFOs (as in interstellar visitors) then how come so many believe in them? Ditto ghosts: a Harris poll suggests that some 42% of US Americans believe in ghosts. Alternative medicines: how come its is a multi-billion pound industry globally? It also speaks to those who challenge natural evolution denial, climate change scepticism and the aforementioned conspiracy theories.

Harrison does not pooh-pooh as such the theories head on (though he does demonstrate the logical fallacies in passing). He starts of outlining the case for good thinking. He notes that we are swamped with the need to make decisions from buying soap to voting in an election as well as having to avoid criminal scams. We are continually pressurised to decide one way or another on a multitude of issues including, unfortunately, the fraudulent trying to masquerade as the truth. Combating this, he encourages us to apply the scientific method and avoid our own inherent biases including: emotion, popularity of a view, false 'straw' counterclaims, loaded questions, wishful thinking, authority worship, naming (calling something a miracle does not make it real and here apparently 76% of US Americans believe in miracles), circular reasoning etc.

He then proceeds to look at who we are: exploring the brain, its functions and operation, memory, and the hidden brain. He shows how – for sound evolutionary reasons – we are programmed to see things which aren't there (or are potentially dangerous and just might possibly be so best be safe than sorry). How vision works and that we only experience an illusion of detailed sight. These lead to what might seem to be 'crazy' things in our own heads such as confirmation bias. Given all of this it seems surprising that some of us can more easily distinguish fact from fiction than others.

As he draws up to his book's conclusion he contrasts good thinking with bad ideas. Finally he shows us how to escape from bad thinking into reality.

Along the way we are provided with some startling examples: apparently some 20% or so of Republicans (the US political party) believe that president Barack Obama is the antichrist. For my part, having occasionally had to work on 'natural therapies' and their safety, I was saddened (but not surprised) at his example of how some alternative medicine manufacturers don't bother to have much of the expensive, so-called active ingredient in their products; after all, if the 'active ingredient' really isn't active then there is no need to have much of it in the treatment! This is both very cynical let alone (obviously hypocritical) of such manufacturers but is at least better than including non-standard concentrations or even (presumably – to be charitable – through ignorance) harmful ingredients in some alternative medicines which is a problem we have had over here in Europe (and I suspect everywhere else too).

Though I have identified this book's likely target readership above, there is another: the less-suspecting, rational you and me. We are all human and we do have human biases even if we think that we are above all that (we all have our faults and mine is in San Andreas). It therefore really does us good to occasionally get grounded and just reappraise where we are lest we unconsciously become seduced to the dark side.

Now this book is not a complete guide. There are other books with slightly different foci including Bogus Science: Or, Some People Really Believe These Things, The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, Conspiracy Theories and even Harrison's own, previous 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True. Given all this other material, you can't this Harrison title to have everything. So for example Dunning–Kruger is absent, and things like group think does not seem to get a specific name-check but is implicitly there. And there is material in there I had not come across before. For instance, I was unaware of Brain Derived Neutrophic Factor let alone the affect high-dose sugars in our current (1980- present) developed nation diet on the brain's level of this protein. I was equally unaware of Implicit Association Tests and so went and did one on-line (at a university's website). And in pursuing matters raised by the book I was aided by its appendices of chapter notes and academic references.  So Harrison's Good Thinking really offers much and does sit perfectly alongside such aforementioned titles. It would also be just the thing for those with an interest in what might be described as the darker side of Forteana (after Charles Fort's interests which can be enjoyed but purely for fun).

This brings us to this website's regulars: science fiction aficionados and more likely SF aficionados who are also into science and engineering. The author is  a lifelong science fiction fan. He is not ashamed to confess his deep love for robot uprisings (personally I hate them when they happen), time machines and interstellar travel. But then 'science fiction' is 'fiction': it is not pretending to be 'science fact' and, as SF buffs, nearly all of us accept this as a matter of course. Indeed, just because there is no hard evidence for UFOs (the extraterrestrial kind not the 'not-identified' kind) does not mean that we cannot enjoy Mulder's escapades in The X-Files.

Yes, I was saddened by Guy Harrison's Good Thinking. On the other hand Harrison does take my pessimism and throw in a ray of light. Given that biology and environment have almost made it inevitable that we fall foul of bad thinking, it seems very surprising that we as a species have achieved so much. We do have personal computing technology, access to both high-speed and long-distance travel, as well as things like genuine medicines that work (albeit with defined parameters and side-effects) and these have all enabled our global society to grow with us the most part living happily. However, if we cherish that then it surely behoves us to combat bad thinking be it that promulgated by criminal or political scammers to religious and social fundamentalists. Harrison's Good Thinking is a great inoculation.

Jonathan Cowie

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