Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb MistakesThe Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes by David   Robson

by David Robson
Being of the journalist tribe, I’m often asked how to distinguish between real and fake news. My answer—be cautious, skeptical, intuitive, read several accounts and always consider the source—has so far never closed the issue with the triumphant thunder one might want. Author David Robson brings additional resources to the problem, certainly a key difficulty of our days, in the hopeful exploration of other forms of mental discernment not measurable by standard intelligence tests. He calls these powers extra-cognitive, and certainly they deserve attention if only to remind us how poorly we appreciate intellect when measured along a single lonely axis. Much of the book admires these other powers—intuition, curiosity, the vivisection of one’s own argument, courage, open-mindedness and others—and the people who study them. The research is assiduous; the case studies are excellent, and the hope is invigorated that one day we might all see through bunkum as easily as a window glass. At the end, though, it can still be argued that no acuities or mental combinations will ever unerringly tell truth from fraud, and we must always default to doing the best we can at the moment with whatever powers we can bring to bear.
Still, the implication here that smug reliance on our logic and superior intelligence serves us poorly, and that finding truth today requires the fuller use of our powers, deserves as wide a distribution as this book can possibly get. It's one of those books that should be kept near, and read periodically, as a kind of hygiene, to soften the hardening of ideas.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Non-Banality of Evil

Morality never gets away completely clean. What's clear to others, especially later, by no means comes through in crystalline at the moment. Neal Storrs's new book, In Times of War, makes this abundantly clear.

Daniel Levashonsky never intended to become an SS officer, never thought he could be. A Mennonite of German heritage in Palestine of the 1930s, Levashonsky slowly closes ranks with the Nazis as the result of other men’s ambitions and his own Christian imperative to free Russia of its anti-religious regime. But the grip of Fascism slowly forces him into horrific moral battles with himself, his loved ones, and the kind intentions shown to him, from which you can be sure that no contenders emerge in anything like tranquility.

Author Neal Storrs gives us a moral kaleidoscope of a tale about identity, the contest between love and duty, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Storrs admirably paints the moral confusion of the early Nazi juggernaut, while keeping his protagonist so righteously faithful to the Christian imperative as to be largely insensible to the horrors taking shape around him.

Except that Levashonsky is never exactly the good guy fighting evil from the inside. So bespattered with guilt is his bewildered journey that the hero emerges compromised enough to keep the moral questions alive long after the story ends, through enough twists and turns to addle even the fine Mercedes he drives through Berlin. All in all it's a wonderful and thought-provoking read.