Top 3 most important books of 2011

Happy new year everyone! I took an extra week from blogging as the start of 2012 has been a bit of a frenzy. I travelled back to Europe with a cold and then I delivered a chaotic update on my work after 25 hours of wakefulness. I had to recover from that one. I am still absorbing the jet-lag and I sleep at ridiculous times. Now that the elusive substance that is motivation is slowly creeping back into me, I am back to blogging.

It is truly astonishing the amount of new things you can learn by reading non-fiction books. It has become a major addiction for me. I want to know about everything: from biology to politics, from history to modern medicine, from psychology to astronomy. There are three books published in 2011 that left a particularly strong impression on me. All three books changed almost radically my perception of the world. These are major eye-openers that I wish everyone read.

3) When the Gods Changed, by Peter Newman

Well, if you are not Canadian you might want to skip this one. If you are Canadian, this book is your ticket to a grand tour into canadian politics. When the Gods Changed tells the story of the Liberal Party throughout the 20th century and the 21st. The book is not aimed at providing anything comprehensive, except perhaps the mechanics behind the fall of the party from being the “natural governing party” to the humiliated bunch it is today. And that is nothing to celebrate.

This book is a very balanced and truthful account of what the Liberals have stood for since their inception but also of their arrogance and lethargy of the past 20 years, which has been their undoing. But mainly, this is the story of how Michael Ignatieff failed to save a dying political movement in Canada: that of the center-left.

The book paints a landscape of growing uncertainty for the future of the country. Canada may never be the same again, now being forced into having two diametrical opposites as the main political choices, much like the United States. It may have been very different if the Liberals would have learned from their mistakes a little bit faster.

This is a book about understanding where we are from, so that we can understand better where we are going. The book is so well-written I devoured it in two days. If you have been looking for an occasion to find Canadian politics interesting, that is it.

2) The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker

Now I stop pandering to Canadians. This book is also about understanding our past, so that we can see what is at stake in our future, but on a much bigger, more important scale. One of the main theses of the book is that we live in the most peaceful period in history, what historians have dubbed “the long Peace”. The facts behind that claim are strong, and thoroughly explained in the book.

Understanding why times like ours are peaceful is an exercise in comparison with the past. It is fair to say that most of us know a lot more about the period they have been alive that the more distant past of a few millennia ago, or even a few centuries or decades ago. We underestimate the amplitude of the violence in humanity’s past, by committing a sampling error as we romanticize our ancestors in movies and novels.

This book is deeply insightful into the mechanics of social change. It attempts to reconstruct the birth and evolution of the concept of human rights, which is much newer than you might think.

It is also very eye-opening about the very role of social contracts that nowadays take the form of democratic governments. The fact that no two major countries have gone to war for the past 60 years, the fact that the remaining wars are smaller and take less casualties (despite perpetuating their own brand of horror), the fact that homicide rates are going down since the 90’s is tentatively explained by a theory dating back to Kant.

What we can take from this book is a better understanding of exactly how solid the long Peace actually is, what can make it collapse, and what we must do to keep heading in the direction of more peace and prosperity as a species. It does not predict that we will inevitably keep going in this direction, but it gives us a good idea on how to keep going this way.

1) Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Enough of the big worldwide stuff, let’s take a deep look into ourselves. Thinking Fast and Slow is a marvellous and disturbing venture into human psychology, and more particularly into human fallibility. One of the central theme of the book is about splitting the human mind in two fundamental components, admittedly boringly called System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is all about effortless recognition. Its workings are mostly hidden from ourselves,  but they are so efficient and natural that we barely notice they are even there. How do you know a teapot is a teapot when you see a teapot? How do you know the meaning of “bookkeeping” when you hear “bookkeeping”? System 1 is an association machine. One interesting insight about System 1 that is explained in the book is that intuition is nothing more, or nothing less than recognition. It is also System 1 that is the source for hyperactive pattern recognition, such as pareidolia or conspiracy theories.

I don’t think Kahneman would disagree if I call System 2 consciousness. If you are aware of it, System 2 is at work. Try some mental calculus or some deliberation to see through a tough moral dilemma, and you will feel the effort that is symptomatic of a busy System 2. Because calling upon System 2 is an effort, System 2 is inherently lazy. It is also the siege of critical thinking. The role of System 2 is basically to keep System 1 from making too many or wrongful associations, so that learning can be constructive.

System 1 and System 2 may not be real in the sense that they may not have well-defined physical counterparts in the brain, but they allow to speak about optical and cognitive illusions in a new light. It readily explains why cognitive illusions such as WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) can be as pervasive as optical illusions. You may know that the two lines are the same length in the Ponzo illusion, but you can’t help perceiving them as different. Only System 2 can guard you from driving false conclusions based on what you see, or what you think.

Thinking Fast and Slow goes much deeper than this, and every chapter is bursting with insights. Insights like exercising to acquire new skills is basically a transfer between System 2 and System 1. It may hurt our pride to learn about all the ways we can easily be fooled or mistaken in our thinking, but being aware of it is the only way out. It is also deeply fascinating.

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