Welcome to Week 3 of Nonfiction November. Our host this week is Veronica at The Thousand Book Project. And the topic is:
Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
I listed a couple of books about thinking on my Week 1 post. I thought I’d expand on that list for Week 3 with some books I’ve read over the past few years. (The links below point to my reviews.)
Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert on thinking, or that I’m better at it than anyone else. I’ve just read a few books, is all.
Your Thinking Mindset
Maybe you don’t think about your thinking very much. It’s kind of meta. But how you think about the world and how you revise your thinking (if you revise it), can be critically important to your well-being.
I know the term “growth mindset” is overused these days, but it’s still useful. What it means is that you believe your qualities and abilities can change or develop over time if you make an effort or get some training. The opposite is a fixed mindset.
Mindset won’t help you think about specific problems. Instead, it’s about a general approach to how you engage with the world. Are you open to learning new things, taking on new challenges and seizing new opportunities? Carol Dweck shows how your mindset can profoundly impact your life.
The main idea in Think Again is that instead of stubbornly holding onto strong opinions, we should think like scientists, constantly searching for the truth. We should embrace doubt, ask questions, and refuse to blindly accept received wisdom.
Even so, it can be painful realizing we’re wrong, much less being proven wrong by someone else. Often that’s because we’ve wrapped up our identities in our beliefs. Grant says we should put “truth above tribe.” He quotes Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman who says,
“Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything”
Now that’s a growth mindset!
(I have not yet read Kahneman’s own book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s on my shelf.)
Thinking About Statistics and Randomness
Whether it’s the latest opinion polls or reports about vaccine effectiveness, we’re bombarded with statistics. But what do they really mean, and how do they help us understand trends and phenomena involving millions of random strangers or random events?
“Black swan” is another overused term. In fact, it’s become a cliché. It must drive Nassim Taleb nuts. Back in 2007 when he published this book, Taleb gave it a very specific definition: black swans are highly unpredictable events that carry massive impact. 9/11 was a black swan event. The COVID-19 pandemic is definitely not: pandemics have happened throughout history and people have been predicting them for years.
The Black Swan is about highly improbable events; how to think about them, how to avoid common mistakes and especially how to prepare yourself for the inevitable black swans (both good and bad) that you’ll experience during your life. After all, as Taleb says, each and every one of us is a black swan.
Bergstrom and West begin Calling Bullshit by saying “the world is awash in bullshit and we’re drowning in it.” It’s true! They’ve written a book about how to detect and refute bullshit. Because they’re both scientists, the book is mostly about spotting quantitative bullshit, and less about debunking conspiracy theories or dissecting politicians’ idiotic sound bites.
One key bit of advice they give, quoting Carl Sagan,
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
If someone is making wild claims, like, oh say, an election was stolen, they better have lots of solid data to back it up.
Humans are really bad at thinking long-term. In fact, we’re often utterly reckless. The climate crisis and our lack of pandemic preparedness are clear evidence of this.
Venkataraman says our failure to think long term is largely a failure of imagination. We fail to imagine the future, both the good and the bad. Her book has lots of interviews with people trying to do it better. When it comes to climate change, she suggests we treat the Earth as a family heirloom, something we can use for a time, but that we must pass on to future generations.
Krznaric presents a more structured toolkit to improve long-term thinking, like developing a sense of intergenerational justice, and cathedral thinking – the idea of multi-generational projects like the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.
If you read only one book about thinking …
Read Factfulness by Hans Rosling. Rosling, who died in 2017, was an extraordinary public health researcher and storyteller. His TED talks are stellar.
Factfulness provides a practical ten-part toolkit for how to think critically, with both humility and curiosity, to understand our world. It contains elements of most of the other books I’ve mentioned in this post. Think of it as a Swiss army knife for you mind. One example: be skeptical of binary or black and white arguments. Most of the time, most of the things are in the middle.
As Rosling says,
“When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.” [p. 255]
Thanks for reading.