I enjoy taking a break from fiction every now and again. Some quality non-fictional science reading allows me to broaden my mind a bit and pretend I’m still learning. This can be a hit or miss endeavour, though. Sometimes the book I choose is fantastic while other times I grow bored quickly, leaf through a few pages, before returning said book to the library unfinished. My most recent non-fiction project was this book, Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan and thankfully it unquestionably falls into the “fantastic” category.
This may come across as hyperbole, something of which there is far too much in our modern world, but Willful Blindness explains everything. Seriously. All those news headlines, your relationships, your work, the government, all of it is explained in this book. If ever there was a book that should be read, no studied, by every remotely intelligent being on the planet, this is it. See, I warned you about hyperbole, but it’s very true.
I found this book utterly fascinating. It was such a profound learning experience. The insights into human behaviour and the resulting trouble and even tragedy that results is both mind-blowing and unnerving. I kid you not. This is a book that should be mandatory reading for all of us. But people don’t like science much these days. Too many of us remain unwilling to better understand ourselves, never mind improve ourselves. We shun “experts” and scoff at knowledge that brings into question our stubborn, hallowed self-narratives. A book like this one, which sheds light on our habits and learned behaviours as well as those we have little control over is such a valuable tool in making sense of ourselves and the world we inhabit.
Why do disasters and tragedies continue to befall our societies? Are these not the sorts of important issues we, as individuals, should be interested learning about, especially if there might be ways to prevent them? Enron, Hurricane Katrina, fetal x-rays, vaccine deniers, the list goes on and on. Every one of them seemingly baffles us, leaving us to wonder how they could happen and they continue to happen over and over again. Yet every one of them is explained, at least in part, by scientifically verifiable human behaviours. Behaviours that we might stand a fighting chance to change, or at least compensate for, if only we were all aware of them.
Even at a far smaller, personal scale, this book provides insight and answers to the way we behave. Why do we act like such assholes on social media? Why are we so afraid to speak up when we recognize a problem at work or at home? Why are we so reluctant to change? All these questions confront us almost daily and yet we rarely think about them or evaluate how we react to them. My eyes were opened to so much from reading this book. It’s truly something you should not just read, but should own and keep handy for review every regularly.
The one place I feel Willful Blindness failed, or at least didn’t take the last logical step, was in addressing conspiracy theories. The book does well exposing our regrettable behaviour and disbelief of whistleblowers. Some rather shocking examples of this are shared, like the asbestos catastrophe in Wyoming. The author rightly attempts to deify those rare whistleblowers that stood strong in the face of such vicious and overwhelming resistance. The flipside to the whistleblower, however, is the conspiracy theorist who sees wrongs where none exist and exhibits the same tenacious, stubborn behaviours we admire in the former. How do we differentiate the noble from the fanatical or loony? I would have enjoyed an exploration of that aspect of human behaviour.
Despite that one fault, Willful Blindness remains a thoroughly enjoyable and valuable book. I readily grant it 4.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. It is a well written exploration of human psychology with lots of science presented for the geek crowd without overwhelming the reader with academic jargon. A serious non-fiction book that’s easy to read and understand, with poignant, familiar examples to emphasize the point being made. I highly recommend this book both as for reading and for inclusion in your personal library.