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“Don’t Get Fooled Again” reviewed in The Hindu

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By D. Murali, Chennai

Be it in love or in business, we have an amazing capacity to deceive ourselves and also be deceived by others.

Aha, you may not like to believe that, but alas, that’s a fact, bemoans Richard Wilson in ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life’ (www.iconbooks.co.uk).

“Being human involves an odd dichotomy: we need to delude ourselves that we are exceptional, even if we aren’t, in order to make the most of whatever potential we do have,” Wilson observes. “We thrive on being told how great we are, and we gravitate towards people who are willing to indulge that need.”

When we allow ourselves too much self-delusion, we are in danger of becoming fantasists, wide open to exploitation, he cautions. “And if we are too blind to the flaws of our heroes and idols – and too trusting of those we perceive to be figures of authority – we risk becoming complicit in the actions of criminals or, at the very least, making idiots of ourselves.”

Quite reassuringly, however, we all have the capacity to be sceptics, says Wilson. He explains how the antidotes to delusion are logic and evidence, preferably evidence from multiple sources. “We tend to delude ourselves least about the things that are easiest to measure objectively.”

Where possible, compare information from alternative sources and look for inconsistencies and contradictions, the author guides. This is not the same thing as being a cynic, he distinguishes. “Cynics like to assume the worst of people and things. Sceptics try to make as few assumptions as possible.”

A chapter titled ‘the emperor’s new paradigm’ studies how businesses thrive on a culture where creative thinking has acquired a near-mystical status, and where the gap between rhetoric and reality can be perilously thin.

Wilson is horrified that some organisations pay enormous sums of money “to those promising to help them ‘think outside the box,’ ‘challenge the orthodoxy,’ ‘push the envelope,’ ‘take a blue sky approach,’ ‘drive through change’ or bring about a ‘paradigm shift.’”

In a market where concepts have become a commodity, Wilson warns that it’s possible to make money not only from brilliant new ideas, but also from mediocre ideas cleverly packaged in brilliant-sounding expressions. Watch out, therefore!

Also let us be careful not to demonise ‘all those idiots who get bamboozled by the nonsense, and congratulate ourselves that we would never fall for anything so stupid,’ because if we do that, then we’re much more likely to get fooled ourselves, Wilson advises. For, “The delusion that human nature operates differently for ‘those idiots’ than for us is perhaps the most dangerous one of all.”

We all need a bit of wishful thinking from time to time, he observes, “to get ourselves to sleep at night or out of bed in the morning, or to psych ourselves up for some ghastly public speaking engagement.” His wise counsel is that it is most important to know which stones we are choosing to leave unturned, and to know that this choice is benefiting us rather than leaving us open to exploitation.

To those who are prodded by the politicians and the media to be ever-frightened, the author’s prescription is laughter. “By mocking our fear-mongering political class and their torture-tainted nightmare tales, we not only bring some small measure of accountability to the political process – we can also help to counteract the anxiety culture that threatens both our health and our freedom,” he suggests.

Prescribed read for the hype-harassed and panic-pumped.

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Written by Richard Wilson

September 16, 2008 at 1:01 am

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