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By Jonathan Lowe

JULY 2010

by Jonathan Lowe

Are experts usually right? WRONG author David H. Freedman not only proves that this isn't so, but that even large funded studies tend to be wrong more than half of the time. An entire industry of traveling "expert" speakers distribute ideas that under scrutiny (or even common sense reflection) only seem to work under controlled circumstances, while providing the experts with a framework with which to advance their careers or to sell programs to gullible group-think credit card holders. As for the so-called "wisdom of crowds," it is a myth. Groups amplify bias, squash minority points of view, and can overcome skeptics with the force of social pressure. For example, jurors routinely can be made to come to consensus by a strong personality who dominates the proceedings, and may end up convicting an innocent suspect. Or remember when an audience cheered a singer in a reality show contest, then booed the judge who voted "no"? Maybe they liked the personality of the singer, but it is the lone judge who was likely right about the talent involved. Finally, consider the real estate bubble, and all the "experts" who blew their own bubbles over the heads of entire crowds of sales people and home buyers before the bubble burst. People assume that what's popular is best, and that experts are right, but this is usually NOT the case—a surprising finding that author Freedman explains, with the help of narrator George K. Wilson, in this audiobook that would make a great companion to the book Bright-Sided.
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." —Philip K. Dick
Don't listen to SUPERSENSE by Bruce Hood unless you're unafraid to consider the origins of your cherished beliefs. With the subtitle "Why We Believe in the Unbelievable," this audiobook, narrated by Kerin McCue, is a careful examination of how we superimpose supernatural explanations onto the natural world, starting with infancy to age seven, only to then reinforce those beliefs into adulthood. With cogent clarity, Hood, a former research fellow at Cambridge, and a visiting scientist and professor at MIT and Harvard, dissects how early perceptions and egocentricity play their roles in forming belief systems, and how these beliefs in supernatural explanations for events are supported by shared stories within cultures. A child's intuitive reasoning about the nature of objects and other living things tends to extend beyond what is actually true, and so it seems naturally logical to place faith in luck or fate, or to entertain the idea of magic, even among those who aren't religious. "Would you," asks Hood, "eat a gourmet fudge if it was shaped as a dog turd, or wear the cardigan of a known murderer?" If your answer is no, and you experience a sense of disgust in the idea, you hold the supernatural belief that objects can contain foul or evil essences just by association, and this belief is "essentially" no different than mid-20th Century New Guinea tribesmen who ate their rivals, believing their strength or virility could be absorbed. And it all started in defenseless childhood, before our sense of the outside world was established, when we thought the world was made solely for us, that the sun followed us around with a smiley face, and that even dolls have feelings. Will we ever get over all our flawed conceptions of reality? Will radical religions ever stop bombing non-believers and start reading books like this one? That is unlikely, says Hood, because a sense of the mutually sacred, while illogical, is what binds groups together in shared identity. Unfortunately, it also puts them at war with their "infidel" neighbors.
Along with the idea of superheroes and the undead, are "The American Dream" and the "almighty dollar" also supernatural myths? THE BETRAYAL OF AMERICAN PROSPERITY by Clyde Prestowitz is a chilling examination of why the American Century is over, and how emerging countries like China will own the 21st. It unravels the history of our giving up production while increasing our consumption of imports, and what this portends for the U.S. unless a radical change of course is undertaken now, (and Americans get back to work doing what they once did six decades ago). Ominously, few in America act as if our affluence or standard of living will ever change, and instead continue to look to the government for bailouts while watching ball games on TV. Yet when Treasury Secretary Tim Geitner visited Beijing University in 2009—and told students there that the dollar was safe—their response was that THEY LAUGHED. Not only are our remaining high tech jobs moving overseas, along with the plants that make computer chips, but service jobs are moving to India too. To top it off, even as our infrastructure fails and our debt increases, our baby boomers are only now starting to retire in record numbers, expecting the government to help support them. Narrated by Erik Synnestvedt, the audiobook pulls no punches in attacking the deregulation of the Clinton administration, the shrug-away "don't worry" attitude of the Bush administration, and a universal corporate greed that focused on quarterly statements while lazily wearing blinders about the future. Unless we start exporting something other than soda and cigarettes, Prestowitz reveals, Americans will soon be forced to give up the "something for nothing" mantra that has characterized our accumulation of debt on the backs of "third world" producers (including cheap oil for much longer) as they acquire "first world" status from us by owning all our industries.
Looking for a specific example of hubris? In HOUSE OF CARDS author William D. Cohan details the destruction—from the inside out—of the investment firm Bear Stearns in 2008, including the moment-to-moment decisions (or lack of them) made by executives, some of whom were flying off in helicopters to play golf or to participate in bridge tournaments during the very hours that their hedge funds were collapsing, costing investors hundreds of millions. Remember the PBS documentary on the history of Chicago, which chronicled a time when corruption and exploitation was a way of life, and aldermen bought votes while condemning rival ethnic groups to vermin-infested hovels with busted teeth? Well, those times are mostly gone, but as Cohan reveals, business ethics haven't really improved all that much since then, either. We're just more subtle and sophisticated about it. Ably narrated by Alan Sklar, the audiobook is, at times, just as tension-filled as any novel, and may even have some listeners recalling the line at the end of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. . . "the horror. . . the horror." Hence the subtitle to the book: "A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street."
Finally, for a touch of levity on all these shakeups, try listening to the biography of an outsider who intuitively knew a lot of this stuff, and we laughed at him for it. Comic George Carlin may have been taking dope at the time, but he was no dope. What he was, he claimed, was an astute observer who never felt that he fit in, be that to mean the local country club, neighborhood, church, or whatever. He poked fun at society's foibles, taboos and inconsistencies. In 7 DIRTY WORDS, THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF GEORGE CARLIN author James Sullivan presents the journey that Carlin made through a pop era of more conventional entertainers and TV shows to become one of the most original of comic thinkers. Censorship was, to him, a yoke to bear, but it also inspired him. He won a Grammy award for the audiobook Brain Droppings. Narrated by Alan Sklar, this audiobook is also a must for Carlin fans.


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