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We're not wired for science

SOMEWHERE in the crowded cocktail party of economic ideas, there’s one crotchety old git sulking around the back ruining everything for everyone. People with expensive educations call this person 'Homo Economicus'.

'Homo Economicus' is an always rational and utterly imaginary human who economists use to predict human behaviour. As useful as this fiction is, unwary economists are then stumped when they experience real humans. Irrational, confused, misinformed humans. 

We’re a disappointing lot.

Between the work, the kids, the bills, the socialising and the sleeping, there’s no time to keep ourselves learning. There’s too much information and most of it looks conflicting and structureless. Even when we do find the information we’re looking for, our ability to judge the information’s usefulness and reliability might not be enough to stop us looking like idiots later on.

Enter Mike McRae and his new book, Tribal Science.

Tribal Science makes one basic but important point - our minds evolved to satisfy our need to communicate with others in our tribe, not for processing maths or modelling physics. The problem with that, McRae says, is that our tribal wiring means our intuition and common sense won’t help us with useful knowledge of the world around us. We could be led to mistake bad ideas for good ones and, in some cases, dangerous ideas for safe ones.

Every teenager needs to be given a copy of Tribal Science as they walk out of their final classes. Any adult that hasn’t been educated in the need for logical reasoning and the proper application of skeptical thought should go out and buy it. I don’t say this lightly - the last thing I want to do is encourage people to buy things they don’t need.

You need this book.

The basics of thinking usefully, thinking critically, and thinking at all, are all set out for the reader in easy narratives. I’m going to come right out and say that if we were to give this to school kids, we’d have far fewer problems in our society.

Over the past three thousand years we've learned remarkable things about the world around us, but we've also learned how to avoid making mistakes in our thinking. These are the lessons that McRae focuses on here. 

McRae has collected an entertaining catalogue of history’s most instructive breakthroughs and stuff-ups to illustrate the kind of thinking we need to have if we’re going to support a society as large as the one we have today. Again, our minds just weren’t wired for 7 billion tribe-mates.

It helps that McRae works for the CSIRO and has taught Science to children and adults of all levels. 

The book addresses notoriously tricky issues. Religion, climate change, vaccination, marriage, and homosexuality are all picked apart from a skeptical, analytical, and history-minded point of view. When I first read the book I was amazed to read how politely McRae managed to deal with these issues, especially when many in the scientific and skeptical communities are losing patience as they wait for the rest of us to catch up.

McRae writes with the easy yet fascinated voice that one might expect from Brian Green, and getting from one end of Tribal Science to the other won’t be a problem. If you have a burning desire to be right all the time or if you’ve ever tried to express your opinion but been shot down, Tribal Science is the ideal place to start self-educating. You won’t find everything here, but you’ll at least know where to look.    

You can purchase Mike McRae's Tribal Science at Dymocks, bookshops that aren't going out of business, or online here.

Topics:  book book review science


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