Published by Crown/Archetype on October 13th 2015
Genres: Psychology, Social Psychology, Cognitive Psychology & Cognition, Creative Ability
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: First to Read
Buy on Amazon
“You are not so singular in your suspicions that you know but little. The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know. . . . Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.”
I have always loved the preceding John Adams quote, written in a letter to his granddaughter Caroline. I struggle with feeling that I know less as time goes on, especially when it seems that most everyone around me is so certain about everything! Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes appealed to me because of its premise: it is not about what you know, but how you handle what you don’t know.
This book is surprisingly short! It ends on page 232 (72%) and the remainder of the pages are endnotes. Nonsense deals exclusively with the topics of ambiguity and uncertainty. It has a similar feel to books by Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point), Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) and Steven Levitt/Stephen J. Dubner (Freakonomics), in that it uses case studies and experiments from a wide variety of fields to justify its thesis. Throughout the book, the author provides possible solutions to counteract our intrinsic need to avoid ambiguity.
Let’s say for example, you see a white crow. At first you’re a little surprised. You peer at the bird with heightened attention, and then eventually you switch into the more domineering mind state that making decisions requires. You can assimilate the experience and decide the bird is a dove. Or you can accommodate it and recognize that albino crows exist. The rub, as Proulx’s collaborator Steve Heine told me, is that “assimilation is so often incomplete.” We act as if we’re sure the bird is a dove, but the feeling that it’s not is still there in the unconscious, leaving us trapped in a similar middle ground as the doomsday believers were, stuck between assuming we’ve understood and sensing we haven’t. One way we respond to these lingering anxieties is by finding comfort in our social groups and passionately emphasizing our ideals. Proulx and Inzlicht called this reaction affirmation. Affirmation is the intensification of beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be, in response to a perceived threat.
The book is divided three parts The first part is about how the human brain responds to uncertainty. This section was really interesting because of the experiments showing that humans automatically seek order after being exposed to randomness, even when they are not consciously aware of the exposure. Not only did the test subjects find patterns more effectively after seeing incorrectly colored playing cards, their political positions intensified.
When the world is less predictable, people are more likely to jump to conclusions or entrench their existing views. That’s the problem with striving for certainty or making rashly informed judgments of trust to escape from ambiguity. Urgently fixating on certainty is our defense mechanism against the unknown and unstable. However, what we need in turbulent times is adaptability and calculated reevaluation.
Part 2 explores the hazards of denying ambiguity. The author uses the 1993 Waco Siege as an example of how confusing natural ambivalence with duplicity can end in avoidable tragedy. He also discussed how highly sensitive tests that doctors overutilize for quick closure may actually create bad and/or unnecessary outcomes for patients.
“Openness to outside influences and the frequency of travel abroad, he found, was correlated with simultaneous gains in achievements in business and religion. Most strikingly, he also discovered that the more diversity there was in Japanese society, the more creative the society was two generations later in the areas of medicine, fiction, poetry, and painting. Diversity can be painful initially, it seems, but it pays off decades later. While at first most immigrants occupy a marginal position in society, as Simonton explained, “after a generation or two not only do they become integrated but their culture becomes part of the ‘melting pot’—as we start eating pizza or chow mein.”
Part 3 highlights how embracing ambiguity can be asset. My main takeaways from this chapter were that it is important to investigate your successes as well as your failures and that deconstructing objects to their most form can lead to great ingenuity.
Nonsense is definitely relevant to today’s world. The need to reconcile ambiguity is probably one of the driving forces behind the growing divisiveness in the United States, which seems to get more heightened as the 24-hour news cycle and the internet makes the world feel more chaotic. On a lighter note, it also might explain the intense emotions during the white/gold or blue/black dress debacle! Like any book of this nature, it is not a complete picture and it relies heavily on anecdotes. However, it does provide yet another lens with which to see the world and makes one much more comfortable with the concept of uncertainty. It made me view the contentious arguments that erupt on social media in a different light and has made me more reflective over my own knee-jerk reactions. It is a fun and quick read and I think it would be a useful book for everyone to read.
For Chekhov, morality lay not in our relationships with what we know, but how admirably we deal with what we don’t…It’s a morality distinct from IQ and common notions of confidence or self-control. Chekhov showed that not knowing doesn’t leave us without a compass, in some relativist nether land. Owning our uncertainty makes us kinder, more creative, and more alive…”It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense,” [Anton Chekhov] once wrote. “Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything . . . and if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”