Book review: The Elephant in the Brain, by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson.
This book is a well-written analysis of human self-deception.
Only small parts of this book will seem new to long-time readers of Overcoming Bias. It’s written more to bring those ideas to a wider audience.
Large parts of the book will seem obvious to cynics, but few cynics have attempted to explain the breadth of patterns that this book does. Most cynics focus on complaints about some group of people having worse motives than the rest of us. This book sends a message that’s much closer to “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
The authors claim to be neutrally describing how the world works (“We aren’t trying to put our species down or rub people’s noses in their own shortcomings.”; “… we need this book to be a judgment-free zone”). It’s less judgmental than the average book that I read, but it’s hardly neutral. The authors are criticizing, in the sense that they’re rubbing our noses in evidence that humans are less virtuous than many people claim humans are. Darwin unavoidably put our species down in the sense of discrediting beliefs that we were made in God’s image. This book continues in a similar vein.
This suggests the authors haven’t quite resolved the conflict between their dreams of upholding the highest ideals of science (pursuit of pure knowledge for its own sake) and their desire to solve real-world problems.
The book needs to be (and mostly is) non-judgmental about our actual motives, in order to maximize our comfort with acknowledging those motives. The book is appropriately judgmental about people who pretend to have more noble motives than they actually have.
The authors do a moderately good job of admitting to their own elephants, but I get the sense that they’re still pretty hesitant about doing so.
Most people will underestimate the effects which the book describes.