Two books for dangerous times 

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As Britain implodes and Donald Trump wrings what he can from the dregs of conservative public discourse in the U.S., I recommend two books for anyone who wants to contemplate human nature.

Neither book sees people as stupid, but they do see moments of mass action that are thoughtless, fearful, and sometimes very, very angry.

The first, one of my favourites books on any topic, was written in 1841 — and it isn't by Charles Dickens or Charlotte Bronte, though they could've created an epic tale from it.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is a history of popular folly (concise description credit: Wikipedia). I've owned a copy for about 20 years.

In it, journalist Charles Mackay picked apart historical moments with catastrophic outcomes, including the crusades, witch mania and Holland's tulip bubble from the 1600s.

During the latter, people actually speculated over the value of tulip bulbs and bought and sold them in a frenzy. For a short period, in 1637, the bulbs were the most expensive things in the world.

It's a good example of how market rule can be a fool's game led by emotion and mass panic, something I suspect anyone trying to buy a home in Vancouver or Toronto can relate to at the moment.

Among other things, Mackay writes:

"We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first."

And: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

The book looks at the big picture, and it has to be said we are living in Big-Picture times.

Reality is again proven stranger than fiction or satire; it's a great book for gallows humour and the understanding that we've fallen into catastrophe many times and recovered, too.

Unless you are apocalyptically minded (I am not), it is comforting to know these stories and look forward, even as so much of the world seems to be stuck.

The other book I picked up for the first time over the weekend.

It has a verrrry long title: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts to Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce them as Truths.

The book is by the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer, and is described as being a reaffirmation of scientific thinking in the face of popular delusions.

Shermer describes the brain as a Belief Engine that uses human senses to find patterns and build meaning from those patterns.

Whether an idea comes from the Internet, a book, human interaction, or by witnessing an event, according to Shermer people seek confirmation and affirmation of this initial evidence, rather than challenges to it.The process accelerates and reinforcement comes as the concept goes round and round in a positive feedback loop in our minds, creating superstitions, conspiracy theories and more fun things.

Beliefs come first and reasons for those beliefs follow to back them up.

Shermer looks at journeys of belief, the human biology behind it, belief in unseen things — including God and aliens (no, not together), and belief in things seen — including politics and the impacts of history and geography.

The Believing Brain provides cases both historical and recent, including the scientific revolt against the Catholic Church and other religions since the Enlightenment, the rise of libertarian politics currently, and — yes — the conspiracy theory approach to the 9-11 attacks is in there, too.

Humans are, indeed, herd animals; we depend on each other for progression, and rise and fall accordingly.

Unlike a Twitter wish I shared on Sunday, we can't simply "unplug 2016, wait 10 seconds, and reboot." So let's take a break from the shouting and explore criticism about how we criticize and how we form our positions about the world.

Given the many messes out there, what harm could it do? Angry responses can be sent to Letters to the Editor.


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