I’ve long had the idea that my blog should also include a reading list where I can link to my own reviews of books that have shaped my thinking. Right now I will just provide a brief review of recent books I have read, but before very long it will be necessary to organize this page in some fashion.
Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate by Greg Lukianoff. Lukianoff is a life-long Democrat and First Amendment attorney who works with FIRE (The Foundation For Individual Rights In Education) to combat violations of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly on college campuses. Lukianoff’s thesis is that, in the interests of “tolerance”, colleges are failing in their mission to arm students with the ability to think critically and to engage in intellectual debate. What I adore about this book, even beyond the conservative professor’s glee at seeing the leftist program of many colleges exposed through one horror story after another, is Lukianoff’s steadfast dedication to principle over ideology. Lukianoff celebrates the goals of much of the leftist ideology, but refuses to surrender the principle that college students (and faculty) have a right to their faith, their beliefs, and their associations. Conservatives reading the book must, however, be as principled. While rarer, Lukianoff also highlights cases where speech inflaming conservatives on campus was suppressed (e.g., Ward Churchill’s statement that the victims of September 11 had it coming). For those who are fascinated by constitutional law, this book is a must, as it is for any professor – left, right, or center – who is concerned with the change in campus culture from “Question Authority” to “Don’t”.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I rather like that the first two entries in my conservative bookshelf are penned by lifelong Democrats. It should be possible to exchange wisdom with those on the other side of the political divide, and in fact, that’s a central thesis in Haidt’s book. He’s a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia who takes a scientific approach to studying how people reason about political issues. As an academic psychologist myself, I can attest to the fact that Haidt fairly summarizes the current psychological literature on decision making, but I was surprised that he draws many of the same conclusions I do. (As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I think the lessons of science – psychological and otherwise – lend considerable support to the conservative political worldview.) Haidt takes things a step further by proposing (on the basis of data!) that our moral decision making is anchored by 5 moral dimensions, and that liberals and conservatives differ in the relative weight applied to those 5 dimensions. Both philosophies, he argues, value “harm” as an important component of moral decision making, but Haidt argues compellingly that liberals value this dimension more than the other dimensions, whereas conservatives place roughly equal value on all 5 dimensions (for example, placing greater weight on wisdom preserved through tradition and ritual). Haidt urges those on the political left to understand this orientation as a means of enhancing debate (and winning elections). We can disagree without considering the other side to be immoral (and evil) if we acknowledge these different frameworks – a goal of his website CivilPolitics.org.
The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg is a life-long environmentalist who had a bit of a transformation halfway through his career. He found his critical thinking cap. No longer satisfied with platitudes and environmental mantras, he delved deeper into the environmental data and found that many of his cherished beliefs – in overpopulation, nuclear power, solid waste disposal, environmental toxins, acid rain, and other issues had to be re-examined in light of these data. Lomborg also takes a refreshing risk management approach to environmental issues – he does not deny the reality of human-caused global warming, for example, but he assesses whether or not the benefits of the proposed solutions (e.g., reductions in CO2 emissions or switching to alternative sources of power) outweigh the costs. The word “skeptical” should not be misread – he is not a skeptic in the sense that he “denies” environmental dangers – he is a skeptic in the original sense of the word – he takes a critical and disinterested eye at the data. The book is thick with references, but Lomborg is a gifted enough writer that the density of the presentation is not in any way an impediment to an enjoyable and illuminating read.
Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left by Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell. In public consciousness, it seems to be axiomatic that the political right is anti-science (climate change, evolutionary theory) whereas the left embraces science and technology. For the record, I accept evolutionary theory with great enthusiasm (Darwin would rank as one of my very highest scientific idols). I’m less sanguine about climate science, though of late I’ve moved toward acceptance of human-caused global warming while retaining a Lomborgian-like skepticism (see previous review) of what should be done about it. Berezow and Campbell expose, however, another strain of anti-scientific thinking: the “woo” associated with the new agey left’s belief in the healing power of crystals, alternative medicine, pesticides in food, the dangers of vaccination, aversion to nuclear power and occasionally even alternative energy (fish-killing hydroelectric dams and bird-killing windmills), and animal rights activism. It must be said that this anti-science disease does not affect everyone on the left (though the same is true of anti-evolution and anti-climate change on the right). As a physiological psychologist who researches nutrition and food choice, I have become especially interested in the bizarre myths about food and exercise that pervade out culture, regardless of politics. While this book may be unnecessarily political (though I think the authors are libertarian, not Republican), it serves a vital role in exploding the not-me fallacy that permits lazy thinking among self-congratulating progressives.