Walking with John

What Are you Reading For?

By John deJong

Overcoming ignorance, one book at a time.

I just got back from a road trip to the Redwoods and Portland with my brother. The best part of Redwood National Park was closed because of downed trees. Fortunately, another objective of my trip, a visit to Powell’s, the world’s largest independent book store, was more successful. I spent $360 and part of three days browsing their shelves of new and used books. I got a variety of psychology, sociology and political science as well as a bunch of science fiction by Phillip K. Dick.

If there were any one way to prepare for the unreality that characterizes American politics since the last election, it would be to read the works of one of the most imaginative sci fi writers of the 20th century. I started reading Phillip K. Dick when I found out that he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the 1982 classic Blade Runner. Dick also wrote the books that led to Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck and The Adjustment Bureau.

In the early ’80s, I found them too paranoid. It took more than a willful suspension of disbelief to read about a world under constant surveillance and a reality manipulated by powerful special interests.

“His stories often become surreal fantasies, as the main characters slowly discover that their everyday world is actually an illusion assembled by powerful external entities, such as the suspended animation in Ubik, vast political conspiracies or the vicissitudes of an unreliable narrator,” Wikipedia explains.

This sounds ripped from the pages of today’s news (except for the suspended animation part, unless you believe that Senator Hatch is in suspended animation). My quest was to try to understand the recent plague of what was once called “yellow journalism”—a style of writing for publication based on sensationalism and half-truths.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s a circulation war broke out in New York. Most of the tricks of the yellow journalism trade—sensationalism, puffery and fiction masquerading as fact—were rediscovered or invented at that time. Today’s media circus bears more than a passing resemblance to those days with willful media moguls dishing a daily diet of their philosophy and beliefs to the public.

One might wonder how many of Bill O’Reilly’s average of 4 million viewers are prisoners. As in, physically incapable of changing the channel, for reasons such as illness, incapacity or dementia. Don’t laugh, my recently departed mother probably spent the better, or worst, part of her last 10 years in such a state, entranced by Rupert Murdoch’s machine.

There are a lot of smart, less entranced people in America who are capable of recognizing truth when they see it. The truth may be obscured by the smoke and mirrors of the Faux News Channel and their ilk. but sooner or later the smoke will clear and the mirrors will break from the ugly illusions they reflect.

What are you hiding?

A blip on a very cluttered political radar scope recently was the Trump administration’s discontinuation of the public log of visitors to the White House, an Obama White House practice that gave the public a view of the type of people who visit and advise the president. The Trump White House eliminated the visitor log on the grounds that divulging the names of the people who advise the president might make them less willing to favor Donald with their advice. I suspect the real reason the Trump White House is concerned is that the parade of sycophants, billionaires and lobbyists for foreign tyrants tramping in and out of the White House would make people think that the only people Trump listens to are sycophants, billionaires, lobbyists for foreign tyrants and the Faux News Channel.

But the problem isn’t necessarily with the visitors or the advice they are giving, it’s with the recipient. There’s a social psychological phenomenon called illusory superiority, or the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people overestimate their own abilities and qualities. It’s also known as the Lake Wobegone effect, where everyone is above average.

The study, titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999, and since replicated) showed this overestimation of ability is greater, the less you know.

So when you hear Donald says he’s ”really, really sure” about something, or that something is “the greatest,” you may want to consider the vast shallowness of his experience running a democracy.

Don’t steal this book (don’t buy it either)

My last paycheck was stuffed between the pages of a review copy of Utah Senator Mike Lee’s new book, Written Out of History. I suspect my editor wants me to review it.

Senator Lee says that, in today’s dumbed down primary educational environment, our children aren’t learning enough history—thanks, in no small part, to cost-cutting Republicans, but that’s another history. Those who aren’t taught history are doomed to repeat it.

Senator Lee tries to unravel the compromise which is our constitution and pick up some of the justly discarded threads. He claims that the voices for small government and a loose confederation of states were left out of history.

Lee shouts “big government” like he’s trying to scare the kids with the boogeyman. Lee’s boogey-man is poorly fleshed out, like all good boogey-men. That way, when he says boo, the Second amendment folks fear for their guns, tax dodgers fear for their tax dodges and corporations fear for their corporate welfare, etc.

If you want a book that encourages learning how to make sense of our alternate-truth world, read Daniel J. Levitin’s Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era (Penguin 2016). Like Lee, Levitin also bemoans the lack of education in America, but rather than trying to rewrite history, he provides tools such as doing a quick calculation to determine the plausibility of a statement. Statistics are one of the most commonly manipulated and misrepresented type of information. Critical thinking can disarm misleading and false information.

John deJong is CATALYST associate publisher. He likes to read books while he walks to work.

This article was originally published on May 1, 2017.