Currently reading

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Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing - Jamie Holmes Holmes' Nonsense should be titled Ambiguity, or perhaps Uncertainty, and I can only guess that those titles do not poll as well, since the word "nonsense" is used only in the introduction and never again, whereas ambiguity and uncertainty dominate the text. That might seem a trivial distinction, but it's actually pretty important to me. Nonsense is information of little value -- data without meaning. Ambiguity is data with meaning but without a clear conclusion. And it is ambiguity that Holmes' really tackles, with sparkling results.

About 2/3 of the way through the book, Holmes provided a moment of clarity on the structure of the book, which I appreciate and I'm going to quote it here:

"We've looked at the dangers of a high need for closure, whether spurred on by trauma or unrelated anxiety, a high-stakes negotiation, inconclusive medical results, or a changing business environment. In Part 2, we focused on avoiding mistakes under pressure -- those situations in which we're forced to react to ambiguity -- and often feel compelled to avoid uncertainty. Part 3 will spotlight moments where uncertainty can be useful. Rather than explore how to minimize the harm that can come from dismissing ambiguity, we're going to look at how to maximize the benefits of harnessing ambiguity."

That would make an excellent back-of-the book blurb, but perhaps, again, it wouldn't poll well. But it definitely works for me. This book is full of anecdotes that support bigger points, and so is in the style of Gladwell and other pop-psychology books, but I actually think it's better written (I like Gladwell -- he's just a little too repetitive for me). Holmes has many stories to make his points, but he acknowledges the nuance in each one, which allows him to advance and evolve his argument, rather than just saying the same thing over and over. And since he's writing about the importance of nuance and shades of grey (no, not those shades of grey... just living in a world that isn't black and white), that's a fantastic and effective approach.

I felt the last part, in which he focuses on the benefits of recognizing and using ambiguity, was the most intriguing. He focused on people who, for various reasons, grow up dealing with different worldviews held simultaneously. These people are healthier mentally and more creative in general. He makes a good argument for multiculturalism from the brain's point of view. It's very convincing.

The first two parts work together to warn us about how desperately our brains want to avoid ambiguity and the mistakes we feel pressured to make in the face of uncertainty. While he focuses on anecdotes outside the world of politics, the applications to our current political culture are clear and pressing. Hopefully as this book spreads through the market, we can get shaken out of our internet-accommodated tribalism and recognize good arguments on both sides of the political divide, which make working together seem like a good idea rather than traitorous. Here's hoping.

I got a free copy of this book through the First to Read program.