Friday, December 10, 2021

Recommended Reading 2021: an updated book list

 Updated list of interesting books that I encourage checking out:

Steven Pinker: Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined  (2012)

Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now (2019)

Hans Rosling: Factfulness (2018)

These three books, aside from being enjoyable and informative to read, also give a message of hope, that there are things actually getting better in the world, thanks to science, reason, and progress in justice, despite the world's many ongoing gravely serious problems.   They do not discount the gravity of ongoing problems, but are a nice antidote for the resignation or despair that can set in when faced with an onslaught of depressing daily news about politics, environment, disease, war, etc.  


Thomas Picketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2017)

This is a masterpiece, a historical analysis of wealth disparity and taxation, making an extremely compelling moral and economic case for introducing a better progressive system of wealth, income, and estate taxation.  This is not "socialist" as Picketty does not advocate state control of the market, but does advocate for fair regulation and progressive taxation in order to prevent regression to a pre-20th century societal style of wealthy aristocrats idly owning an increasing majority of national wealth, while most others work hard to hover near the poverty line, with little chance to progress beyond that level.  I find this issue of great importance as a psychiatrist, because it touches on the issue of managing poverty and fairness, permitting access to personal and community growth, in a way that is grounded in freedom and justice.  


Richard Prum: The Evolution of Beauty (2018)

Almost every book or documentary I've seen dealing with evolutionary biology has emphasized natural selection as the main force of evolutionary change, while often only mentioning sexual selection in passing.  This book deals with sexual selection, a phenomenon first described by Darwin but relatively neglected in the next century.  This is of interest because Prum argues that sexual selection leads to a type of "co-evolution" in which esthetic choices lead to changes in culture which often improve autonomy, especially for females.  As a psychiatrist I think it is interesting as another emphasis of the cultural and biological foundations of esthetic choice-making in humans.  At the very least, interesting ideas to think about.  


Daniel Kahneman: Thinking: Fast and Slow (2013)

Daniel Kahneman: Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment (2021)

Kahneman's books are must-reads for any person.  His 2013 book is a masterpiece, an introduction to the subject of biases which influence human judgment.  I can't emphasize enough how important this subject is in the modern world, where our judgments are constantly influenced by factors within ourselves, and from external sources, which we are not aware of.  It is of relevance in psychiatry or mental health because of the importance for wellness to make healthy, well-informed, unbiased judgments, and because of the exaggeration of biases caused by depressive or anxious states.  


Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013)

This is an incredibly important book, of the greatest relevance for the problems we face in the world in the past few years.  It is a compassionate look at the psychology underlying political, ideological, and religious difference, with recommendations of ways we can mend these differences and reduce polarization.  


Paul Bloom: Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016)

This is a nice application of the psychology of bias, as described by Kahneman and others, to the practice of altruism and of caring for other people.  Bloom is a brilliant Yale psychologist, initially from Montreal, who has shown that typical reflexive emotional biases can cause our altruistic behaviour to be surprisingly misdirected, or unfair to those who need it most.  I don’t agree with all of his points, but I think this book is essential reading for a person interested in fairness, compassion, altruism, and justice.  


Nicholas Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origin of a Good Society (2019)

Nicholas Christakis, Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way we Live (2020)

I'm pleased to have discovered Christakis.  Blueprint is a great sociological study of group dynamics-- interesting descriptions of groups surviving on their own in remote locations or after shipwrecks; or groups separating themselves from the rest of society, including small religious enclaves, and an interesting introduction to the mathematical structure of group dynamics in communities.  

Apollo's Arrow is a nice review of the sociology of pandemics, including those from long ago as well as Covid since 2020.  The only critique is that it was published in late 2020, which is only about halfway through the Covid story as we know it today.  


Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst (2017)

Of course, on a psychiatrist's reading list, pretty important to include a title on neuroscience!  This is a great, detailed but readable introduction to how the brain works, with a particular focus on neuroanatomy and neuroendocrinology.  There are a few shortcomings, but overall highly recommended.  Everyone should be introduced to this subject matter.  


Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it, Every Time (2017)

Konnikova is a psychologist who has studied con artists.  This book is an entertaining story of spectacular con artistry over the past century, with some commentary on the psychology of con artists and their victims. This subject is incredibly important today, because we are not only prone to being conned by financial scams, online fraud, etc. but also in choice of political leaders, as we have seen beginning in 2016.   We see that con artists can often be so persuasive that even after they are exposed and prosecuted, victims sometimes still support them, because of how effective the con was, and how humiliating it could be for a victim to admit or understand what happened.  Once again, we see this in particular political leaders since 2016.  


Ellen Peters, Innumeracy in the Wild: Misunderstanding and Misusing Numbers (2020)

Ellen Peters show us the extent to which the majority of people have poor understanding of mathematics, even at a basic level of interpreting simple data.  This is of great importance because so many of the decisions we have to make in the world today, both on a personal and a political level, require clarity of understanding of issues that are best described in a quantified way,  and an ability to understand and question data intelligently.  


Judea Pearl, The Book of Why (2018)

This is a book about the science of causality, which could be considered a branch of statistics.  This subject is important in order to understand information in such a way as to guide decision making rationally, and to overcome biases.  The first half of the book is most interesting, with a survey of the history of statistics, stories of particular important theorists whose ego unfortunately slowed down progress in the field (a common theme in history!), and with an introduction to thinking of problems through a lens of causality.  There is some discussion of the theory underling AI (artificial intelligence) which is going to be an extremely important area in all of our personal and cultural lives, from this point forward in history.   The second half of the book gets more technical, and in my opinion this material would be better presented in a textbook with worked examples, rather than in an ordinary text.  


John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (2006)

This is an exploration of a very important historical event, arguably the worst thing ever to have happened in human history.  The Black Death, starting in 1347, killed, quite suddenly, up to 50% of the population.  The scale of this pandemic was hellish beyond anything we can imagine.  It is obviously relevant in the context of our current pandemic.  Even though the Black Death occurred over 650 years ago, we still see the same extremities of human behaviour showing itself during our present pandemic, despite all the wisdom we've accumulated over the centuries.  This includes fanatical groups with bizarre theories of causation about the problem; racist extremists who blamed minority groups for the disease, leading to mass killings; and some heroic figures who tried to help, at tremendous risk to themselves.  


Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006)

Cialdini is a psychologist who specialized in persuasion, initially by studying the tactics used by successful salesmen.  He identifies six major factors increasing the effectiveness of persuasive communication.  This subject matter is relevant for scientists, community leaders, and health care professionals, in order to convey health information in a way which is more likely to lead to positive change.  Obviously, this is incredibly relevant during the pandemic.  The other reason to be acquainted with this area is to be empowered to identify unwelcome persuasive techniques being used by marketers, politicians, or pundits, to avoid being conned or manipulated.   Unfortunately, I see that Cialdini's subsequent work has been of similar material directed mostly towards businesses and marketers, without further major contribution as a psychologist. But this initial book remains as a must-read.  


Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene (1987)

Richard Dawkins: The Ancestor's Tale (2004) 

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion  (2006)

Dawkins is one of the greatest science writers.  The subject of evolutionary biology should, in my opinion, be familiar to everyone.   This is not a dry subject--Dawkins' stories of animal life cycles are often fascinating and beautiful, akin to watching an Attenborough nature documentary.   And the scientific thinking is often spectacularly incisive.   In my opinion, Dawkins' often scathing critiques of religion are really critiques of fundamentalism in all its forms, and in my opinion are really just challenges to people of faith to be able to accommodate scientific understanding of the world into a belief system which is not rigid or unjust.  This is relevant for psychiatry and mental health, both because evolutionary factors obviously contribute to the existence of all human traits and problems,  but also because the subject matter itself, and the way in which it has been received by society in the past two centuries, has been impacted by psychological factors including ingroup biases.  

I specifically mention The Ancestor's Tale because at the time I read it, it struck me as my favourite Dawkins book.  


Steven Pinker: Rationality: What it is, why it seems scarce, why it matters (2021)

This book is nice review of other material that would be familiar if you've read some of the other books suggested here, such as by Haidt, Kahneman, and others.  The genre is extremely important because our country and the whole world has been afflicted by waves of what Pinker calls "my-side-ism" or "motivated reasoning," driven by ingroup biases, tribalism, polarization, magnified by partisan news sources and misinformation.   Pinker is always carefully rational, a pleasure to read, with measured optimism and suggestions of ways we can improve the dire problems we are facing.   


Astronomy Today 

Steven Hawking; A Brief History of Time (1998)

I include these books here, because I just think everyone should know something about astronomy and cosmology.  It's a foundation of understanding the universe and its history, it's wonderfully interesting, and as a psychiatrist I find that it helps us to cultivate a sense of awe and wonder about nature, the world, and reality, in a way which is deeply enlivened by the science, and which does not require superstitions or mystical thinking.   In my opinion, it is an example of how scientific understanding rather than pseudoscience deepens our experience of the world, of nature, and of our humble role as humans in the universe around us.   I think it's pretty important to know what the sun is made of, how far away it is, how old it is, what will happen to it in a few billion years, how far away the stars are, where they came from, etc.  For me it is an intersection of the existential with the scientific, something of great importance to psychological well-being.  

I would like to add similar titles relating to science subjects such as quantum mechanics, relativity, chemistry, paleogeology, and pure mathematics, as I think these are also sublimely interesting, in the same way that astronomy is, with similar existential impacts on mental health and well-being.  


Video Documentaries

All of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries are, in my opinion, essential as part of enjoying nature and understanding the world.  Starting with Planet Earth, in 2006, the photography is spectacular.  A great way to learn, to be inspired, to enjoy nature, and hopefully to be motivated to do more to protect our world’s environment.  I consider an appreciation and personal experience with nature to be an important component of maintaining good mental health.  Another reason to watch Attenborough is because he is one of the great people, one of the great souls, of the past hundred years, in terms of character, integrity, values, and intellect. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2014 remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series is another great documentary looking at the history of science, with a particular personal look at interesting people, many of whom you might never have heard of, who made great contributions to understanding and improving the world.  

The Mind, Explained is a good series of short documentary episodes (20 minutes each) looking at particular aspects of how the mind works (including subjects such as anxiety, focus, attention, etc.).  I’m impressed how much information they are able to pack into such brief episodes.  They might not always give a full picture of each issue, but are a great introduction.  

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