Bad books

Here’s a short blurb promoting a podcast, If Books Could Kill.

If Books Could Kill focuses mostly on the impact many of these books had on society, and through multiple episodes has broadened their scope to examine how the authors of these books are impacting society in many negative ways. Although it always feels good to hear a bad book eviscerated — there’s a reason we all read the 1-star reviews of our most hated books on Goodreads, right? — hearing the motivations behind these self-help superstars is enough to make you raise your eyebrows. IBCK covers the exploits of Robert Kiyosaki and his years-long real estate grifts, the cringeworthy gender essentialism behind John Gray’s Men Are From Mars series, or the head-scratching evolution of conservative politics after reading William Frank Buckley, Jr.’s 1951 book, God and Man At Yale. And as a listener and a skeptic of self-help generally, it feels so good to understand why exactly these books are so obnoxious.

I remember John Gray from my college years — we had a copy of that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus crap somewhere in the house, getting kicked around but never read. It looked terrible. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading Buckley, and Kiyosaki is one of those investment gurus who endorsed Trump. These aren’t particularly interesting topics to me, but maybe they are to you.

Then it mentions a book by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve met that guy…didn’t like him, but would I be interested in reading his book? No, I don’t think so.

I was personally affected by one of these books. As a high school graduation gift I was given the bestseller The Coddling of the American Mind, warning me against the “brainwashing” that I was sure to encounter in university. I read it — I make a note to read every book I am gifted, damn it, it’s the right thing to do — and there was something about it that didn’t feel like it was adding up to me. Surely, I thought, in the midst of all this fearfulness about how my generation is going soft, there had to be something more than punching down on student activists rightfully making their voices heard? To then encounter IBCK discussing exactly why the arguments of the book don’t hold up — such as how it misrepresents recent student protests — are vindicating.

But I was still curious, so I turned to the summary on Amazon. Uh-oh. It was worse than I thought.

Something is going wrong on many college campuses in the last few years. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising. Speakers are shouted down. Students and professors say they are walking on eggshells and afraid to speak honestly. How did this happen?

I’m not afraid to speak honestly, and I’m not walking on eggshells. I think some speakers should be shouted down, or better yet, not even invited on campus. These sound like fictitious problems. They sound like what right-wing Fox News viewers imagine is going on at college campuses. I read further, skeptically.

First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths are incompatible with basic psychological principles, as well as ancient wisdom from many cultures. They interfere with healthy development. Anyone who embraces these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—is less likely to become an autonomous adult able to navigate the bumpy road of life.

Whoa, what kind of horseshit is this? Their three terrible ideas are not part of any standard educational curriculum I’ve ever encountered.

what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker: Nope. That’s nonsense. I do believe that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is false, but that doesn’t mean their inversion of the cliche is true. In what context is anyone teaching that terrible idea? I don’t know where a discussion of the merits or dangers of exposure to something that almost kills you would come up.

always trust your feelings: Oh hell no. Feelings are valid and feelings matter, but they are also treacherous things that you should be wary of. Test your feelings, maybe? Investigate them? Try to figure out the source of your feelings? This is another Great Untruth that no one is teaching.

life is a battle between good people and evil people: Amazing. You know how every conservative accusation is actually projection? I thought us liberal wimps were all talking about shades of gray and rainbows and rejecting that black-and-white dichotomy. But now Lukianoff and Haidt are saying we explicitly teach it? Madness.

This is just confirming my opinion of Haidt — he’s railing against imaginary dangers. I guess that’s one tactic for drumming up sales.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    Is this a case of a book that would have been improved if Haidt had left the writing to an AI?

  2. says

    Whoever wrote this description:

    First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff […]

    owes me a new keyboard. And a fresh caffeinated beverage.

    Lukianoff’s various writings and testimonies reflect that he doesn’t get the First Amendment — any part of it, let alone its underlying meme that “Enforced orthodoxy is bad, especially when it’s the government doing the enforcing.”

  3. Akira MacKenzie says

    I looked the their back catalogue and this looks binge-worthy. Noticed they have featured the works of the writer that killed humanity, Ayn Rand…


  4. nomdeplume says

    Here’s another one for them – “all glib sayings are worthless”.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    They left out the parts about comic books and Cap’n Billy’s Whiz-Bang!

  6. anat says

    Ah, Jonathan Haidt. I enjoyed a much earlier book of his, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom’. I think his ‘elephant and rider’ model of human consciousness and will is helpful. He summarized the research on happiness and lack thereof as it stood then and gave some insightful examples.

    I then read his next book, ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’. It started interesting, but he lost me at his leap of ‘logic’ that because conservatives claim to care about more kinds of values than liberals conservatives are better. And how lower-ranked people in conservative societies like the way they are treated there and are confused when a higher-up treats them as equals. Also, his list of categories of values comes across as rather arbitrary. IOW my impression is that he wanted an excuse to be conservative and he found it, and he has been blaming liberals with all ills of society ever since.

  7. whywhywhy says

    If you make up enough strawmen to create fear in your audience, eventually one will evolve into a moral panic.

  8. Robbo says

    if anyone mentions “ancient wisdom” you know anything that comes next is crap.

  9. gijoel says

    Rebecca Watson’s done a video on that book as well, and goes into greater depth than PZ.

  10. raven says

    This is just confirming my opinion of Haidt — he’s railing against imaginary dangers.

    Also known as a serial killer of strawpeople.

    PZ is right.
    The strawpeople Haidt is murdering were never in any of the classes we were taught.

    What we should have been taught but were not would be things like:
    .1. Values clarification.
    What do you really believe?
    What is really important to you?
    What do you want out of life? In some school districts, they have students write their ideal obituary of themselves. This is how we want our lives to go.

    .2. The importance of explicit consent.
    That would go a long way to keeping teens out of trouble and adults as well.

    .3. It is your body, you own it, and no one can tell you what to do with it.

    .4. Critical thinking.
    Strangely enough, one of our teachers went off curriculum to spend two days on critical thinking. Even using news articles as an example of how they slant things.
    50 years later, I still remember those hours.

  11. lotharloo says

    Haith also has a new book about social media and stuff and its impact on teen girls and mental health and so on. It makes me wonder if he is just a grifter who is trying to chase whatever that is popular at any moment.

  12. chrislawson says

    I haven’t read the book, only seen the Amazon page, but the fact that Haidt and Lukianoff blame academic ‘coddling’ for rising hate crimes tells me all I need to know.

  13. stevewatson says

    If we are willing to accept Haidt’s basic “Moral Foundations” psych work as valid (since I’m not competent to criticize it, I may as well), then we accept that he’s teased out a half-dozen distinct intuitions that humans generally consult when faced with some morally salient situation or decision. Interesting, and useful to know — it’s no good trying to convince you about some policy by appealing to my basic intuitions; if yours are different, I’ll have to dig deeper to find some common ground. And yes, politicians on the campaign trail absolutely should figure out how to appeal to those things. But beyond that he goes off the rails and generally shows himself to be a poor thinker. It starts with baptizing these intuitions as “Foundations”, and of course having more foundations sound better than having fewer, so yay conservativism. But that’s a normative claim that needs to be argued for, not just assumed, and he doesn’t do the hard work of justifying it.

  14. says

    From the article cited @18:

    …Haidt responded to critics of his thesis by citing Pascal’s Wager…

    God’s balls, what a stupid dishonest dodge. That alone is good reason to dismiss him as a cranky reactionary idiot.

    …There’s an entire chapter talking about how the kids these days just need to be more spiritual and religious, which seems like an odd and out of place discussion in a book about social media (and, on a separate note there is at least some research suggesting that kids today are finding spirituality via social media).

    Yeah, a right-wing religious authoritarian hating on the Internet because that’s how the kids these days get to see through his backward religious con-game. I seriously suspect that this is THE main reason driving all our moral panic about kids on the Internet.

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