Readers have been complaining about Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. The issue is that there’s no “there, there.” The author hasn’t really dug into the meat of his arguments, and everything was pretty thin and cursory in the first and second chapters. The third chapter is different.
He reviews the literature that people are gullible, that stupid people are gullible, that children are gullible. And he finds them all wanting. For example, he reviews and dismisses the literature on brainwashing and subliminal messaging. This is fine as far as it goes, from what I know these are not real things, but more public panics. I’m not sure that that is the strongest argument against gullibility.
In contrast, the idea of an evolutionary “arms race” between communicators and communicated speaks more to why we are not gullible. In evolutionary arms races, such as with disease, the two competitors tend to stay in place. Ultimately the equilibrium is maintained. This is obviously not the case for human communication. Rather, there’s a lot of evolutionary theory which suggests that there is a “ratchet” of increased complexity and richness of our cultural repertoire that emerges from social communication. If gullibility was so pervasive, it should have been selected against in this environment. Gullible people are marks.
The other angle that this chapter takes is to attack the relevance of “system 1” and “system 2” thinking that was popularized by Daniel Kahneman in books such as Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow (system 1 and 2 respectively). System 1 is fast, but subject to cognitive biases (it can be deceived), while system 2 is slow, but analysis takes time. One of the implications of this is that more analytical people, who rely on system 2, will be less gullible. I won’t go into the detail, but Not Born Yesterday presents an interpretation of this literature that suggests that gullibility again is not at play here. In fact, the authors suggest that system 2 itself can be easy to deceive or come to the wrong conclusion quite often. In fact, I kept thinking of the author’s previous book, The Enigma of Reason, which presents some arguments for why system 2 originally emerged.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is really picking up with the “action” now. To be frank I’m kind of getting frustrated by this, as the personal narrative is not to my taste. Additionally, like the Malazan series the narrative moves in a non-chronological fashion. This is in contrast to the author’s previous book, Imperial Twilight.
Much of this chapter is taken up with backstory about what had happened over the years to the Taiping movement and the kingdom which their prophet had established. The narrative fixates again on the prophet’s cousin and explores the instability which his emergence as a player at court induces. There is some allusion and indication of the social factors which led to the accrual of massive numbers of soldiers to the Taiping movement, but it’s mostly in the background so far. Clearly, some of the generals in the Taiping armies were competent. This was not something like the Children’s Crusade, but more like the rebellion of Spartacus.
There were a catalyst and trigger, but a group of highly trained or natural soldiers coalesced around their “Son of Heaven.” The chapter concludes with the narrative of a daring strategic maneuver which resulted in a rout for imperial forces, and no doubt gave the Taiping regime many more years.