Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things
By Madeleine L. Van Hecke, PhD
ISBN 978-1-59102-509-2 (pbk. alk.paper)
Amherst, New York
Reviewed By Bob Lane, M.A.
Near the end of her book Van Hecke relates an approach used by a high school history teacher to get his students to think about the complex notion of causality in history. Instead of merely listing the causes of World War II for them to write down in their notes he would start by telling them to think about a man driving home on a rainy night after a hard day’s work. The man’s car spun out and ended up plowing into a tree. Then the teacher would ask the class “How many different possible causes for this accident can you come up with?” The students would come up with many suggestions. Tired from working and dozed off. Slippery road. Worn out tires. Faulty parts. “Then the teacher would ask them, “Do you think the causes of World War II would be more or less complicated than the causes of this man’s automobile accident?” (p. 206)
Van Hecke develops that anecdote into a full discussion of how to overcome the blind spot of hidden causes. From it comes a list of several general questions that we can ask when trying to determine the causes of an event; questions that force us to think about fundamental causes, contributing causes, hidden causes, flukes and so on. I mention this as an example of the formula she uses in each chapter throughout the book: an anecdote or illustration of a real life situation followed by an analysis of that situation to tease out blind spots that often lead us astray. Finally she provides a set of tactics to help us identify our blind spots by probing more deeply into the situation. And then we are given a summary of what we should have learned in the chapter and a “sneak preview” of the material in the next chapter of the book.
Eleven chapters plus a preface and an afterword comprise what Michael Shermer calls this “delightful romp through the maze of human fallibility” providing the reader with a thoughtful, insightful and often humorous look at the human condition and our propensity for blind spots. Ten blind spots are presented, by definition and example, and then analyzed with a psychological discussion of why we are “blind” in that area and a practical discussion of how we might better become aware of our blind spots and work to correct them.
Chapter Seven, for example, provides a good discussion of blind spot #6: trapped by categories. First an example from Ellen Langer’s book Mindfulness provides a way into the discussion. “Imagine that a wealthy man who is part of a scavenger hunt rings your doorbell in the middle of the night. He asks if you have the final item on his list, a piece of wood that measures about three-by-seven feet.” He says he will pay you $10,000 for it. You think what could I find that would meet those criteria? Most of us wouldn’t realize that we were standing right next to the needed item: the door. Too often we are “trapped by categories” and so fail to see new and unique ways of using things. As Van Hecke argues “classification flattens our perception of individuals” as well as of things and can lead to a diminished understanding and appreciation of the world around us.
These sorts of lessons come in short chapters which are easy to read, full of humor, rich with suggestions for further reading, and well documented. The book would be great for a team taught course in critical thinking with a philosopher and a psychologist leading the discussion. One of its lessons is that we all, even smart people, have blind spots.
My only criticism comes in the discussion of the scientific worldview versus the religious worldview (194 – 196) where Van Hecke writes, “Religion … deals with a reality that cannot be seen, measured, or “proven” scientifically, a reality that scientific methods cannot detect.” She writes as if that reality exists in some way other than in stories, as if there is an other-worldly, supernatural reality on a par with this natural world we walk around in. I think her discussion of religious worldviews suffers from a blind spot that is very dangerous: our tolerance of unsubstantiated claims when presented as religious claims. And from that comes a deeper concern. One response to my criticism here would be to say that I have a blind spot for religious descriptions of the world. In short, the “blind spot” approach to critical thinking can easily become a matter of charge/counter charge about blind spots instead of about evidence.
I recommend the book as a useful text in critical thinking classes, and as a “good read” for the general reader interested in improving his/her critical acumen in the world of mass media, sound bites, and political hectoring. It will help you to implant a BS detector in your mind that may save you from your own blind spots and from some of the nonsense out there in the larger world of ideas and sales pitches.