Interview with David Robert Grimes, Author of the Irish Times bestseller, The Irrational Ape
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Prayukth K V, MyBookWorks Co-Founder, spoke to Dr. David Robert Grimes, an Irish physicist, cancer researcher, science communicator and author of the Irish Times bestseller, The Irrational Ape: Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save The World.
In an era characterized by fake news, social media mobbing and reactionary behavior, David examines situations, through numerous anecdotes, where our perceptions fail us, our biases overwhelm our cognitive capabilities, and our need to react simply drowns logic and reason.
Winning critical acclaim with his very first book “The Irrational Ape”, David has won “high praise” from none other than the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who wrote about the book,
"An unstoppable page-turner. If our leaders were forced to read this book, the world would be a safer place”.
Prayukth spoke with David on Perseverance Overrated, a podcast sponsored by MyBookWorks, to understand how we can apply principles of critical thinking to a host of issues that affect us today, as individuals and collectively as a species.
Prayukth - David, this is something that was on my mind ever since I started reading your book. What really inspired you to write The Irrational Ape? I mean, it's such a fantastic book. There're so many anecdotes, so many instances that you've quoted so beautifully. It's written in such a compelling way. So where did the inspiration come from?
David - I think the inspiration started from two different avenues, one of which was I do a lot of writing on science, communication, and things like that.
And one of the things I noticed is that I often felt I was writing the same thing.
Like, if I was debunking myths about conspiracy theories, it was very similar to debunking cancer cures.
And I suddenly realized that the problem was there is a checklist of things that we get wrong as a species, including myself, including the smartest people in the world, the dumbest people in the world.
And I kind of wanted to write a book that people could go, “Oh, this will help us think a bit better!”.
But the second part is my background.
Before I was a scientist, I was an actor and a musician.
And also, because I'm Irish. We love a good story!
As humans, we all do.
We learn from textbooks for the technical information. But if you want to connect and understand something, you need stories, because stories are how we understand the world.
And it makes us vulnerable to certain things, for instance, if people tell us a scary anecdote. It doesn't matter how true it’s or not, it makes us a bit afraid.
But it can also be used as a force for good, because if you try to teach them something technical and you put it into a story or an analogy or a metaphor, as humans, we understand those far more easily.
So these two kind of things came together to inspire me to put the ideas for the book together.
Prayukth - As a cancer researcher, you must be used to battling misinformation. From miracle cures to hypnotic regression. One area that has attracted plenty of attention in the recent past is the infodemic that followed the pandemic. Why are we as a species so bad at weeding out misinformation?
David - Well, I think a lot of this goes back to the fact that we are social animals. I mentioned earlier that stories matter, and we have this image of ourselves as like being cold or rational creatures.
But in some ways, we are not.
All of us are prone to subscribe to anecdotes, to weigh some information more heavily, especially, if that information has got a human element to it.
A classic example, as we've seen in the era of social media, are the kind of posts to go viral that gets spread around – those are more emotive. They're scarier. They appeal to us on a more visceral level.
And this way, social media has really helped accelerate the amount of misinformation, because if someone shares something that's very, very frightening, we’re more inclined to suspend our critical faculties and more inclined to share that because we're afraid of it.
So that's the survival part of us, that we are reactive. We kind of react before we reflect, which is good in some ways, but does a lot of harm and other ones.
And I think that's part of the reason misinformation spreads.
It's also, if you think about it, it's a lot more appealing. For example, if you spread a conspiracy theory that's exciting and it gives an intentionality and everything is very, you know, neat.
But in reality, the world is chaotic, and things happen and sometimes no one is planning them at all. That's a lot less sexy a story to share!
Having said that, because humans love stories, misinformation will always have a place. So learning to spot it is very important.
The fact that we're emotional is a beautiful thing about us. It's one of the reasons we have connections and emotions and art and all that kind of stuff and even science to some degree. But the problem is that those good things can be manipulated or misdirected by people who are either misguided or who are more sinister.
If we can't think critically and we can't see past misinformation, we can be manipulated by people that know how to control us.
And we see that in politics. We see that in science.
So it's really, really important to also realize that we have the rational part of our brain, the part that can, you know, think, stop, analyze, put these emotions in perspective, because otherwise, if we just went by our emotions, we’re basically oversized toddlers all the time.
We need the rational part of brain to work to guard us against that.
Prayukth - The tendency to negatively discriminate against culture and people has not gone away despite our economic progress and advancement in genetics, in spite of the fact that people are increasingly tracing their ancestry and finding genetic connections across the world. Do you feel that someday we might be able to look at racism as a bad memory?
David – As humans we are very good at identifying our differences and maybe less good at saying, "Hey, what about all the stuff we have in common?".
That is the irony of the times that we're living in, that, you know, genetics has shed clarity that we are all part of the same lineage of people who walked out of Africa because of certain climatic factors. That information is so clearly available to people like never before.
If you take a step and look at humanity, you’ll see, we're mongrels!
We are all from the same place. We've all inbred to some degrees. There is such little difference between humans and yet, we get hung up on these tiny aesthetic differences, like, oh, someone has more melanin or less.
There was an interesting study done where they basically divided school kids into random groups -like the Team Red and the Team Blue. And these groups suddenly developed hatred for each other. They were randomly assigned!
There've been similar versions of this study, such as one where a teacher sorted people by eye-colour and treated them differently and so on.
So I think that we focus on the small differences between us instead of the huge similarities.
I've been reading a book on this recently. It's an old book. It's quite good. It's called Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.
He talks about why “Scientific Racism” is an oxymoron. You know, people who claim that there's a scientific basis for racial discrimination. There is none, by the way.
And he debunks perception about racial superiority such as “Why did white Europeans become so dominant around the world?” by clearly demonstrating how almost all of it was due to circumstances.
For years and centuries, colonizers had a very superior attitude. But actually they just were in a circumstance where they had the happy coincidence of things that allowed them to become these terrible people, so to speak.
Prayukth - What can we as individuals do to improve our ability to examine, investigate and think rationally?
David - We live in an era where we have access to the world's repository of information at our fingertips.
Yet, at the same time, we've never had more falsehood, more disinformation, more misinformation being pushed out us. And information that’s very emotive and very powerful.
So I would say when you come across any such information, ask yourself a few questions, one of which is “Why is this being said?”. “Is it just being said to push a political point?”.
And I think the most important is "Where are you getting this from?".
So if someone tells you COVID-19 is caused by 5-G (it's not, by the way), you might ask, “Is that from the WHO? Or is that from the CDC or is that from some internationally recognized body?”.
And if the answer to that is no, well, then probably be suspicious. Basically, what we should always aim to do is to reflect before we react.
Therefore, what we should actually say is, “I am going to have no opinion on this. For now I'm going to ask some questions. And if I feel that is something after I've done my own, like little check on the veracity of those things. And after I've checked the sources, then I might disregard it because it was not true. And I won't be sharing that.”
Essentially, we all need to be a bit skeptical.
The last thing I'd say is that it's really important to realize our ideas are not us. Our ideas should evolve. Our beliefs should change as we get more information.
There's no harm in being wrong.
Yet, at the same time, be compassionate to ourselves and to others. Even I often get that one wrong.
There's a fine line between, you know, being understanding and, being too harsh. The point is we need to give people the freedom to change their own mind. And that includes us.
This conversation has been edited for length.
For the entire conversation, listen to the podcast episode here or check out below the full video version
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