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What's the Most Harmful Airport Book?
I spent lots of time thinking about a question from Michael Hobbes.
On Twitter, Michael Hobbs, co-host of the consistently fascinating podcast, Maintenance Phase, asked a question that has stuck with me for the better part of a week.
It’s worth clicking on the post itself so you can read the replies and go on a trip down memory of lane of books that made some big (usually, but not always), brief splashes in the public consciousness.
If you’re like me, some titles instantly jumped to mind. (Or maybe you’re not like me, and don’t spend a lot of time lamenting about how bad so many of these books seem to be.) Either way, I’m curious to know your gut reaction to Hobbes’ question before you engage with any of my thinking and analysis to come.
We can do this on the honor system and you can simply remember what your gut is telling you, or, if you’re inclined to play along, throw your first response in a comment by clicking on the link right after this sentence and then come back for the rest of the fun.
Hobbes asks an interesting question because lots of different contenders will leap to mind, but by framing the question as “harmful,” as opposed to “worst,” or “dumbest,” the choice becomes a little more complicated.
For example, as you can see from the replies on Twitter, the go-to author for many was Malcolm Gladwell, a natural inclination given the ubiquity of Gladwell’s books, and the growing recognition that they’re basically entertaining little fantasies made to flatter the successful and powerful.
Gladwell’s books are basically chock-full-o B.S. - as I discussed in a previous newsletter - but I’m not sure they’re all that actively harmful. Yes, his theories on tipping points and the 10,000 hour rule are oversimplified and wrong, but believing them doesn’t necessarily cause anyone great problems. The 10,000 hour rule is a fancier way of saying, “practice makes perfect,” which we also recognize is not true, but if you dig under the literal meaning of Gladwell’s faux rule and the related cliche, there’s some truth: Getting good at something often takes a fair amount of purposeful practice.
This got me thinking that if I’m going to figure out which “airport book” of the last 50 years is most harmful, I first need to consider the criteria we might use to determine the degree of “harm.” This is what I came up with. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily complete or infallible, but it makes sense to me.
Introducing the Airport Book Harm Index
Type/Intensity of harm: When the book does harm, how bad is it? Who is harmed? And how are they harmed?
Influence/Scope: How many people read this book or were directly exposed to its contents? How influential was the book on society? Did it spawn other books in its harmful image?
Persistence: How long was the book able to do its harm?
There’s been a lot of fad diet books out there, but, but one of the all-time worst has to The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet.
Published in 1978, the Scarsdale Diet was a sort of proto-Atkins, only worse because it combined high protein and low carbs with extreme calorie restriction (1000 per day max). In addition to its lack of balanced nutrition, the Scarsdale Diet came with potential side effects such as constipation, nausea, and bad breath caused by a process known as ketosis, which occurs when the body starts burning fat stores for energy instead of carbohydrates.
It also comes with an increased risk for heart disease, so at least it has that going for it. (Ironic, given that Tarnower was a cardiologist.) It’s interesting to consider the subtitle - Dr. Tarnower’s Keep-Slim Program - in the context of the times and how times have changed. In 1978, the high calling for women was apparently to be “slim,” rather than “healthy” or “fit.”
In a few years time, a seismic change would arrive in the form of the Jane Fonda Workout, essentially kickstarting the entire fitness industry geared towards woman. It would be a stretch to say that the Jane Fonda workout created a wave of sentiment for body acceptance and focus on health and well-being as opposed to being “thin,” but it was a darn sight better than a 1000 calorie diet that left you a hungry, nauseous, constipated, low-energy mess with bad breath.
Even more twisted, the book had a second wave of popularity in the early 80s after Tarnower was murdered by his jilted lover, Jean Harris, who claimed at her trial to have written the book.
How does The Complete Scarsdale Diet do on my harm criteria with each category rated on a 1-5 scale with 1 being the least amount of harm, and 5 being the most amount of harm?
Type/intensity of harm: There’s no doubt that the Scarsdale Diet was bad for your health, but like most fad diets, it was such a pain to stick to that I don’t think many people ultimately suffered severe effects from following it’s precepts. Still, bad breath and constipation for even a couple of weeks is pretty unpleasant. Score: 3
Influence/Scope: The book sold a lot of copies and millions of people at least tried it. It’s similar to the Atkins Diet, but even if this book had never existed, there’d still be many other fad diets out in the world, so it’s hard to lay blame for all the bad diet books that came in its wake on this one book. Also, “slim” is no longer in. Score: 3
Persistence: The Scarsdale Diet was a literal fad, which would have flamed out even sooner had Tarnower not been murdered. While there’s still plenty of wacky ideas about eating and fitness being promulgated, this is one area where science and society has significantly improved during the course of my life. Score: 2
Total Harm Score: 8
Oprah has done a lot of good things for the world, but she is also to blame for Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and for the mass success of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.
The Secret purports to explain, “the law of attraction,” that “like attracts like,” a kind of power of positive thinking juiced up with some good old-fashioned pseudoscience. Byrne outlines a process of “ask, believe, and receive,” where if you just think hard enough for the thing you want, it will come true. Byrne claimed that this theory was rooted in “quantum physics.”
When reached for comment on this theory, actual physicists said, “WTF?”
Oprah featured the book on her show and said it embodied what she’d been trying to convey to audiences for her entire career. Thinking positively may seem like it can’t be all that harmful, but it’s important to know how nuts Byrne’s view is. According to her, anything you want you can have if you just believe in it enough. Byrne believed that if you are overweight, it’s because you think “fat thoughts.” If you can simply choose the life you want, if it doesn’t happen, it’s your own fault for not believing hard enough.
The implications of this are obviously monstrous. Got cancer? It’s because you didn’t believe enough that you’re healthy. Apparently, Holocaust victims had only themselves to blame for spending too much of their thoughts worrying about genocidal murdering Nazis.
Of course we have to practice agency over our own lives and self-belief can be a key ingredient to success, but those simple truisms are a far cry from believing your thoughts can bring anything you want into being as The Secret wants you to believe.
The best you can say about the book is that it’s nonsense, but by insisting that it’s rooted in actual science, it crosses over from vague positive thinking hoo hoo to actively pernicious.
Type/Intensity of Harm: It’s a little hard to gauge because the worst thing that happens if you follow the precepts of The Secret is disappointment that the universe does not manifest that new car you wanted to much. That said, by suggesting that problems, including extremely severe problems, can be solved entirely through positive thinking directs attention away from looking at broader, more systemic causes. Score: 3.5
Influence/Scope: One word, Oprah. Wikipedia tells me that the book was translated into 50 languages and sold 30 million copies. It was also a movie and spawned all kinds of merchandise. Score: 4
Persistence: While you can still purchase a copy of The Secret, and the notion that individuals are solely responsible for their own problems is still very popular, The Secret didn't exactly launch that idea. One of the reasons it was embraced so thoroughly is because so many people believed it to be true. Even if The Secret never existed, this would be a problem, though the book certainly didn’t help. Score: 3
Total Harm Score: 10.5
If you know what it means to “neg” a woman when you are in conversation with her, you have been exposed to the ideas in Neil Strauss’s The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists.
A “neg” is a move the pick-up artist (PUA) uses when speaking with a woman that is meant to put her at a psychological disadvantage by paying a backhanded compliment that makes the woman want to seek the PUA’s approval, something like: “You’re great, I wish you were a blond though, because I’m taking a break from brunettes.”
If you just threw up a little in your mouth at that line, that’s because you have normal self-esteem and think that relationships aren’t formed through psychological combat. The Game is an exploration of a world populated by people with low self-esteem, most notably the people who put themselves under the tutelage of PUAs, like one named “Mystery,” who becomes Strauss’ guru.
Misogyny is older than the heavens, so the story Strauss tells here is nothing new, but as a kind of distillation of the worst, most destructive attitudes towards dating, sex, and relationships, The Game is a piece of work. I read the thing many years ago when I was approached by a book packager to possibly work on a parody version of the book, and I had to pass on even submitting a pitch because I could not muster an angle more parodic than what the subjects of the book already displayed.
Type/Intensity of Harm: Everyone loses in this game, the women who are subjected to this nonsense, and the men who are unable to form a lasting, meaningful bond with a significant other. One of the victims was Strauss himself who published a follow-up titled, The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships about his difficulty finding genuine companionship after his brain had been poisoned by the PUAs. Score: 4.5
Influence/Scope: The Game did not invent misogyny and the PUAs obviously already existed, but it did accelerate the growth of this culture and helped take it mainstream, including launching a VH1 show staring Mystery. The legacy of the PUAs’ attitudes towards women and relationships is well-represented in the incel culture, which has spawned literal murderous individuals. The “manosphere,” a close relation to the incels, and a haven for the alt-right movement is another direct descendent. The only reason this isn’t a max score is because Strauss was a mere popularizer, rather than a creator. Score: 4.5
Persistence: While The Game was only a bestseller for a brief period of time, the influence/scope score shows how persistent its ideas are. Still, this movement has gone far beyond the book, so it’s a little hard to give all the blame to The Game. Score: 4
Total Harm Score: 13
You may be a little surprised by my choice. I’m honestly a little surprised by my choice because it’s a book I would’ve once championed as both engaging and offering insights into the world we live in. I don’t think that anymore. I think it’s done a tremendous amount of harm in popularizing and perpetuating what Elizabeth Popp Berman calls the “economic style of reasoning” in her book Thinking Like an Economist.
The harm comes from normalizing a technocratic approach to looking at complex issues that have undeniable moral dimensions, sidelining humanistic ways of seeing in the service of “data driven” analysis, that unfortunately often relies on bad, incomplete, or even misinterpreted data.
The frankly weird world-view of the book is perhaps best-illustrated by a chapter that attempts to explain how real estate agents and the Ku Klux Klan are similar in the way they use information asymmetries to do their “work.” This framing largely ignores the moral dimensions of such a comparison, and at one point even minimizes the impact of lynchings because, the authors argue, there were not as many actual lynchings as many seem to believe.
I’ll admit that a big part of my reason for choosing this book as the most harmful is because of a sense of betrayal, in that I am inclined to believe that difficult problems can be understood and addressed by applying methodical data analysis. The problem is that there is nothing methodical about Freakonomics.
Because of my work in writing about education, I was recently sent a promotional email about a series the Freakonomics podcast was doing about higher education, which included this little nugget about one of the episode topics: “What happens when Black and Hispanic students lose admissions advantages?” (emphasis mine).
This is presumably an episode about changes to affirmative action, but as framing it is absurd. Within our system of higher education, non-white students are significantly more likely to be disadvantaged when it comes to college admissions. The impulse of this kind of analysis to boil down complex situations to binaries that can be analyzed and sorted is very very bad.
(See this timely illustration by a Stanford student writing in the New York Times about the massive advantage elite private high school students have in college admissions.)
I don’t know how to describe this framing as anything other than “gross” and yet it’s also entirely unremarkable.
I’m tired of it.
Type/Intensity of Harm: The mindset put forward and popularized by Freakonomics is endemic to the way we talk about societal issues much to our detriment, as I observed in my newsletter about Thinking Like an Economist. Many of the discussions about policies around COVID mitigations (masking, schools, etc…) have been dominated by the economic style of reasoning, often to our collective harm. We currently have the Federal Reserve acting in ways that are designed to purposefully drive up unemployment without any substantive discussion around what this might mean to the people who will lose their jobs. It’s not that we should never think like economists, but the deference to this kind of thinking in so many important areas has been very bad for how we think about society and governance, and very good for those who benefit from the current status quo. Score: 5
Influence/Scope: See above. It’s everywhere. The original Freakonomics book has spawned sequels, a podcast, and dozens of similar books in its wake. This way of seeing has demonstrably negative effects on every corner of our lives, education, health care, politics, you name it. Score: 5
Persistence: There are some very early glimmers in attempts to break free of the economic style of reasoning, for example, the Biden administration’s action on student debt, which acknowledges that the “human capital” theory of financing post-secondary education (taking on debt will pay off in increased economic power) has in fact broken down for millions of borrowers. But the world-view of Freakonomics overwhelmingly holds sway. Score: 5
Total Harm Score: 15
I imagine, indeed, I hope that others have different ideas about which airport book has been the most harmful, or even disagrees with my choices of runners-up and winner. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
My Chicago Tribune column this week is yet again about the surge in attempts to ban books. I wish I didn’t feel compelled to write about these issues so often.
An interesting review from Dana Goldstein writing at the New York Times about a new book examining how white supremacy was enshrined in our school history curriculum, Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal, and the Forging of Our National Identity by Donald Yacovone.
Scholars now able to mine digitized copies of local small newspapers occasionally find treasure troves. In this case, it’s early interviews with the notoriously press shy Cormac McCarthy.
Unfortunately, no recommendations this week because I have exhausted my available time to write the newsletter thanks to living not far from the second spot of North American landfall for Hurricane Ian. Fortunately, we sustained no major damage - nothing compared to the people of south Florida - but I do have a yard strewn with debris that needs tending this afternoon. As always, I’m taking requests for recommendations, and will do my best to make sure everyone gets one either here, or at the Chicago Tribune, by this time next week.
Time to rake.
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