The premise of “The Watchman’s Rattle” is that the complexity of societal problems are growing at such a rate that they are outpacing the human brain’s capacity to comprehend them, not to mention solve them.
The material about how neuroscience is beginning to measure how the brain generates sudden insights or, as some people call it, the “eureka” moment is fascinating stuff, which might have been the subject in and of itself for a good book about how people think and solve problems. But “The Watchman’s Rattle” tends to fall apart where the author starts to commit sociology to try to support her main premise.
Her historical case histories, about how the Mayan, Imperial Roman, and Khmer civilizations declined and fell are somewhat suspect. The reasons cited for the fall of Rome are particularly simplistic. Why Rome fell has been the subject of argument since at least Gibbon in the 18th Century and likely before.
The author also has an annoying habit of going off into irrelevant tangents, touching on the subjects of child rearing or the War in Iraq, to give two examples. One should stick to the focus of the premise.
When one is examining the question, are social problems growing too complex for the human brain to handle, one inevitably begins to wonder if the author is looking in the wrong place as to why short term fixes are chosen over long term solutions and why problems tend to fester while people wrangle over what to do about them.
The problem, contrary to what the author of “The Watchman’s Rattle” seems to think, does not lay with insufficient brain power. Innovative and out of the box solutions exist for just about every societal problem one can think of. The trick is evaluating those solutions to find the best one in a political and cultural context that tends to make acceptance of solutions difficult at best.
Areas ranging from social security, to education, to the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons are problems that have ready solutions. But proposals to privatize part or all of social security, provide vouchers for poor students to attend private schools, and effect regime change in Iran garner responses ranging from indifference to outright hostility. The reasons for those reactions have little to do with the merits of the solutions.
This is not a problem exclusive to democracies. With all due respect to Thomas Friedman, fascist tyrannies such as China behave just as stupidly as democracies, perhaps more so since they tend not to tolerate opposing points of view.
How does one penetrate the fog of culture and politics and start solving problems? Unfortunately “The Watchman’s Rattle”, though it tries to make a stab at it, does not greatly enlighten the reader on that score.
How does one, for instance, distinguish between “irrational opposition” and the more rational kind? People who support Obamacare no doubt dub the opposition as “irrational.” The opposition would tend to hold another view. It’s not a question of brain power. Both proponents and opponents of Obamacare have intelligent people among them. But one side is wrong and the other right. The fact of who is which has more to do with the political and cultural context in which they operate.
The problem that the author often touches on as an example–that of “climate change”–is even worse. There is serious disagreements over the nature of the problem, whether there is even a problem, and accusations of bad faith and even corruption to contend with.
And what exactly is “extreme economics?” The author suggests that there needs to be a diversity of economic systems, as if free market capitalism and communism were somehow both morally equivalent and equally effective. She also tends to gloss over the difference in the economies of, say, the United States, with its relative tolerance of a free market, and the more social democratic approach of Europe, for example.
Indeed, even the economies between different states of the United States–say the more free market approach of Texas as opposed to the more bureaucratic, big government system in California–differ tremendously.
In summary, “The Watchman’s Rattle” provides an interesting neuroscience insight, touches on a societal problem, and then just sort of meanders about in vain search of a conclusion. Mores the pity.
Source: The Watchman’s Rattle, Rebecca Costa, Vanguard Press, 2010