Have You Really Read That Book?

It has a name: confirmation bias. It’s the process of sifting through authorities or evidence to find the nuggets that confirm our beliefs, and ignoring those that don’t.

As we watch the food fight that is our political discourse, I often have to resist the temptation to interrupt this or that pontificator and ask: have you really read that book you are citing?

Mostly, this impulse arises in connection with Ayn Rand. I’ve read pretty much everything she wrote, and I find it absolutely amazing when self-identified “bible-believing” Christians threaten to “go Galt” or parrot something else from Rand–and then more often than not, follow it up with a biblical quote. Rand, of course, was a committed and full-throated atheist, and she wasn’t shy about her contempt for religious folks.

Then there are the economic libertarians who quote Hayek when they oppose government social programs. Hayek was anything but consistent, but in The Road to Serfdom, he devoted several paragraphs (page 148 for those who are interested) to defense of a social safety net, arguing that “There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained” a minimum income shouldn’t be guaranteed “without endangering general freedom.”

There are plenty of other examples, but far and away the most selectively read texts are the bible and the Constitution. If you listen to Conservative and Liberal Christians quoting the bible, you would swear they are looking at completely different books.

What’s that line from Simon and Garfunkel? “Man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest.”

We all do that to a greater or lesser extent. But education–not to mention intellectual honesty– requires reading, not culling, with an appropriate recognition of the importance of context, and a fair consideration of points with which we disagree.

When we go “cherry-picking,” we miss the other fruit.


  1. Perhaps some of those pontificators would do better to read and heed another Simon and Garfunkle bit of wisdom, “…the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenament halls…”

    As for Ayn Rand; I did read (struggle through) two of her books, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Virtue of Selfishness”. It seemed the thing to do at that time. The latter had only one bit of advice I found to be of use; being the mother of four sons and one daughter I agreed with keeping myself healthy in order to care for them. Although I didn’t consider it selfishness but common sense and necessity.

    Trying to “get with it” and be “cool”, I read many of those highly touted, must-read books during the 1970’s. Most were disappointing, or maybe beyond my comprehension. The latter may be the problem with those pontificators parroting what they have been led to believe are political vote-getters. The quotes I read by many pseudo Republicans made me question their intelligence level or whether they actually believe what they are saying.

    An Alan Watts quote/warning has turned out to be true and a good news/bad news situation. “Man is going to computerize himself out of existance.” The benefits of computerization cannot be argued except for the fact that they have cut vast numbers from the workforce, thereby raising the jobless rate. The Republicans would raise the number of jobless in this country in a heartbeat and keep all wages low; probably quoting some well known publication they may or may not have read…or understood.

  2. When one is trying to extract meaning from a text it is absolutely necessary to know who it is who is doing the search. If not, as we were told at the very beginning of the last century by George Tyrell, we will simply be looking into a deep well and viewing only a reflection of ourselves.

  3. Reminds me of an Indianapolis editorial writer who publicly complained in the IBJ about restrictions our homeowner’s association was imposing on him (and his expensive house). He quoted from the Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes” to make his point. Of course Ms. Reynolds was an outspoken Communist and probably would have considered him part of the problem.

  4. A good place to start in reading a book is, is it fiction or non-fiction?

    If it’s fiction, like “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead” or “1984” consider that it is a tale with a purpose. Sometimes the purpose is just to entertain. If so enjoy. If it has a deeper purpose beware of seduction. A good storyteller can be work magic. Especially if the reader is already powerfully motivated by confirmation bias.

    If it’s non-fiction the most important thing is who is the author and what was his/her purpose in investing the considerable time it takes to write a book. Non-fiction typically starts with a point to be made. It’s rarely the whole story. It’s the author confirming his/her bias.

    Everyone, writer, reader or character, exists in a story mostly by others that defines their world. That doesn’t make all equally right, just equally certain. Mining truth is hard work. Being open to a find, harder.

    The object is to learn stories other than the one told you.

  5. A relative of mine once suggested that I read Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” as part of his effort to show me the error of my political thinking. Anyone who has read this book knows that it is a very difficult read, probably because it was originally written in German, and then translated, and also probably because it was written around 1943 when scholarly books did not have as much editing. The striking thing I learned from the book is that Hayek’s economic model depends greatly on a very strong rule of law. I recommend to others the short discussion about Hayek’s role of government found in Wikipedia at <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_to_Serfdom&quot;. Although the difficulty of the book made me want to quit reading many times, I eventually finished it. When I brought that up to my relative to discuss the book with him, he told me he had not finished it.

  6. As so often happens, a book, article, post, blog or discussion will trigger a line of reflection that leads me to a new idea or perspective. It may take several days or weeks for my thoughts to order themselves into something I can actually articulate, if necessary.
    On the same note, fiction has always been an avenue for exploration of a world outside of my own since I first able to read. Reading non-fiction, especially history and to some extent biography, has become more of my choice in recent decades. All inform, challenge and surprise me to a lesser or greater extent.
    Human beings spend a great deal of time and energy self-examining, self-reflecting and generally are a narcissistic bunch and always have been. It takes a lot of work a keep an open mind. Letting someone else set the agenda and dictate the course of the journey is generally easier than planning, questioning and proceeding on your own initiative. Mistakes and failures teach us a lot only when we remember what happened and try not to repeat them.

  7. Pete and JD:

    We can also consider some movies, made from books or not, as having a lesson…or moral. In today’s political climate I believe Spencer Tracy’s “Inherit The Wind” and Robert Redford’s “The Candidate” should be required viewing, especially for Republicans. Watching them today; they seem quite prophetic.

  8. Greg. I never read that book so I appreciate the reference.

    First thought: Hayek makes a common mistake. Believing that there is a choice to be made between Capitalism and Socialism. Why?

    Countries that have succeeded in one way or another don’t waste time on that decision. They accept that individual markets are, well, individual, and need to be addressed specifically.

    One of the grand errors of our times are folks who think that socialized health care is how socialized countries work and nothing can be further from the truth. Health care is innately impossible to provide competitively. Who’s going to bet their life on saving money for health care? Most people don’t know enough statistics to read polls so how are they going to judge evidence based medicine?

    So the health care market is well suited for socialism and ill suited for capitalism.

    On the other hand groceries are well suited for capitalism and Ill suited for socialism.

    One current question is if one considers the entire take, make, waste cycle is there any benefit to capitalized energy production? Right now we have capital take and make and socialized waste. Sensible? I don’t think so.

  9. Fiction is art and non fiction is science: my reasons for never having read Rand.

    Tell me your politic and I will predict your argument for if I don’t know as much as you it is a classroom rather than a debate.

    Popular statement in the ’60s: Give men identical facts and there will be similar conclusions. Wrong!

  10. Why would one need a book to reveal avarice?

    All one need do is look deeply into his own soul.

  11. The true criminals are the liberals who have given themselves full amendment power over the Constitution. They don’t care, at all, what the Constitution says; they just add whatever they want and call it “law.” Crude tactic, to be certain.

    Gay marriage? It’s in the Constitution.

    Abortion? It’s in the Constitution.

    Force a business to make a gay wedding cake? It’s in the Constitution.

    Force churches to hold gay weddings? It’s in the Constitution.

    Reading a text inaccurately is a far lesser sin than setting yourself up as master of what a text actually says.

  12. Gopper would like his interpretation of the Constitution to prevail even though the present Supreme Court is very conservative.

    I’m sure that his opinion squares with his personal story of how the world does or should work but we live under the rule of law that says Constitutional interpretation is up to SCOTUS.

    For instance the Constitution says very clearly that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” thereby separating church from state and preventing his religious beliefs from being imposed by law on any citizen.

    He believes that his religion supersedes our government. Fine for him. No thank you for many.

  13. “we live under the rule of law that says Constitutional interpretation is up to SCOTUS”

    Another goofball who’s never read the document he’s citing.

    Where in the Constitution is its interpretation given solely or at all to the Supreme Court?

    Save your time, liberal; it isn’t.

    “For instance the Constitution says very clearly that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” ”

    Sure says that.

    “thereby separating church from state”

    Whoa, kiddo, you don’t have enough talent to carry that Football. No such thing is said or implied. It’s another liberal lie.

    You want to prohibit the free exercise of religions your church disagrees with. Sorry. We’re protected under the Constitution from respecting your establishment of religion to the disadvantage of the others.

  14. “Where in the Constitution is its interpretation given solely or at all to the Supreme Court?”

    This is a great question for those who don’t understand the meaning of “judicial”.

  15. “You want to prohibit the free exercise of religions your church disagrees with.”

    Doesn’t matter what I want or what you want. Congress can’t make laws concerning religion. If Congress can’t make them they don’t exist.

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