10 Books That Make You Less Dumb

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In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin notes, “Sometimes, critical thinking leads to a conclusion that there is no certain answer. And yet we then must make a certain choice.”

Maybe this is why some people avoid critical thinking, especially when approaching their health. They are afraid of ambiguity, so instead of accepting that no absolute answer exists, they search for certainty. Unfortunately, many pseudoscience personalities are all too willing to provide this certainty. Even the most skeptical among us will buy into “truthiness,” rather than live in the gray area (I know I did).

I like having answers. However, the more I search the more I realize I’m never going to find THE answer. But this doesn’t mean standing still. We have to make choices. I’m learning to accept this. I go where the bulk of evidence leads me, but even then, I acknowledge that evidence (and our understanding) can change. Our choices can pivot.

Conversely, those who abandon critical thinking aren’t open to change (despite their protestations that they are “open-minded.”) Indeed, sometimes the fastest way to spot a charlatan is to ask if any evidence will change her mind. If the answer is no, run far away.

Similarly, a guru isn’t looking for the truth when she waits for evidence to “catch-up” to the highly profitable system she already sells. Instead, she is looking for validation. We are all subject to confirmation bias, but fitness and movement pros who have positioned themselves as “ahead” of the evidence are stuck in a confirmation bias bubble. I doubt anything would pop this type of data prejudice.

I became interested in fitness, particularly diastasis recti and the pelvic floor, after the birth of my daughter. Like many fitness newbies, I started with the internet. And the internet made me lots and lots of promises. I had a hard time differentiating junk science from real science. I had a hard time realizing that a self-proclaimed expert, especially one working outside academia and peer review, can pretty much say anything. I also had a hard time realizing that knowing big words and esoteric anatomical details doesn’t mean knowing how to think critically.

Actually, I shouldn’t use the past tense. I’m still learning this. Sometimes the amount to learn feels overwhelming. Spotting faulty reasoning is especially hard when we are not experts on all subject matters. This is why I firmly believe critical thinking is a skill set we should learn. I read as many books on how to think as I do on how to move. And I’m always humbled to realize I’m making cognitive errors and assumptions just like everyone else (in other words, I’m human).

The fitness world is hard to navigate. I’m dumbfounded by the amount of junk science and bad arguments intermingled with truly awesome advice. Any consumer of information must learn how to differentiate intelligent insight from marketing glob, how to spot truth from truthiness — these skills are more important than any particular postpartum program, book, method, or approach.

Therefore, instead of recommending fitness books, I often recommend books that encourage critical thinking. Below are 10 pretty good books that can help fine tune critical thinking skills (I have 5x this many waiting unread on my Amazon book queue). We are bombarded with advice and “revolutionary” ways to mold our postpartum bodies. We can’t avoid this onslaught, but at least we can learn to parse good from bad evidence and to nudge ourselves in the direction of good enough choices that don’t waste our time, money, and mental energy.

10 Books About Thinking

These books aren’t about postpartum bodies, fitness, or even science. Some of them make fun of psuedo-health, others are more didactic. Still, it’s worth taking the time to read things other than blogs and our Facebook feed.*

organizedmind1. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

Ironically, this book feels slightly disorganized. However, I appreciate the melding of practical tips with more philosophical ruminations on critical thinking. Plus, Daniel Levitin makes me feel better about offloading so many of my memory tasks to external devices — this is normal and how our brains work (or don’t work).

rulebook2. A Rulebook for Arguments

A good short book that serves as a simple reference guide for learning “how to give an argument.” It’s aimed at those who need to construct logical and coherent arguments in school or for a living, but it’s a great guide for anyone. We can’t identify bad arguments unless we know how to make good ones. I peruse this book every year.

antidote3. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

I adore Oliver Burkeman’s dry and decidedly British dry wit. His book is a refreshing approach to pop psychology, a bit acerbic, but not cynical. The book includes chapters on Stoicism, Buddhism, and even Memento Mori.

cureeverything4. The Cure for Everything: Untangling Twisted Methods About Health, Fitness, and Happiness

Timothy Caulfield works in public health policy and looks at topics I’ve thought about at length — exercise, nutrition, alternative medicine, big pharma — but in a fresh and concise way. The book is myth-busting at its finest. I also welcome Caulfield’s admonition that we must define fitness as an actual physical state that enhances one’s health, not just as the appearance of a physical state that enhances health. Yes, let’s do that!

predictablyirrational5. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions

This is a hugely popular psychology book. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, details the ways in which we all succumb to irrationality. Luckily, the act of realizing this can make us more rational. Once we recognize that our decision making abilities are influenced by factors we don’t even see, we can do a better job stopping ourselves from listening to the wrong person’s advice.

thinkingslow6. Thinking, Fast and Slow: Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner in the Economic Sciences (among like a zillion other awards). This book in particular is heralded as one of the best explanations for laypeople on how our minds actually work. We are by nature lazy thinkers, opting for heuristics rather than engaging our more deliberate “System 2” brain. Reading Kahneman is like reading a more evidence based and nuanced Malcolm Gladwell (sorry Malcolm, but it’s true). If you read just one book on thinking, this would be it.

tools7. Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology

This book doesn’t have a narrative, but is a good reference guide. Can’t remember the definition of “reification error” or the “naturalistic fallacy”? Jump to the index and find the chapter. Easy peasy. We can’t decipher a good from a bad argument without a working knowledge of logical fallacies. Therefore, I firmly believe everyone should have at least one reference book that addresses these cognitive biases (A teenager once called me a “nerd” for this suggestion. Apparently he didn’t get the memo that nerds are cool).

stats8. Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data

Everyone should understand statistics. I didn’t (I’m still learning). Charles Wheelan’s book is actually fun to read. And you’ll be less dumb. As he says, the book is short on math, but long on examples. This means the narrative isn’t boggy (that’s a word, right?), but instead a nice lesson on statistics in the real world (hello, global financial crisis of 2008). You’ll also learn the importance of data, a.k.a. garbage data = garbage statistics.

Bad Science9. Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

Ben Goldacre is an exasperated British doctor. He calls BS when he sees it, and he sees it a lot. Reading this book will teach you how to spot bad science (a.k.a BS, oh how I love a pun abbreviation). Some people don’t like his so-called arrogant and brash tone, but I’m not one of those people. I like writers who don’t mince words. If you believe in detoxes and homeopathy, you won’t like this book.

signal10. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, but Some Don’t

Nate Silver is known for his blog FiveThirtyEight, which “seek[s] truth from data.” His book is about predictions, hence the name, but it is also about overconfidence in knowledge and about trying to differentiate truth (the signal) from noise (everything else). Most importantly, he explains why you need good data AND good theory.

As I said, this is a short (and slightly random) list of books that taught me critical thinking. I’m always learning, and I welcome any other “make me less dumb” book recommendations (That is, unless you are recommending the newest diet or fitness book about wheat or dairy or sugar or super slow lifting or elongating muscles or balancing my chakras or…fill in the blank).

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. Buying through Amazon helps out the blog, but the books are available at most major retailers and libraries (I heart libraries).

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