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Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World

William Davies


How did we end up where we are, with a seemingly unstoppable rejection of reasoned argument in favour of blatantly false – if somewhat reassuring – fantasy positions served up by charlatans? Davies presents a very convincing case, and some prescriptions for the future, that should be read by anyone who considers themselves to live in the world of objective reality – and especially those tasked with explaining that reality.

The essence of Davies' position boils down to the idea that there's been a change in the nature and purpose of information: that it has gone from being used as a way of understanding a shared reality to instead operating on that reality, with the significance of this change being that the latter requires neither global agreement on a set of facts nor any real persistence in time. It's perfectly possible to discover, act upon, and profit from something that them disappears without a trace, and this changes both what it means to be a fact and how these (perhaps purported) facts are presented: it doesn't matter if something is later falsified, since the purpose was not to state a permanent position but to achieve a timely objective.

Davies backs this proposition up with a deep-dive into military history, philosophy, and the emergence of the commercial internet: this is definitely a book fore the widely-ranging mind. His prescriptions are troubling to those of us who work in science: that we need to shed our public scruples and engage politically, not giving up the search for the objective but making sure that we use it to act on the world. In that sense he's supportive of events like the "March for Science" that were opposed by many scientists as a corruption of objectivity – and I have toi say that that's not something I wanted to hear, but that I find rather compelling.

5/5. Finished 05 July 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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