I must confess to being disappointed with Gad Saad’s The Parasitic Mind. Before purchasing the book I knew I would disagree with many of his points given his robust public profile. (For background, Saad is the sort of evolutionary psychologists your mother warned you about. Lots of sex differences in consumption). That I would disagree though seemed like a good reason to read it. I also very much appreciate academics who popularize their thinking. So even though I don’t agree with him, I must confess I am impressed how well he has done at building a presence outside academia. Unfortunately, I was left with just the feeling that scientific thinking is hard (especially for academics). Saad really needed someone who he respects to push back on his ideas. As academics we often have knowledge that others don’t but that can lead to hubris. Still I’m not sure Saad respects anyone but himself. When we stray from what we know our self-confidence can end up leaving us failing to substantiate our arguments in a way that a scientist should.
I should say there are occasional interesting bits. Gad Saad’s bio is impressive and his life story great but overall the book is meant to be based upon science, albeit popular science. It simply isn’t connected enough to the science. It is a political book with all the sleight of hand and lack of depth that implies.
The Problem Of Bias
We are all biased in our thinking. Saad, with his evolutionary psychology background, would agree I’m sure. So it was odd that he didn’t seem to be able to see parallels between his and other people’s complaints. He doesn’t like women complaining about workplace discrimination but when right wingers complain about discrimination at universities he feels their pain. He should explicitly tell us the distinction he makes and what data he is using. I didn’t see it and he didn’t outline his thinking properly.
He seems to despise victim culture, except when the victims are right wing intellectuals. Such people can complain as much as they like. Objective scientific thinking is hard (especially for academics). As academics we are so used to thinking we are clever that we miss our own bias. I am sure that is true of me too but we should all do our best to get past it and I didn’t see evidence that Saad was trying.
The Problem Of Polemic
Saad takes aim at leftwing commentators who exaggerate the harm different ideas can do to vulnerable people. Some of his examples made sense to me. Yet, because Saad is writing a political, rather than a scientific, book he drops into exactly the sort of thing that would, rightly, draw his ire. Early in the book he invokes 9/11 and compares this to the havoc “social justice warriors and their ilk” are causing. Is he really suggesting that asking someone to use a different pro-noun when referring to you is similar to killing thousands of people?
Saad talks of his book being science but it is mostly polemic. This is about politics, this isn’t him defending reason as he implies. He talks about dual process models — appeals through logic or more intuitive processes — and says he values logic. I thought, therefore, we might have a bit of common ground there. Yet, his book seems to downplay logic. Whenever he can he goes full speed towards political taglines.
His political sleight of hand includes saying that a silent electoral majority supported Trump in 2016. It isn’t true that a majority across the US voted for Trump (in 2016 or 2020) as seems to be implied by his sentence construction. (Here are the 2016 FEC official results). Surely a scientist wouldn’t want to imply that and would carefully write to make his meaning clear. (He snuck in the phrase “in the middle of America” that might technically cover him as he doesn’t define the middle of America. His writing looks deliberately misleading to me, giving him a get out if pushed on the facts while allowing his Trump supporting readers to ‘misunderstand’ him.)
Lack Of Evidence
He talks about Sharia enclaves/no go zones for police in Europe. This seems to have no basis in fact as far as I know. Perhaps as a scientist he should have given us a cite or two? Scientific thinking is hard (especially for academics) when we believe what we are saying. We don’t feel the need to provide evidence but scientific arguments require evidence.
Not providing any evidence at all is odd. Nowadays you can surely find ‘news’ support for any old bullshit you want to say. (For more on bullshit see here). Saad doesn’t even link his ideas to a dodgy story. You can find stories along the lines he implied but they don’t mean what he thinks. There was, for example, a false rumor that Mayor of London had talked about imposing Sharia Law but this was not true. (To be fair the best bit of the false story is that the law was described as ‘Shakira law’. Maybe the popular singer is the next Solon, the Athenian lawgiver). Saad must have known his comment about Sharia enclaves would be controversial. So if you want to be a scientist you surely have to support your argument with facts. Otherwise it is just politics. And politics out of the mouth of the old drunk at the bar. Not what we might hope from people having logic based political discussions.
The Problem Of Satire
Gad Saad aims to be a bit of a gadfly and satirize those he does not agree with. This makes sense — there are plenty on all sides who say some pretty strange things that can rightly be mocked. The challenge you get in his book is that you don’t know when he is being serious.
“Most people recognize the gargantuan courage that is required to speak my mind…”
“My satire is so powerful that it fools even those who have followed me on Twitter for a while….”Gad Saad (2020)
I usually assume when people don’t get my jokes it was my fault. Saad has a different approach. Objective scientific thinking about how funny you are is hard, especially for academics who are constantly being told how funny we are.
It isn’t clear what bits of the book are ‘Gad Saad marketing academic/scientist’, what is ‘Gad Saad the person’, and what is ‘Gad Saad the pugilistic character he is playing’. It all seems a bit post-modern. You aren’t sure what is reality anymore and that is odd because I’m guessing Saad really hates post-modernism.
A Missed Opportunity
It is such a shame because I have (briefly) met Gad Saad, I have read some of his work, and I am not at all against evolutionary psychology as a discipline. I am sympathetic to some of his arguments about freedom of speech. I was hoping for a serious attempt to engage with difficult problems. His book isn’t that but hopefully it’ll make some cash for him.
Read: Gad Saad 2020,The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense, Regnery Publishing