June 22, 2017

I Didn’t Come Out of a Cereal Box

Scene from the movie “Road to Wellville”

It’s not easy putting words in the mouth of the famous mumbler Bob Dylan, as science writer Jonah Lehrer has learned. One of Bob Dylan’s most famous quotes  is “I didn’t come out of a cereal box.” In his latest book, Lehrer, the “coddled boy genius,” attempted to put Dylan in a cereal box of his own imagination and got caught.

The spectacle of the opening ceremonies at the Olympics in London put my dopamine neurons into sensory overload. Nurses dancing and celebrating national health care made me think of Road to Wellville. Armageddon happens in Aisle 5- the cereal aisle.

Lehrer writes in his earlier book How We Decide that the “history of Western thought is so full of paeans to the virtues of rationality that people have neglected to fully consider its limitations.” I have to think most historians, military planners, urban planners, and police departments would dispute that statement. A couple of World Wars, Great Depression, crime, urban blight, etc., have done a pretty convincing job of eviscerating the benefits of obediently following the prefrontal cortex to the clearance rack. “The fragility of the prefrontal cortex means that we all have to be extremely vigilant about not paying attention to unnecessary information,” Lehrer writes. He’s not referring to the nutritional content on the side of a cereal box, Ahmadinejad’s speeches, Pearl Harbor, 9/11. He uses the 1973  Yom Kippur War as an example of poor analysis, not lack of data. The Israelis had the data they needed. The belief that Egypt would be foolish to attack prevented the Israelis from understanding an attack was imminent.

He cites a stock investment study performed by a psychologist on a group of MIT business students for putting limits on information. The students exposed to the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and investment experts did much worse than those students only able to see the price of the stock. He blames a “cortical flaw” that’s been “exacerbated by modernity.” If there’s a danger of too much information, Warren Buffett must be a pretty fearless guy. His reading habits are legendary.

Lehrer is struggling to put the “hard problems” of humanity in a cereal box created through the science of decision making. “We finally have the tools that can pierce the mystery of the mind revealing the intricate machinery that shapes our behavior,” he concludes in How We Decide. He thought of the book’s subject while standing in the cereal aisle, unable to make a decision.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Road to Wellville is a 1993 novel on the eccentric health habits of Dr. John Kellogg, creator of the corn flake and owner of a health farm. A bitter argument about adding sugar to the cereal resulted in his brother creating the Kellogg Company in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg wrote a pamphlet “Plain Facts for Old and Young” with the following advice:

“Knowledge is dangerous.

Very true, knowledge is dangerous, but ignorance is more dangerous still; or, rather, partial knowledge is more dangerous than a more complete understanding of facts. Children, young people, will not grow up in innocent ignorance. If, in obedience to custom, they are not encouraged to inquire of their parents about the mysteries of life, they will seek to satisfy their curiosity by appealing to older or better informed companions. They will eagerly read any book which promises any hint on the mysterious subject, and will embrace every opportunity, proper or improper—and most likely to be the latter—of obtaining the coveted information. Knowledge obtained in this uncertain and irregular way must of necessity be very unreliable.”

If knowledge is dangerous,  Bob Dylan came from a cereal box.

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