If you were writing a book entitled Willful Blindness, about the tendency of people to repeatedly fail to see the obvious because they don't want to, what is the A-number-One thing you would try not to do?
You would try to make assurance double sure that you hadn't repeatedly overlooked something obvious, right? The rule of correcting other people's grammar seems to dictate that you will make a grammatical error in the correction. That's minor, humorous, and good for our humility. But if you made repeated errors of the same type, what would people conclude? I don't know...that you didn't really care about grammar, maybe. Or that you didn't bother to proofread or get someone to go over your writing. Or that you you were stupid or dishonest. Lots of choices, none of them good.
Margaret Hefferman will tell you what went wrong in the priest abuse scandals and devotes a lot of energy to how the cultural meaning of the RC Church in Ireland contributed to the blindness, but has missed that other groups of men who work with children - groups that have nowhere near the cultural importance, and so are much less fun to blather about - abuse children as well. The horrible dawning of reality for a mother who does not see, but later knows she should have seen, the sexual abuse by her husband of her daughter Hefferman describes with great poignancy - and leaves out the important but inconvenient information that these are stepfathers far, far more often than bio fathers. Those horrible dawnings, the sudden assembling of a hundred previously-unexplained details into understanding, does of course happen. The problem is those aren't always correct either. We can have that experience of dawning awareness even when we are dead wrong.
As a lot of the people she has interviewed seem to be.
She has a long list, and reports them with some skill, of things that went wrong which everyone should have seen, but didn't because the money or the prestige were too good: Enron, WR Grace, BP. She interviews many of the I-told-them-so's, and is quick to point out out what humorous, charming, scrumptious people they are. So you know they must be right and have no agendas of their own. Hefferman knows it, anyway. She rather gives away what creates believability for her. The high point of this is quoting North Vietnamese foreign minister Thach explaining to Robert McNamara how the Americans had read history wrong, and that's why we misunderstood Vietnam. Because what possible reason would he have to be self-serving about that, eh? What possible bias or need to delude himself, even though an even elementary reading of the facts disproves his comment? But boomer liberals need to protect their narratives.
The examples are all post-hoc reasoning, and the strong bias all of us have to choosing examples which reinforce our prejudices - the entire point of her book - she misses entirely in herself. Hell, we can do that all day. Darn, if only we'd had a few more air patrols and gotten more warning about Pearl Harbor, why, we could have simply destroyed the first two waves of Japanese fighters coming in and crippled a third of their aircraft. Sports fans could do that at length. Actually, we already do that at length, and it's just about as productive.
Even better, you can argue post-hoc and ignore the other side of the arguments altogether. Why mention the deaths from slow approval or non-approval of new medical treatments when it's so much more fun to call Vioxx a massive cover-up?
Plus, as an added bonus, you can review Psychology 101 from decades ago and read about (at some length, mind you) the Asch Experiments, Stanley Milgram, and Philip Zimbardo - updated, of course, with Discover magazine-quality articles about new research in the field! Plus the usual bits of trivia that supposedly illustrate how unseen forces influence our decision-making: a disproportionate number of dentists have surnames beginning with "D;" people in Georgia are more likely to name sons George. Not, you will note, that 50% of people with D surnames become dentists or Georgian boys get named George. But (waves hands vaguely) it all proves something, somehow, that people don't think. This sort of shallowness, punctuated by occasional expose-journalism heavier research, permeates the book.
When she does move to the present, she gushes about an anti-bullying program that is unproven but just sounds like it should work, because the charming professor is so affable in describing it, and it fits existing pieties. (Did you know that 88% of American children have witnessed bullying in their school careers, far higher than European children? Which means of course that there must be more here, not that our kids are better at noticing, remembering, or reporting it. Oh, and let's drag in Kitty Genovese as well.)
Here are the important take-aways. No liberals ever get these things wrong. At least, there are no examples of it here, only evil corporations and conservative governments. Non-profits, academic institutions, and social-help agencies are immune, somehow. Regulatory agencies only get it wrong when they don't, in retrospect, regulate enough. The idea that the social pressures for conformity and selective bias in choice of examples could affect Hefferman and the people she likes she seems to not even be dimly aware of. And so, being a boomer liberal American who has lived much in Europe, the fact that she has arrived at precisely the list of complaints that European liberals have about Americans escapes her entirely. Even though such foolishness is supposed to be the point of the entire friggin' book.
The book is not an entire waste. She does identify lack of sleep as the cause of many errors, and the description of how it looks and feels when someone is aware of what is going wrong but no one will listen seems accurate, from my own experience. I had thought, halfway through, that this book would be a good one for free-marketers, libertarian, non-regulating conservative types, as it does indeed provide a series of cautionary tales they should expose themselves to and take to heart. On that framing, I thought this would be a very bad book for liberals to read, as it would reinforce rather than challenge their assumptions.
With two chapters to go I gave up on even that, but I still liked the post title, so I kept it. If you see this book lying around, read two or three chapters.