Gad Saad. The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense. Washington, DC, Regnery Publishing, 2020. Pp 191.
It is uncommon outside of journals catering to publishing and printing to comment on printers’ errors, but the publisher of this book has made a whopper. The table of contents is hidden smack dab in the middle of the preface, whose pages are out of order. At least they are all present, and the pages in the remainder of the book are all in order, so this is less of a disservice to the reader than it is to the author.
Given Gad Saad’s background as a Professor in Concordia’s business school, which included a ten-year stint as Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioural Sciences and Darwinian Consumption, and his two books in the field and editorship of a third, we might expect an academic treatment of his subject. After all, the title contains a key biological/medical term, “parasitic” and the subtitle suggests that we will be given a causal explanation of “how infectious ideas are killing common sense.” But this is not that kind of book, as Saad points out from the get-go. It is starts with an autobiography, constituting first part of the first chapter, concentrating on his first eleven years growing up as a Jew in Beirut during the civil war, and his fleeing with his family to Canada. Told with his compelling prose, it serves as a warning to us of what irrational, divisive rhetoric can lead to, and serves as a recurring theme of the book. It gives an urgency to his chronicles of many of the worst abuses of reason that underlie the movements in academia that are most disruptive to the values and activities of readers of this Newsletter. The third part offers constructive suggestions for habits we can use both to gain reliable knowledge for ourselves and defend ourselves from those whom he suggests have minds infected by “idea pathogens”, ideas such as Postmodernism, anti-science beliefs, and others I shall mention below.
His “idea pathogen” notion serves more as a metaphor than causal explanation. There is one aspect of the metaphor that makes it appropriate for his subjects (ideologies rooted in anti-science and irrationality). That is that pathogens spread exponentially, as long as they can continue to find suitable hosts. However, the paradigmatic pathogens his metaphor is based upon are those which cause the infected animal to engage in irrational behaviours (which means, in evolutionary terms, behaviours which end its life even while it could still reproduce), but which enhance the pathogen’s chances of finding new hosts in which to reproduce. One of his examples is the pathogen Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, which causes infected moose to walk around in circles until they either starve to death or are attacked by a predator, which in turn permits the pathogen to escape and move on to other moose. However, this metaphor doesn’t generalise well to some of the main targets of his book, ----- Studies departments (where the blank can be filled in by “Women’s”, “Indigenous”, “Queer” and the like). For, unlike the infected moose, faculty and students in these departments infected with idea pathogens, while behaving irrationally, don’t really suffer from them. They get tenure, or graduate with grade point averages arguably higher than they would be if they had studied in more rigorous academic departments. Those who suffer are those of us who try to pursue real scholarship in the face of broadsides hurled from these departments. Without explanatory power, the use of such a metaphor reduces to its negative emotive connotations (“pathogen”, “parasitic” = “disease” = “bad”). This is unfortunate, because he makes very powerful and cogent criticisms of the notions of islamophobia and homophobia. Neither has much content beyond their emotive one, and begs the question against rational criticism by labelling it as the expression of irrational fear.
To this reviewer’s mind, the most valuable chapter of the book is Chapter 7. After defending the notion of truth, and the value of attempting to discover it in earlier chapters, here he shows us how to go about finding it. He gives a concise explanation of the idea of nomological networks of cumulative evidence – ever-increasing bodies of evidence from different disciplines, sources and subject matters, which converge to support the claim to be established. He illustrates this process of evidence gathering with five examples: Darwin’s body of evidence for descent with modification, the evolutionary roots of sex -specific toy preferences, mating preferences, male preference for women with hourglass figures respectively, and, more controversially, whether Islam is a peace-loving religion. Each of the first four is opposed to the solely societal explanations favoured by many feminists in the social sciences.
The final Chapter 8 is a rousing call to join him in his fight to eradicate these idea pathogens from whatever part of life we occupy. Throughout the book he gives us examples of how he deals with his opponents. Sometimes his strategy uses humour, and sometimes that humour includes dismissive epithets such as “victimology,” which involves ridicule. His style is an example of the H.L. Mencken school of debate, “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” But this may not be the school for those who wish to fully understand their opponents’ position or meet them halfway in civil debate.
Saad attacks with much gusto the doctrines that SAFS members are concerned with: political correctness, postmodernism, “virtue signalling”, anti-science attitudes, trigger warnings, safe spaces, self-censorship, cancelling campus speakers because of threatened protests, identity politics, and the like. The final chapter is a rousing call to us to join him in the fight against these things. He also attacks with equal passion positions that some SAFS members would be in agreement with. For example, he criticizes Canada’s multicultural and immigration policies, especially with respect to Muslims. This is a book for those who agree with his libertarian positions right down the line. But it is also a good read for those who are not in sympathy with his political positions on the latter issues. Thinking about positions we disagree with is, after all, something that we stand for.