The Financial Times
Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril
By Margaret Heffernan
Walker & Company/Simon & Schuster, $26/£12.99

The moment I read this book's subtitle, "Why we ignore the obvious at our peril", I was peeved. If I were not allowed to ignore the obvious, I'm not sure I could cope. Applied to great swathes of human existence, ignorance is assuredly bliss. Even ignorance about my own ignorance is a mental escape hatch. The alternative would be overwhelming despair about everything from eurozone debt and floods in Bangladesh to my dwindling recollection of Latin declensions. Ignorance, I have spent a life reassuring myself, is the ugly but necessary handmaiden of focus.

Margaret Heffernan, however, makes the convincing case that at a time when we are supposedly better informed than ever, we are guilty of frequent and self-destructive acts of wilful blindness. The freest societies in the world, she writes, are full of blinkered individuals, awed by authority and lacking the guts to laugh at all the naked emperors wandering the streets. Children are educated to be docile, capitalist slaves, rather than argumentative citizens. And companies are so terrified of the truth that they delude themselves with risk models that end up killing them. Her examples range from Albert Speer, the architect whose devotion to Hitler led him to ignore the Final Solution, to senior executives at Enron who deliberately ignored the fraud cooked up to conceal its true financial position.

In the chapter titled Cassandra, she outlines the experience of whistleblowers, describing them as conformists and loyalists who slowly become deeply sceptical of authority. As they perceive the truth and act on it, there is an initial feeling of isolation. If they are lucky, that is replaced by discovery of a like-minded group of ornery allies. A remarkable number of whistleblowers, she notes, are women, including Sherron Watkins at Enron, Coleen Rowley, who exposed the FBI's failures to act on warnings before the 9/11 terror attacks, and Cynthia Cooper at WorldCom. Watkins notes that all three were first-born, 'women of faith' and 'breadwinners for our families'.