Friday, September 9, 2016

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age by Daniel J. Levitin

Oh, boy, I wish every one of my fellow citizens had the information shared in this book as part of their reading regime. On one hand, it would make it much harder to convince people with statistics. On the other hand, it would be much harder to convince people with statistics. Come to think of it, I think nowadays most people mistrust statistics, unless the statistics back up their own opinion.

How many times I received end-of-quarter reports from some mutual fund company showing showing growth and profits exceeding other companies’ but their graphs do not have the axes on their bar charts or line graphs labelled. Even one so discrepant in the moneymaking arts as I know this for a sham report.

Levitin does a couple of things in this book: he describes common ways to use statistics to disguise facts. He points out common errors the best-intentioned of us make (like doctors determining probabilities in positive cancer screens) and leads us to the way to find answers. He demystifies “expert testimony” by pointing out that expertise is typically narrow.

Donald Trump features in this book, both quoted directly and by implication:
“Truth is the default position and we assume others are being truthful with us. An old joke goes, “How do you know that some is lying to you? Because they begin with the phrase to be perfectly honest. Honest people do not need to preface their remarks this way.”
In the last third of the book, Levitin tells us how to think straight: deduction and induction, logical fallacies, framing risk, and belief perseverance, ending with a separate chapter on Bayesian probability. Finally, he gives four case studies to see if you managed to understand what he’d been telling you all along. He ends with a physicist’s explanation of new ideas and what we really don’t know for sure.

Levitin is very good. The material in his book parallels an earlier book I’d reviewed, Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge, which takes a fun look at the ways we can deceive or stun our friends. And, truthfully (?!), I found Ambridge's explanation of Bayesian probabilities a little more understandable and applicable. But if you are like me, you need to review those proofs again and again every which way before you can explain it yourself. Psy-Q is a Penguin Paperback Original.

Both these books would be very useful for high school or college students or educators. These experts (now I wonder if I can use that term ever again) try to make it easy for us whose expertise lies elsewhere. It seems that most Americans may have learned only half of what they needed to from this book, so learning what we didn’t the first time around will be useful for the rest of our lives.

Below a short video intro by Levitin explaining logical fallacy which will give you some idea of the audience to whom he is speaking:

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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