Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book Review: How We Know What Isn't So...

I recently finished reading How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Cornell University Psychologist Thomas Gilovich.  This is a FANTASTIC BOOK!  It is just full of information (that is, scientific data) and yet it is easy to read and loaded with entertaining stories and anecdotes.  Some of the examples that betray our "common sense" wisdom include statistics that show why we tend to believe athletes perform in hot and cold streaks, and one really great study that showed how the spaghetti western idea of the man in the black hat being the bad guy may have real life underpinnings and consequences (where it was shown that NFL teams with black uniforms are more likely to accrue penalties).  I've blogged about a lot of topics here that all seem to revolve around a central theme, and while I had originally intended for that theme to be neuroscience, it has occured to me that this blog is more about countering the anti-science myths that seem to abound in our society (rather than just the neuroscience myths).  If, like me, you can't understand how so many people can believe things that are directly contradicted by mountains of evidence (e.g. believing that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that global warming is a hoax, etc.) this book provides some answers.  It turns out that there are some advantages to being able to make decisions on the fly rather than trying to collect all of the necessary data (so our evolutionary history has moulded us into "following our gut" in many cases).  Also,  we tend to filter all of the information we get to suit our preconceived beliefs (easily accepting ideas that conform to what we believe and discarding contradictory evidence).  And then there's the fact that science (or rather scientific findings) are so often not intuitive, or as Robert Pirsig more eloquently stated: "The real purpose of [the] scientific method is to make sure that nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you actually don't know."
Other factors are obviously, also at play: preconceived notions are difficult to overturn (even if we don't filter out the contradictory information), randomness is tricky and sometimes things that can be explained by chance seem like more than just a coincidence.  Also, our memories are imperfect, we tend to remember events rather than non-events.  For example, I have heard many people claim, "how could there be global warming, it snowed a bunch of times last winter", but the truth is, you remember the days it snowed because it was different and it stood out, maybe you couldn't get to work, or maybe you almost got in an accident, maybe you were delayed, or sat in traffic, the list goes on.  For the past week or so here, it has been unseasonably warm (many days getting into the 50s and even 60s) but these past few weeks will likely go unremembered because, while it may be enjoyable, we are all still going to work and coming home at regular hours, and nothing seems to be out of the ordinary.  Anyway, I don't wish to get too bogged down with examples, or with explaining all of the ideas presented in the book.  If you get the chance, check it out from the library or buy a copy at the local bookstore (or local online mega-retailer).  I promise you it will be an enjoyable and enlightening read, and pretty short too (less than 200 pages).

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