Sunday, September 4, 2016

Levitin, A Field Guide to Lies

Daniel J. Levitin is a professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and music at McGill University. He is the author of the best-selling This Is Your Brain on Music, The World in Six Songs, and The Organized Mind. For ten years, between his junior and senior years of college, he worked as a session musician, commercial recording engineer, and record producer for “countless rock groups.” Oh, and he was a finalist at the 1989 National Lampoon Standup Comedy Competition, a consultant for the TV series “The Mentalist,” and a co-writer for the internationally syndicated newspaper comic strip Bizarro. Now, adding to this “bizarro” list of credentials, he has written A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age (Dutton, 2016).

I’m not sure what has prompted the recent spate of courses on and books about critical thinking. Perhaps the explosion in the number of sources of information and misinformation. Perhaps the demand for speed, which usually conflicts with careful thought. Perhaps the crafting of “facts” to match the ideological biases of fractured audiences. The list could go on and on. But a lot of people are believing a lot of crazy things, and this makes academics nervous. Rightly so.

The major shortcoming of the “critical thinking movement,” however, at least as I see it, is that focuses almost exclusively on the structure of reasoning, with a heavy dose of statistics and a smattering of logic. Unfortunately, this formal structure collapses under the weight of ignorance and blind ideological bias. And ignorance and bias are problems that no single book can solve.

That said, Levitin has done a good job, though sometimes with tired examples, of pointing out ways in which our thinking can be led astray. He divides his book into three parts: numerical (mishandled statistics and graphs), verbal (faulty arguments), and the scientific method.

One of the book’s strengths lies in explaining Bayesian statistics to those who do better filling in boxes than solving equations. In fact, throughout the book Levitin shows how not to be fooled by numbers even if one is not really numerate. Take, for instance, the street game with three double-sided cards: one is red on both sides, one white on both sides, and one red on one side and white on the other. “The con man draws one card from the hat and shows you one side of it and it is red. He bets you $5 that the other side is also red.” Should you take the bet? Well, you know the answer is “no.” Even if you think there’s no sleight of hand involved and there is a 50-50 chance that the other side is white, it’s not a good deal. But in reality there’s a two in three chance that the other side is red. “Most of us fail to account for the fact that on the double-red card, he could be showing you either side.”

The more people think critically, the less unintended harm they will probably do. Jurors will probably send fewer innocent people to jail, doctors will probably recommend fewer unnecessary procedures. Unless, of course, contravening biases color their thinking.

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