Wednesday, November 24, 2010

So you think you’re above average? Seven out of ten people do . . .

Two thought-provoking nonfiction reads, guaranteed to provide you with lots of conversation starters if nothing else:

The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, shows us how our minds really work, and surprises us with how they don’t. Written for the layman, but scholarly and fully annotated, the book describes seven “illusions” that we operate under, and suggests how to see through them – in others and in ourselves. The “Lake Wobegon Effect” (“ . . . where . . . all the children are above average”) is an example of the “Illusion of Confidence,” which may be at least partly to blame for the 2008 economic meltdown. The authors have a great website and blog. Before you read the book, take the video test!

And once you’re aware of our “illusions,” you’ll want to be alert to some of the ways others can take advantage of them, to our detriment. Proofiness, the Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception, by Charles Seife, is an eye-opening examination of how numbers can be used to deceive and manipulate us. Made-up numbers (like the one in the title of this entry) make even nonsense propositions sound true, and the more precise, the “proofier” they are. “Potemkin numbers,” “dis-estimation,” “fruit-packing,” “risk mismanagement,” and other “proofy” number-crunching may be undermining the very foundations of our democratic process.

These are just two of the titles I have recently added to what I call my “Bibliography of Human Fallibility,” books that have taught me that everything I think I know . . . I may not.

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