How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich ★★★★½

Read 1/17/20 to 1/18/20

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. What some reviewers call old news is still new to me. Sure, I have spent a great deal of time in my life trying to educate myself in the principles of skepticism and human bias. That said, I’m hardly an expert, and I think these sort of books are important for everyone to read because they cover such basic facts of nature. Humans are fallible, and the principle of science is to develop a way of overcoming these biases. How then do we tackle said biases in our normal life if not by becoming aware? That’s exactly what this book does, and it does it very well.

Gilovich creates a clear and easy structure to follow. What’s more, the narrative is engaging and interesting. The book starts with a basic review of our own cognitive mistakes that we commonly make. He spends a lot of time on the idea of misinterpreting randomness. For example, one man wins the lottery and thinks, “What are the chances? This must be a gift from God.” When in reality, the chances are pretty damn good someone will win. Other times, we see patterns that naturally form in randomness. If I flip a coin and get 10 heads in a row, that doesn’t mean the coin can only give heads. Of course, these are just a couple examples that really stuck out to me. The take away, as I interpreted it, was to be cautious of how quickly we are to accept things. Naturally, we can’t challenge every little thing in life, but we can (1) recognize that we will be quicker to believe something if it supports our preconceived notion and (2) ask whether something challenges a broadly accepted piece of information. The latter can be thought of as,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Carl Sagan

Then it discusses how other people (society) use their own motivations to drive misinformation and confusion. Sometimes it is intentional, and sometimes it is not. Think of all the lobbyists. Everyone has a vested interest. That doesn’t make every piece of science unreliable, but one should be wary of information coming from a clearly biased think tank. That includes things like organic food; it isn’t just GMO makers who have a vested interest.

Just today, I had an encounter with a vegan on Instagram talking about how chicken and fish are unhealthy. In reality, they are far healthier than red meat. One vegan took to attacking fish for its mercury. She started with basic fear mongering, “I don’t care how much, I don’t want it.” To which I stress the importance of dosage. Then she refers to a think tank known to say extremist and alarmist things. A think tank with a clear bend toward veganism. It’s human nature to accept things that support our ideas or to be tricked by someone motivated to trick you. It is our job to fight to avoid it.

Too often, information is stretched, if only for the sake of being appealing to a broader audience. People don’t want ambiguous interpretations of the science (something that is often all we have in health science), so caveats are omitted and absolutes and mistrusts are made for the greater good. For this, it is important to consider your source. Make sure you are following a reliable news outlet or that the science reporters/makers are not themselves connected to an invested interest. We are what we are exposed to, and if you expose yourself to nonstop misinformation, wrong beliefs are inevitable.

Gilovich concludes with a section about the popular questionable beliefs (psychics begin a big one at the time). This is a fantastic section that address head on how these fakes get by and why people tend to mistake them for real. He also does a great job illustrating the harm of erroneous beliefs. For many people this may be the most difficult section to consume because it forces people to face their own biases.

Overall, this was a fantastic book. I highly recommend it. Even for those familiar with the material, this is the sort of thing that is worth reviewing multiple times from multiple perspectives to help make it stick. Highly recommend, 4.5/5 stars.

Rating Break Down
Writing Style (7%): 10/10
Content (15%): 8/10
Structure (15%): 10/10
Summary (1%): 10/10
Engagement (5%): 10/10
Enjoyment (25%): 10/10
Comprehension (20%): 8/10
Pacing (2%): 8/10
Desire to Reread (5%): 8/10
Special (5%): 10/10
Final Rating: 4.58/5
Note, each rating is weighted based on personal importance.

4 Replies to “How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich ★★★★½”

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