A Field Guide to Lies is a recent book by Daniel J. Levitin. The subtitle is “Critical Thinking in the Information Age.” This information age is embedded in an age of lies. Hence Levitin’s book is most timely. One of Levitin’s previous books is “The Organized Mind.” This book was reviewed in previous healthy memory blog posts. To find relevant posts enter “Levitin” into the search box of the healthy memory blog.
The importance of being able to think critically in this age of lies cannot be overestimated. The first part of “A Field Guide to Lies” is titled “Evaluating Numbers.” Here he discusses the role of plausibility in the assessment of numerical values. They should be read critically and subjected to sanity checks. He has a section titled “Fun with Averages” which illustrates how averages can be used to mislead. Similar tricks can be done with graphs, which he addresses in a section titled “Axis Shenanigans.” There are hijinks in how numbers are reported that need to be understood if one is to think critically. Shenanigans and hijinks can occur early on when the numbers are collected. As virtually all information is probabilistic, probabilities need to be understood. People need to be able to think probabilistically, and Levitin provides advice as to how to proceed.
Part Two is titled “Evaluating Words.” It begins by discussing how we know. Particularly in this age of misinformation and of organizations whose mission it is to mislead, it is important to identify expertise. It is also important to identify potential motivation behind a given expertise. A common failure is not to consider alternative explanations, and when they are considered, to undervalue them. The final section in Part Two is titled Counterknowledge. HM thinks that this section might have the wrong title. Although most certainly there is legitimate counterknowledge, today counterknowlede is often a set of well-conceived and well-designed lies. Very frequently, these lies are outlandish, but yet they are still believed.
Part Three is titled “Evaluating the World.” The best way of evaluating the world is with science. Consequently, “How Science Works” is the title of the first section. The section on logical fallacies is HM’s favorite. For many years HM has been annoyed at Dr. Watson’s asking Holmes how did he deduce something or other. Apparently, Arthur Conan Doyle did not understand what deduction is. Deduction is drawing a correct conclusion from a set of premises. But this is not what Holmes did. Holmes used abduction to solve crimes. That is, he came up with a conjecture or hypothesis, which he then proved through evidence.
Knowing what you don’t know is another subsection of Evaluating the World. Remember Rumsfield, “…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know that there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things that we do not know. But there are also unknown unknown’s—the ones that we don’t know we don’t know.” To these statements Levitin adds, “A final class that Secretary Rumsfeld didn’t talk about are incorrect knowns—things that we think are so, but aren’t. Believing false claims falls into this category. One of the biggest causes of bad, even fatal, outcomes is belief in things that are untrue.” To this, HM would add, that most of what we know is probabilistic, not absolute, and this complicates the thinking processing further.
Bayesian thinking is needed. Levitin discusses Bayesian thinking in Science and Court, and illustrates this thinking with Four Case Studies. However, Bayesian thinking is not restricted to just Science and Court. It should be part of our daily thinking. Fortunately Levitin dedicates an appendix to the Application of Bayes’ Rule.
Levitin’s book provides a good introduction to critically thinking. Unfortunately we live in an era where lying is epidemic and lying has become a business. The next post is titled “Lies Incorporated.”
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