Thursday, August 2, 2018

Book Report: "How We Know What Isn't So" by DeAnno Isom

              My chosen book was “How We Know What Isn’t So” by Thomas Gilovich. A good way to summarize this book is that it reveals common place errors in the average person’s way of thinking. Gilovich breaks down our “questionable beliefs in this book into 4 major parts. Those being, our cognitive determinants, motivational and social determinants, examples of erroneous beliefs, and how we can apply this knowledge to challenge dubious beliefs. He aims to show us that it’s not so simple to point out what our beliefs are, as many of them are formulated in our minds under the premise of being genuinely logical. He points to the fact that many of us have examples and even firsthand experiences to support our beliefs but then shows how we fall into many traps while making those determinations. One example of this is a tendency to be satisfied with explanations that support our already existing beliefs but then overly scrutinizing those that contradict them (we then often quickly accept arguments against those contradictions). Another example involves how humans are not good at processing statistics. Two common statistical errors humans commonly make is our inability to see the law of large numbers, or more simply – averages. We tend to see events in clusters and thus we may fail to see that if an event or activity took course over a long enough period of time that it is actually a random distribution. Another issue people have with averages is our tendency to deviate to far from the average when confronted with an extreme value that is related but not perfectly related to something else; such as, assuming that the tallest child in a given example is the offspring of a tall parent. While the height of a parent and child is related – it is not perfectly so, and people tend to forget that exceptional height is just that – exceptional. As such, the most logical guess is still a child of near average height as, on average, “most” people are still “average” height. 
By the end of the book, Gilovich concedes to the fact that our habits and tendencies to fall victim to these fallacies cannot truly be undone. Rather, he suggests that we form essential habits to promote more sound reasoning such as reminding ourselves of the tendency to draw conclusions from incomplete data, asking ourselves whether there is any information pertaining to the subject that is outside our availability, acknowledging our talent for ad hoc explanations and thus giving serious consideration to opposite points of view, realizing that secondhand sources can be less credible, that an absence of disagreement isn’t evidence of agreement, and finally acknowledging the human tendency to impute order onto complex things.
                It’s really hard to pick a favorite part of the book as there were many moments of realization that took me by surprise and truly taught me something. For starters, early on in the book he describes the belief in the “hot hand”. The thing about this that shocked me was that even though I had never heard of this term before, I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t have believed in it. After all, to me it does seem to make logical sense that someone who is having repeated success during a game is probably going to be met with more success and the opposite for someone not playing so well. However, Gilovich helped me see my own flawed thinking with one of my favorite elements of the book – unequivocal statistical facts. By showing the stats of successful and unsuccessful shots my beliefs were immediately and unarguable contradicted. Furthermore this example made me realize that, I too, like most people was tempted to justify my beliefs with assumptions (such as the hot hand is caused by being “relaxed”). It was also a perfect example of how real world problems often don’t present us with the opportunity to see how they’d play out over the long run and thus how easy it is for a human to miss a random distribution.  Another mind blowing moment for me was so simple yet profound, and that was the standards we place on different kinds of information. As he worded it “For [a] desired conclusion… we ask ourselves ‘Can I believe this?’, but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, ‘Must I believe this?’”. It’s sad but true and it made me reflect on areas of life where I have been tempted to do just that.
                I found this book incredibly relevant to the class. You can compare the very first lecture about fast thinking vs. slow thinking and the heuristics to the fallacy in human thinking that he describes in the book. Other similarities such as overlooking statistical significance can be compared to our lectures on crime detectives and how such things can make prediction claims look more valid than what they really are. Gilovich explicitly states how human nature causes us to focus more on supportive evidence than non-supportive evidence which is precisely why we can look at a crime detective such as Noreen Renier  and get caught up in the description of a fence and a creek but be dismissive of how far off she was in predicting distance. Not to mention that no one even questions how far away her prediction of an antenna should have be.  In chapter 10 Gilovich talks about “remote viewing” research done by Walter Levy, J.B. Rhine which is exactly the same as the video showed in lecture 6. Not too shockingly Mr. Rhine was caught altering his results by his assistance.  
                For the creative aspect of the paper I’m offering a short clip where I share a real word example I recently had where “priming” effected what I saw. See below.
                The book has definitely made me think beyond the class, though I found the two quite complementary of each other. For one, as I mentioned above, the questions of “must I” vs “can I” believe this has resonated with me. As a science major and someone who prides myself on being open minded – that simple statement brought pause to me. It was a total “you caught me” moment and really the results of sheer personal laziness. One of the most taxing (and totally unrelated to my major for what it’s worth) areas of interest I have studied with enthusiasm is the evolution of sex and the psychological evolution of gender norms. Simply put, I’m biased. I know exactly what I “want” to think and to be fair I’ve found some compelling information to support my views. But you know what else? I’ve been confronted with contradictory information that I have scrutinized in each and every way and have ultimately dubbed it as poorly done research that failed to acknowledge that correlation is not causation (I don’t want to be to detailed – but simply put I disagree that just because you observe most women or most men acting a certain type of way that this serves as proof that they are predisposed to these behaviors based solely on their sex). With that, I haven’t been shy to state a source that reflects my current beliefs, even if I can’t find any additional sources to support it. Gilovich explicitly mentions this tendency to accept one or few sources for what we currently believe and yet requiring much more “proof” for antagonistic claims. I certainly want to believe that I am right. But trying to prove my beliefs is not very scientific and reading this book has served as a well welcomed reminder that I better either be prepared to do the research myself or at the very least not pretend that my supportive data is all that strong. It is what it is. I’ve already talked at lengths in this extension of thought, but I’d like to also include that the insight on statistics was also very enlightening for me. Since reading about the “hot hand” and “statistical regression” (peoples tendency to deviate from the average when confronted with imperfectly related extreme values) I feel like I’ve gained a heighten awareness to think about what the “average” is in a situation and whether I’ve been presented with enough data to draw a conclusion or even if the data is too much for me to as a human to process properly in my head.

No comments:

Post a Comment