guide to lies

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age by Daniel J. Levitin, Dutton Penguin Random House, New York, 2016 ($28)

 Daniel Levitin is dean of Social Sciences at Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco and is also on the faculty at the Center for Executive Education in the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. His book, “This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” was an amazing best seller and memorable in every way as an investigation into the relation between creativity, brain science and the art of music. His new book, “A Field Guide to Lies” is both timely and important—as well as a joy to read. These days, as lies, half-truths, “false news” and “alternative facts” bubble to the surface in our sewer of political garbage, maybe a handbook to critical thinking (for laymen, but not dumbed down) is just the ticket. It should be required reading not just for voters, but also for everybody. Most of us are bombarded by bullshit anyway, so why not brush up on our bullshit detection skills?

Levitin uses “evaluation skills” as a basic that we all need. How do we evaluate numbers that are thrown our way to convince us of something? How do we evaluate words couched in scientific terms designed to sway us one way or the other? And how do we evaluate the world using scientific thinking and Bayesian logic? (If you don’t know Bayesian logic, you soon will…). Evaluating numbers requires us to understand what’s plausible, how averages, means, medians and bi-modals work, how playing with the axis of a graph can change one’s perception of “reality”, how numbers are collected and reported and, most importantly, “probability”. In fact, probability is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in the “numbers game” and Levitin explains it beautifully. Evaluating words requires us to understand the limits of knowledge in general and what constitutes expertise, how explanations gain their power and from what source, and to diagnose “counter-knowledge” (what Trumpians call “alternative facts”). Finally, Levitin provides the reader a short course on scientific method and knowledge, logical fallacy and Baynesian thinking in science and in court.

It may seem hopeless that in our current political and social climate that this country might come to its senses. Superstition, hate, false doctrine and suspicion seem to rule. The sooner critical thinking takes hold, the better.