Skip to main content

Mindware - Richard Nisbett *****

There's no doubt that Richard Nisbett's book, subtitled 'tools for smart thinking' is great, despite two issues. I want to get those issues out of the way first before we get onto the good stuff, with which it is packed. One issue is the writing style. This is a touch clumsy and could do with a little professional help. Nisbett has a tendency to overuse unnecessary jargon in sentences like this:
Our construal of objects and events is influenced not just by the schemas that are activated in particular contexts, but by the framing of judgments we have to make.
Nor ideally worded. The second issue I suspect comes more from the publisher, which is the attempt to frame this book (sorry, couldn't resist the italics) as a self-help title as much as popular science. It doesn't work particularly well as a practical self-help toolkit - it's not structured in a way to make this a good use, particularly because a large part of the book is focused on how we get things wrong, rather than how to do things better.

But what makes this book a pure delight is the way that it analyses our human take on the world and shows the flaws in the typical ways that we think which, if overcome, would enable us to make better decisions. Some of this is fairly theoretical, starting with the nature of inference and exploring the holes in the Popperian disdain for inference, but there's also an exploration of the results of a plethora of experiments which take everyday decisions and situations and try to understand what is happening.

One great example is over the analytic input of the subconscious. Nisbett shows us how the old saw about leaving a problem overnight to reach a better decision really works. He describes an experiment where different people are shown a range of apartments and asked to decide which is 'best'. (As always with psychology experiments, there is room for questioning here as 'best' is so subjective with accommodation, but the experimenters try their best using a series of criteria against which each apartment is scored.) The subjects are divided into three groups. Some have to make an almost instant decision, others are allowed to weigh up the pros and cons, while a third group doesn't actually think about the problem but makes their decision after sleeping on it. By far the best results come from the third group, while the 'instant' decision maker are as effective as those weighing up the options. This neatly takes the wind out of the usual moan that people make a decision about house buying far too quickly.  The subconscious can do a surprising amount of the heavy lifting for us (though, as Nisbett points out, it's hopeless at doing sums).

A very interesting section for those who are fans of Freakonomics and its successor books is where Nisbett tears apart a technique often used in the 'Freak' decision process - multiple regression analysis, where the idea is to analyse data by correcting for various unwanted variables, leaving the one being studied dominant. Nisbett, tongue in cheek, refers to it as 'eekonomics'. It's an infamously poor approach (the reason why cohort studies on diet etc. are so difficult to use), because it's almost impossible to be sure you've allowed for all the variables, and the impact of some can be little more than guesswork. Instead, Nisbett suggests, it would be much better to do far more experimental work in these fields, with proper double blind controls, even though he admits that's not always possible.

With other sections on correlation versus causality, sample sizes, the nature of logic and dialectic, and more, there's plenty of meat here in a truly fascinating read about the nature of human decision making, where it goes wrong and how (at least in principle) we could do it better. It's not always big stuff. He points out how we often fail to deal with the way that money we've spent is already written off. There's no point carrying on with something you are now getting no value out of due to changing circumstances, or a bad initial decision, just because you've already spent a lot on it. Yet we all tend to do it (as do governments).

The part contrasting 'Western' logic with 'Eastern' dialectic towards the end of the book is probably the least satisfactory as it doesn't really explain how the dialectic approach can produce specific useful results rather than fuzzy statements, but it's still interesting. Overall, an ideal book for anyone who raises an eyebrow at statistics in the press. If, for example, you are a fan of Radio 4's More or Less, this book takes the whole look at the way we make informed decisions using numbers to a new level.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Shadow Captain (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

One again, Alastair Reynolds demonstrates his mastery of complex world building. This is a sequel to Revenger, but while it's ideal to have read that first, I didn't feel a huge loss from not having done so. (But I'll be going back to read it.)

What sets these books apart is the richness of the setting. The Ness sisters, Adrana (the narrator of the book) and Arafura, along with their small motley crew, sail their spaceship through a far future solar system, where the planets have long since been dismantled to produce millions of small habitats and storage asteroids known as baubles. The civilisation in the system has risen and fallen many times, leaving mysterious technology (and contact with some low grade aliens) in a scenario that mixes high tech with a setting that is strongly (and intentionally) reminiscent of the world of seventeenth century shipping.

Spaceships are primarily powered by vast acreage of solar sails, privateers hunt bounty from the baubles and even th…