Skip to main content

The Perils of Perception - Bobby Duffy ****

How we see the world is not the way it really is. There have been several books based on this premise in the last few years, from Hans Rosling's impressive Factfulness to the distinctly fanciful The Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman. In The Perils of Perception, Bobby Duffy takes an approach that is similar to Rosling's in surveying large numbers of people in different countries (in fact, one chapter of the book specifically references Rosling), but rather than concentrate as Rosling does on the specific topic of development, Duffy takes a much wider sweep of coverage of our perceptions of our world - and just like Rosling finds that most of us are way off on our appreciation of how things really are.

Whether we're dealing with politics and immigration, finance, climate change, sex or crime, Duffy shows that the majority of people tend to get things wrong. (I think I've read too many of these books, as I tended, if anything, to err in the opposite direction to the average respondent.) Like Rosling, Duffy often finds that we're over-pessimistic, but discovers a number cases where we over-apply the rose-tinted specs. 

It seems – not entirely surprisingly – that topics with a strong emotional content are more likely to produce incorrect perceptions, and these are perceptions which will continue to be held despite contrary evidence. For example, in most countries, people think that the percentage of immigrants in the population, often an emotionally loaded topic, is considerably greater than it really is.

Like Rosling, Duffy looks for reasons for the difference between reality and perception and how the gap varies around the world. He agrees that we have a strong inbuilt protective bias to negativity, but suggests that cultures which put a strong emphasis on emotional content to argument (such as Italy and the US) tend to exaggerate values to make their point, while cultures that tend to be unemotional in their arguments (such as Sweden and Germany) tend to have perception that is closer to reality. We always have to bear in mind, though, that correlation is not causality, and though there seems a kind of logic to a tendency to exaggerate if you are imbuing an argument with emotion, the causal link has not been proved.

Overall, a good addition to our appreciation of how and why we get our understanding of the world so very wrong.
Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Universe Speaks in Numbers - Graham Farmelo ****

Theoretical physics has taken something of a hammering lately with books such as Sabine Hossenfelder's Lost in Math. The suggestion from these earlier titles is that theoretical physics is so obsessed with mathematics that many theoretical physicists spend their careers working on theory that doesn't actually apply to the universe, because the maths is interesting. Even experimental physics can be tainted, as the driver for new expenditure in experiments, such as the proposed new collider at CERN, is not driven by discoveries but by these mathematically-directed theories. Graham Farmelo presents the opposite view here: that this speculative mathematical work is, in fact, a great success.
As I am very much in the Hossenfelder camp, I expected to find Farmelo's book rather irritating, as it's effectively a love letter to mathematically-obsessed theoretical physics - but in reality (an entertaining phrase, given the context) I found it both interesting and enjoyable. Far…