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 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under