Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. We’ll start out with the book I mentioned at the end of last month’s post. In Being Wrong author Kathryn Schulz takes a deep dive into the science of how absolutely abhorrent we all are of being wrong. About almost anything. At this very moment we are all convinced we are correct about whatever it is we find important in our lives. This doesn’t mean we’re totally convinced of the rightness of everything — only those ideas we believe we’ve put a lot of thought into before coming to our conclusions about.
Schulz asks us to think of some belief we hold to be true right now that is different or even the opposite of a belief we held at some time in the past. She then reminds us that we considered our previously held belief to be as valid at the time we held it as we do our currently held idea. And we clung to that belief desperately, and would have argued to the death for it. But, as we now know, it was wrong. Although we understand and admit it was wrong when we once felt so strongly about it, most of us don’t regard our current belief in the same way. We are sure we are correct now…just as we were sure we were correct then.
One of the points Schulz makes is that “there is no experience of being wrong.” When you somehow figure out that you are indeed wrong, then you can have the experience of realizing you were wrong. When you are in the act of being wrong, however, “you are oblivious to it.”
What happens to us when we are fixed in our own righteous opinion and we encounter someone who doesn’t share our opinion, or, God forbid, has an opposing opinion? Someone who challenges our belief system. Well, according to Schulz, we have a three step approach. First, we default to the Ignorance Assumption. Our friend simply doesn’t have the same level of information we do, because if he did, he would surely believe the same way we do. So we proceed to enlighten him.
If, after our enlightenment session, our disbeliever (or wrong believer) still doesn’t see things our way, we move on to the Idiocy Assumption. This poor person simply doesn’t have the sense to understand such a complex issue. He knows the facts; he simply can’t put them together in a coherent way. If he could, he wouldn’t continue to maintain the opinion he does. If we finally realize that our opponent is not truly an idiot, and that he, in fact, does understand the issues at hand, then we move on to the Evil Assumption.
He is “not ignorant of the truth, and not unable to comprehend it, but [has] willfully turned” his back on it. He is evil.
I’ve heard it said (but I can’t remember by whom) that conservatives believe liberals are ignorant and/or misguided, while liberals believe conservatives are evil. I’ve pretty much found this true in my dealings with both. Think about it. Do your conservative friends think liberals are stupid? Do your liberal friends think conservatives are evil? I’ll bet you find most fall into these ways of thinking. I don’t really know what that means in terms of Schulz’s three assumptions. Maybe liberals are more evolved in their beliefs than conservatives are, so they’ve reached the Evil Assumption dead end while conservatives haven’t made it there yet. Who knows? Schulz doesn’t discuss this liberal vs conservative way of seeing the other, but she made me think about it. She made me think about many things and, most of all, made me doubt some of my most closely held positions. Or at least made me try to reevaluate my stance on them.
Being Wrong is a book from which you’ll get tremendous value if you consider yourself a critical thinker. As it did with me, the book will doubtless make you at least wonder a bit about your most absolute opinions. Karen Schulz did a TED talk a few years ago that barely scratches the surface of what she presents in her book, but you can get the taste of what it’s all about.
How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. It might seem bizarre following a mini review of an excellent book telling us how we can’t help being wrong much of the time with one telling us how not to be wrong. But How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg deals more with situations in which some basic math can set us straight. You won’t learn any mathematical formulae telling you whether Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz is going to be the next president, but you will learn how to see through a lot of political blather you’re going to be hearing over the next ten months before the election. Politicians love to throw around statistics, percentages and predictions, many of which can be verified or shown to be BS using the methods in this book. We’ve all got to beware our old friend the confirmation bias when a politician we like tells us something we want to hear. But we really need to dig in and ferret out the truth. Especially when we are fed a bunch of seemingly valid statistics.
Politicians love to throw around percentages. Women account for 70 percent of all jobs lost since Obama’s election. Since Obama has been president, the economy has grown by 45 percent. These are all numbers I have made up, but we hear claims like these all the time. Percentages can be worked in a bunch of different ways to prove almost anything. Ellenberg’s book explains how to cut to the chase when presented with such seemingly indisputable percentages and learn what the reality is.
You’ll learn about linear regressions and why everyone loves them. And why, in most cases, they’re meaningless. And you’ll learn that many people, who should know better, try to present data in a linear fashion when it is anything but. For example, some have said that cutting taxes ends up raising more money for the government than increasing taxes does. This seems counterintuitive, but when you think about it, it really isn’t. If you have to pay a lot of taxes, you hire accountants, tax lawyers and the like to structure your life and investments to minimize taxes. Should taxes be cut, then it may be more financially advantageous to you to simply pay the taxes than to continue to jump through all the hoops and pay all the professionals to help reduce your tax burden. If a lot of people are in your situation, and the government reduces taxes, then tax revenues may actually rise despite the rates’ being lowered. These increased government revenues may then inspire the legislators to lower the tax rate again in the hope of harvesting a lot more money. If that works, then let’s try it again.
If you take this progression to its conclusion, then the tax rate will be zero and the government will get no money. Then any bureaucrat worth his salt will begin to raise the rates, and the government’s take will go up. Continuing to raise taxes will continue to increase the government’s income, leading some to believe that the more taxes are raised, the more income the government will get. And so the push will be on to raise and raise and raise taxes. If taxes are raised to 100 percent of all income, then, ultimately, the government will get no money because no one will be working.
The line representing government income vs tax rates is not a straight line. It’s not a linear function. It is a curve in which at some point on the curve the government will maximize its take without making the citizens quit working because it isn’t worth it any longer.
Way too many people tend to believe in linearity when none exists. This book will teach you all about linearity and put you on your guard whenever anyone tries to prove something to you by assuming some relationship is linear. They almost never are.
How Not To Be Wrong is a fun read by an author who is not only a clear and concise writer, but one who has a great sense of humor. The book is laugh-out-loud funny in a way most books about mathematical concepts are not. So, the author will not only entertain you, but will show you how to use simple math to save yourself a lot of money over your lifetime.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Written by Scott Adams, creator of the phenomenally successful Dilbert cartoon, was one of the books in my big Christmas book harvest pictured above. I had this on my Amazon wish list, because I read a terrific article in the Wall Street Journal by the author (see here on how to legitimately breach the WSJ paywall so you can read if you’re not a subscriber), but I didn’t really expect much. Usually articles excerpted from books are basically a summary of the book, so I figured I got most of what the author wanted to say by reading the article. But, as usual, I was wrong.
Despite this book’s being written by the cartoonist who draws Dilbert, it is filled with valuable information. Especially valuable since the New Year is around the corner. Everyone usually sets goals for the upcoming year, but Adams make the strong case in the book that you’re much better putting systems in place instead of creating goals. I hadn’t really thought about it, but, on reflection, I think he’s absolutely correct. Systems allow you to achieve goals and go beyond,whereas goals are, well, goals. Once achieved, they’re in the rear view mirror. Systems, on the other hand, keep on going, so that you can continue to achieve.
How to Fail is more or less autobiographical, and Adams has had both an interesting and, to an extent, charmed life. He came from a humble, blue collar background and is currently hugely wealthy. He got there by creating Dilbert, but probably would have gotten there without Dilbert, because he worked his system. Dilbert was just the result.
A part of Adams’s system is the accumulation of skills. He makes the point (which I had never really thought about) that every skill you take the time to acquire multiplies your chances of achieving success.
In his case, he spent his youth drawing and sketching, and became, in his words, a poor artist. He spent the time, while laboring away in a cubicle of his own, to attend business school at Berkeley, where he was a so-so student who developed “mediocre business skills.” His job gave him insight into the cubicle culture and also exposed him to the internet during its infancy. These talents, if they can be called that, combined with his “good but not great writing talent” put him in the perfect position to create Dilbert. So, a handful of less-than-stellar skills added up to a “powerful market force” that has made him a fortune. His experience proves the old adage that no education is ever wasted.
Adams’s book is chock full of advice on how to succeed. It even includes a brief section on the proper use of grammar and the common mistakes seen and heard all the time. To my great satisfaction, he hits hard on the proper use of ‘I’ and ‘me,’ two simple words people misuse all the time. And every time I hear them screwed up, it sets my teeth on edge.
Somewhere in the development of language, teachers and/or parents manage to inculcate children with the grammatical notion that somehow ‘me’ is a lesser word and that if a number of people act on something, the proper way to say it is to put the ‘I’ at the end of the grouping. It is proper to say Tom, Bill, Lucy and I are going to the store. But this structure breaks down when the grouping of people are in the objective, i.e., are having something done to them. You would never hear anyone (other than non-native English speakers) say, “Show the report to I.” Everyone – correctly – says, “Show the report to me.” But throw Tom, Bill and Lucy into the mix, and it all goes pear shaped for the vast majority of English speakers. It becomes, “Show the report to Tom, Bill, Lucy and I.” AAARRRGGGHHHH!!!! Show the report to Tom, Bill, Lucy and ME. Not I.
It is not just uneducated people who misuse ‘I’ in the case. In a company I run, everyone I deal with is highly educated, and all (apart from MD and myself) save two, misuse ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the objective. The two who don’t are my beloved exec assistant, from whom I have finally managed to purge it through dint of continuous correction. And the other is our director of European operations, who is a frigging Norwegian living in Oslo. He says it correctly. And English isn’t his native tongue.
As you can see, this is a major bugaboo with me, and, so, I’m delighted that Adams feels the same. As he says, the 80 percent of people who don’t know the difference would never notice the error, but to the other 20 percent, the error marks its perpetrator as being grammatically substandard.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is an excellent book and an easy read. I gained many insights and read many hilarious sections to MD. Adams is as funny as you might think the author of Dilbert would be.
Adams made a comment about one of his former cubicle mates who also wrote a book, but under a lot different circumstances. Jimmy Lerner, who worked in a cubicle at Pac Bell near Adams, got himself convicted of voluntary manslaughter and was locked away for several years in the penitentiary in Nevada. While there, he wrote about his experiences and smuggled his manuscript out bits at a time. After his release, he got You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish published by a mainstream publisher. I had forgotten about this book till Adams mentioned it. I read it when it first came out back in 2002 and found it to be a tremendous read. Lerner really has a way with words. His writing is hilariously funny, despite the subject matter. I just noticed on Amazon that the Kindle version is selling for $15.99, which means there is still a lot of demand despite the age of the book and the fact that Lerner is no longer with us. (He died in 2008.) I am really disappointed that, despite having the opportunity to meet him, I never did. MD and I had a book published by the same publisher of Lerner’s book at around the same time. Our editor was Lerner’s editor. When I asked for an introduction, I was told Lerner was living hand to mouth in a Motel 6 in Reno, and that he was a real con man. I was warned that it would probably be best not to make contact, especially since we live on Lake Tahoe, which is just up the mountain from Reno. So I never did, and I’ve regretted it. All that aside, his book is a tremendous read.
Why Knot? I’ve been fascinated with knots from the time I first learned how to tie a bunch of them during Boy Scouts. Since then, I’ve been, among other things, a forest ranger, a sailor, a fireman, and an engineer, all of which require a working knowledge of knots. Consequently, I was delighted to get Philippe Petit’s book Why Knot? as a Christmas gift from a friend. It is filled with all the knots I cut my teeth on plus a bunch more. All beautifully illustrated with excellent instructions. Plus, it comes with it’s own little practice tying rope cleverly embedded in its cover. Inexplicably, the book doesn’t include instructions for what I think is the most useful knot of all, the Trucker’s Hitch. I’ve probably used that knot more than any other since I learned it while working for the US Forest Service decades ago. Despite that glaring deficiency, Why Knot? is an excellent little book, if you’re into knots or would like to be.
I read some really terrific fiction this month.
The Murderer in Ruins. This first book in a three book series by Clay Rademacher is set in the dead of a brutal winter in post WWII Hamburg, Germany. As the saying goes (which I always find hilarious when I see it describing movies), this novel is based on a true story. There really was a serial killer on the loose in Hamburg in the horribly cold winter of 1946-47, but there the resemblance ends. Most people think of the bombing of Dresden whenever they think of firebombing in WWII. But Hamburg was also hit with massive air raids by the RAF and USAF that resulted in the destruction of most of the city by firestorms that reached 1,000 degrees Celsius and the deaths of 34,000 to 42,000 people.
In The Murderer in the Ruins a killer is brutally murdering people in the ruins of what used to be Hamburg. Police detective Frank Stave (pronounced ‘Stah-ve’) is charged with solving the crime. For political reasons, he is paired up with an English officer. Added to the team, for reasons Stave can’t fathom, a junior detective from the vice squad. The three of them set out to at least determine the identity of the first victim, which proves to be almost impossible. As corpses start to accumulate, the pressure is on to solve the crime, but the trio can’t really make an intelligent stab at it, because they have no way to identify the victims. The author does an excellent job of describing the conditions of that terrible winter that further punished the Germans for their involvement in WWII. It beggars belief how difficult the living conditions were then for the rank and file people just trying to get by. First, total destruction of their country, then the worst winter in years at a time when coal, heating oil, coats, etc. were in scarce supply. And the occupying forces along with the German police were always on the lookout for black market trading. Not really a great time to be alive.
I love novels that provide entertainment plus a window into another era. It’s the great combination of entertainment and learning.
The Murderer in the Ruins satisfies on all counts, including a satisfying ending. Highly recommended.
One Man’s Flag. This month I also knocked out David Downing’s second book in his WWI series about a reluctant British spy. (The first was Jack of Spies, which at the moment you can get on Kindle for $1.99) You might recall that Downing wrote the six book series I loved so much about a Brit expat living in Germany just prior to WWII, who gets sucked into spying for the Russians. Now he’s turned his attention to WWI, about which I know a fraction of what I know about WWII.
One of the things I did not know about WWI was that the Irish and the Indians, both of whose countries were still in the British Empire, were heavily influenced by the Germans. The Germans figured that with both the Irish and those in India suffering under the British yoke, the lead up to WWI would be a good time to spend a little money and foment a little more discontent in both of those countries. Both India and Ireland had begun to militate for independence, and the Germans figured if they could foment a little more discontent, then the Brits would spend time and resources dealing with their own colonies, giving them less time and fewer resources to put toward a war with Germany.
If you decide to take the plunge with these books, which are very good, read the first one, Jack of Spies, first or you won’t be able to figure out the love interest the main character is mooning over in the second book.
I didn’t read much on the science end of this this month, so I really don’t have any recommendations there.
I did receive a copy of Always Hungry, a low-carb diet book by my friend David Ludwig from Harvard. I’ve just started in on it. Since it is a low-carb book, I’ll probably review it on the blog.
Also, I have on order Life – The Epic Story of Our Mitochondria: How the Original Probiotic Dictates Your Health, Illness, Ageing, and Even Life Itself. Normally, I would avoid a book with such an over-the-top title, but this one was highly recommended by the Ottobonis, both friends of mine, whose judgement I trust completely, and both bench scientists of many years’ duration. They are the authors of the brilliant The Modern Nutritional Diseases and How to Prevent Them.
I’ve been looking for a good book on mitochondria to recommend – I’m hoping this might be the one. If you understand mitochondria, you pretty much understand life. But the operations of the mitochondria are difficult to explain without getting into some fairly heavy biochemistry. Maybe this will be the book I’ve been waiting for.
I hope everyone has a happy, safe, prosperous, healthy and any other positive adjective you can think of 2016.
Happy New Year!!! from MD and