In a U.S. election cycle already replete with outrageous claims from the Donald Trump campaign, the tweet by Trump’s son Donald Jr. was particularly egregious: the now-notorious image of a bowl of Skittles representing Syrian refugees accompanied by the claim that three of them would kill you.
While many criticized the callousness of the metaphor, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out that to have a shred of comparability for the individualized risk implied, the bowl would need to contain 10.9 billion skittles.
It is illogical arguments such as this that McGill psychology and behavioural neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin seeks to debunk in this useful but disappointingly apolitical new book A Field Guide to Lies. Serving as a sort of companion to his 2014 information overload corrective The Organized Mind, (reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press August 23rd 2014), the Field Guide provides the tools needed to critically evaluate dubious claims, both numeric and verbal.
For Levitin, the failure to question what we read (especially online) combined with poor statistical literacy and an overconfidence in our own knowledge can lead us to make poor decisions, draw the wrong conclusions, and misestimate the actual risk of activities (e.g., flying).
The first third of the book introduces the reader to numeric and statistical claims by explaining the slippery definitions of “average,” how to understand different types of probabilities and the many ways in which graphs and tables can be manipulated to convince the unwary. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, notoriously concealed dropping quarterly iPhone market share in 2013 by charting cumulative sales on a graph with no numeric value scale, leading analysts unsure if it referred to millions of phones or thousands.
In the second part, Levitin looks at the rhetorical claims and logical fallacies perpetrated by experts and others in the media who often cherry-pick their data, erroneously imply causation or fail to inform their readers or listeners of reasonable alternative explanations. The six-fold rise in autism diagnoses between 1990 and 2010, he argues, can be much more readily attributed to greater awareness and wider definitions on the part of professionals, than it can to GMOs, wi-fi or vaccines.
The final and by far weakest part of the book are “case studies” intended to illustrate how to apply these critical tools, but which gets bogged down in a tiresome analysis of the extreme feats of illusionist David Blaine, leaving far more pressing issues unexamined.
As was the case with The Organized Mind, Levitin’s excellent grasp of analytical tools and rhetorical logic are undermined by a curious lack of political sophistication. Most of his examples are hypothetical or else attributed to unnamed “lying weasels” and “unscrupulous hucksters” while avoiding anything that might be potentially partisan (Trump and Hillary Clinton are each referred to only once).
This is unfortunate. He could have easily delved into the emerging psychological research revealing how political ideologies shape our receptivity to information, such that liberals and conservatives when faced with the same sets of facts will often reach completely different conclusions – a discussion that would have been exceedingly timely.
Instead, Levitin’s political myopia is so jarring it threatens at times to undermine his entire project.
For example, the disparity between (low) official estimates of civilian deaths in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when compared to those of third-party observers is owed by Levitin not to political expediency but to calculating an unknowable quantity, while the Bush Administration was simply “mistaken” about the presence of WMDs in Iraq, rather than engaging (as many critics allege) in a deliberate campaign of deception.
In the book’s most jaw-dropping passage, he casually brushes aside the countless discrepancies in the official account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by likening these to the occasional headache accompanied by blurred vision: probably not an indication of anything serious.
While A Field Guide to Lies may help readers make better sense of news reports and be wiser consumers, Levitin’s failure to situate his book in the contemporary politics of “truthiness” dramatically diminishes its value – and relevance. As a result, it unintentionally demonstrates that, absent an understanding of ideology and power, no amount of statistical literacy and formal logic will help you recognize that you are being lied to.
A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
By Daniel Levitin.
Allen Lane/Penguin/Random House, $20.00. 292 pp.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 15th 2016