Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book Review: "Bozo Sapiens" by Michael and Ellen Kaplan

Erudite, wise, and delightful tour through human fallibility

A review of "Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human" by Michael and Ellen Kaplan

[See this and other reviews on Amazon]

We don't naturally think like scientists, except perhaps in very limited and specific ways. Thinking that can't stand up to scrutiny is commonplace. Why do we tend to be more wrong than right most of the time? This book is one of many recent releases that attempts to address this question through scientific experiments and theories in various fields.

At first this book looks very much like many other recent releases devoted to the quirks of human decision making. It isn't as strong on the details of neuroscience as many of the others, and there isn't as much technical coverage of psychology as others, but this book has a compelling advantage. It is more of a literary delight than the others with wonderful turns of phrase and superb summaries of the important points.

As with most books on human reasoning (and unreasoning) you get a list of examples of cognitive distortions, perceptual illusions, theories of decision making, and examples. Where Kaplan and Kaplan excel is in particularly well chosen, memorable, and entertaining examples, and particularly thought provoking and wide-ranging conclusions. They mention but don't dwell much on the classical examples like the Wasson test, then go on to look at the topic from a unique perspective taken from real life experience or literature. This style brings the lessons to life in a very distinctive way. The lessons range broadly over behavioral economics, game theory, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, probability, various kinds of decision making research, and many other fields. In one chapter, "Fresh off the Pleistocene Bus," they explore evolutionary psychology, but recognize that there is something inherently anti-romantic that grates against our sensibilities about evolutionary psychology, sometimes called "the moral equivalent of fast food." There is a genuine sense of larger wisdom and balance throughout this book that helps keep it fresh and interesting.

Some of my favorites from the book:

"Consciousness brings with it a gnawing sense of exile from the world of simple certainties."

"There seems to be something fundamental about using money as the stand-in for worth that causes us to abandon common sense."

"Sound encodes the rich symbolic power of language and hte emotional truths of music; it duplicates through tone of voice many of the clues to character and mood that we attempt to read from facial expression. This may be why becoming deaf seems more a banishment from life than blindness."

"When the illusion is broken and we see the truth, the world loses a little meaning for us. We laugh as the tension loosens, but deep down we are slightly disappointed."

"Any image forms expectations; attention responds to novelty. We look at what has surprised us in what we see."

"In our lifelong journeys, we humans tend to navigate like coasting sailors, not transoceanic pilots: we look our for landmarks and invent rules of thumb. Our minds, so acute locally but wooly in general, try to concoct the best possible sense our of what life shows us here and now, rather than to develop a consistent picture of how everything fits together. Thus we are built to be interested in and judicious about the incidents and quirks of what we know well - that line of surf over the reef, that darkening of the upwind horizon - while our broader explanations so easily shade off into krakens and mermaids."

How do they wrap this all up? The Kaplans offer interesting advice:

Think probabilistically, admitting the power of the random and the unknown and take small steps testing them along the way. Make good use of the primordial urge to examine new things closely. Don't assume you can understand the complexity of situations, rather use the "straight lines of local conclusions to approximate the wider curves of probability." Culture is essentially the human urge to create fictions and it is what allows us to reshape our own expectations, to create new explanations, to enjoy finding things out, and without them ... we would have died out as victims of our own certainty. Our grand abstractions like truth and justice and free will are "neither divine powers nor personal whims" but are "responsibilities we must take on with full knowledge that they will always be greater than ourselves."

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