Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Swayed into Blinking at a Black Swan

[Content Disclosure: Books 90%; Semi-Literate Culture 22%; Poker 0%]

got caught up in a cultural phenomenon awhile back, it seems that the world is irrational and that we humans have some skills that only a few of us know about to deal with this situation. Wouldn't you know it some academics figured out that information would make for interesting reading for the general enlightened public. So a spat of books have come out in the last couple of years basically focused on our innate abilities to seek and find the truth in what science might call irrational or illogical ways. Anecdotes abound in these various works but being a big fan of anecdotal evidence myself, I can live with that. What I am not so fond of is a string of examples that basically lead to nothing a but big Ta-Dah! All meat, no bone as my good friend Dr. Desmond loves to say.

Here is my four book foray into the world of irrational logic:

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nichols Taleb. You may want to notice that a couple of these authors have written several books on similar topics. While the whole Black Swan concept is interesting, his previous book: Fooled by Randomness was much more to my liking. Still the Black Swan is an interesting bedtime read.

From "...the really important events are rare and unpredictable. He calls them Black Swans, which is a reference to a 17th century philosophical thought experiment. In Europe all anyone had ever seen were white swans; indeed, "all swans are white" had long been used as the standard example of a scientific truth. So what was the chance of seeing a black one? Impossible to calculate, or at least they were until 1697, when explorers found Cygnus atratus in Australia."

Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically useless.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell didn't read his first book, The Tipping Point, but rumors are it was better. Blink suggests that our first thought or impression is more often than not correct. But I think we knew that already.

"Blink is about the first two seconds of looking--the decisive glance that knows in an instant. The author campaigns for snap judgments and mind reading with a gift for translating research into splendid storytelling."

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori & Rom Brafman

Thisbook has the typical scientific prejudice against the non-linear and therefore, they say, the non-rational. Too bad because they write well and basically trash the premise of Blink; but they go too far, just as Blink did not go far enough. The authors also take anecdotal evidence to an nearly intolerable level, which is unusual since their argument comes down on the side of empirical science.

"Sway investigates the submerged mental drives that undermine rational action, from the desire to avoid loss to a failure to consider all the evidence or to perceive a person or situation beyond the initial impression and the reluctance to alter a plan that isn't working."

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
by Dan Ariely.

Still the scientific model here but with more reasoned look at the irrational. Must have been the psychological approach the author took. Still when will science come to understand magic?

"People tend to behave irrationally in a predictable fashion. Drawing on psychology and economics, behavioral economics can show us why cautious people make poor decisions about sex when aroused, why patients get greater relief from a more expensive drug over its cheaper counterpart and why honest people may steal office supplies or communal food, but not money."

All in all, I found everything after the first few chapters of these books to be unsatisfying. Good articles that never reach the potential they should have to qualify as a full length well structured book.