Book #18: How We Know What Isn’t So, by Thomas Gilovitch

Begun: 2/22/2011
Finished: 3/19/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 3.5/5

I love shit like this.  I’m a skeptic and a devotee of rationalism and humanist reasoning so I love reading books that deconstruct society’s seeming obsession with believing in ridiculous things.  The piece de resistance of this genre is Carl Sagan’s seminal work The Demon-Haunted World, which I’ve read so it won’t be among the Roth Project volumes, but you should totally read it.

Gilovich is a social scientist, and this book certainly reflects that.  It’s far more academic and dry than I was expecting, having more recently read more lay-friendly books such as Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy.  I’m not precisely a layperson (I’m a scientist by trade myself) but I’m not a social scientist.  It wasn’t difficult to read, just not quite as accessible as some books on the same subject have been.

Still, I came away from it with a deeper understanding of how easy it is to believe things that aren’t true, and why we insist on doing it, and how it comes about.  One of the take-home lessons that’ll really stay with me is the pervasiveness of phenomenon that seem inexplicable but which are in fact explained by regression to the mean, an extremely useful concept that explains a wide variety of real-life experiences from the second-book curse to the Sports Illustrated jinx to the frustrating belief in quack remedies.

I recommend it if you’re interested in the subject, but the casual reader would do better with Sagan’s book, which ought to be required reading for anyone who’s human.

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