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Suspension of Disbelief: Thinking, Fast and Slow

The most prominent skeptical books of the last few decades (Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, James Randi’s Flim-Flam!, among others) collectively established some favorite topics among modern-day skeptics.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a skeptical writer who doesn’t give at least a passing mention to UFOs, psychics, alternative medicine, ghosts, or any other popularized pseudoscience tackled in those books of the late twentieth century.  Yet if I had to recommend just one book to someone vaguely interested, my initial choice would sadly eschew Sagan and company.  I would instead choose a book that wasn’t even really written for skeptics, despite the fact that it illustrates clearly and beautifully the tangled world of a field of study at the heart of every skeptical approach to any topic, including those listed above.  Without even trying, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow manages to be what I consider the perfect primer for skeptical thinking.

Kahenman is what many might call the father of modern “decision science”, a branch of psychology established in the latter half of the last century that seeks to understand the subtleties of the choices humans make and what influences these.  Working with long-term research partner Amos Tversky, Kahneman asked and answered many of the questions that established the groundwork of this academic discipline.  His book is a 450-page journey through these discoveries, many of which have indeed found their way into college-level introductory psychology courses.  Yet while this might sound intimidating and somewhat off-putting, the end result could not be more engaging and inviting.

A large way in which Kahneman manages to attract the reader is by taking him through various sorts of small cognitive excercises, each demonstrating a particular fumble in judgment or decision-making.  Often these are the same exercises that were used by Kahneman and others in the field to develop their theories.  This creates an abundance of “fun to be wrong” moments, because you receive a detailed and intriguing explanation of just where your thinking went south and why such mistakes are so common.

This brings me to the two greatest reasons that Kahneman’s book is great for budding skeptics.  For one, it enforces the idea that errors in decision-making are universal, and that the concept of a perfect rational human is a myth.  For me, this is a lesson that could serve to break down the hostility between hardcore skeptics and laypeople, as it would go against the “us versus them” mentality that is prone to escalate conflict in such discussions.  It also attacks the misconceptions of skeptics as intellectual snobs and as non-skeptics as ignorant idiots.

Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), Kahneman’s book provides tools with which you can spot faulty reasoning, both in yourself and in others.  This may sound like it might lead to readers becoming hyper-vigiliant logic police, but the book contains another gem that seeks to prevent this from happening.  At the end of each chapter, Kahneman provides a small “Speaking of…” section that demonstrates how people might converse about poor judgments casually and without conflict.  In this way, the tools the reader gets for critical thinking also become tools for the discussion of critical thinking.  Again, this is a skill that many hardcore skeptics might lack.

While this book surely does not dive head first into the favorite skeptical subjects that might more easily entertain young readers, I maintain the importance of its content to those beginning to understand skepticism as a mechanism of thinking. Indeed, as I am finishing the review, I am wondering what nuances I might have unconsciously embedded in my writing that could influence you in one direction or the other in the decision to check out this excellent book.  I have a few in my on which I would love to elaborate, but I’d rather not spoil the skeptical treasure that is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

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Christian

Christian

Hi, I'm an atheist named Christian. I'm a science-loving college student at the University of Rochester, currently focusing on Neuroscience. When I'm not engaged in academics, I'm almost certainly being lazy and watching shows/movies on my laptop or reading (on a good day). I have an undying admiration for Penn Jillette and Carl Sagan, which I indulge in by rewatching Bullshit! and Cosmos over and over again. My sibling interest to scientific skepticism is most definitely civil liberties, and I am constantly consolidating those interests in my head somehow. Talk to me!

1 Comment

  1. September 23, 2013 at 6:03 pm —

    By sheer coincidence I’ve recently read this too. I found it really informative and helpful, and having example of both ways of thought being wrong was good. And some of it does feed directly into the skeptical community – the stuff about prejudice where he did the “same resume, different name” tests for example.

    My two nit-picks are that bits of it are very Israel/USA focused so it took a bit of thinking to work out what he was talking about (unexplained cultural references), and Nobel Laureate Kahenman’s constant repetition of hist Nobel Prize winning scholarship (he won a Nobel Prize) grated after a while. It started to feel as though he was padding the book to have more chances to mention that. Or perhaps he just had to write 300 pages despite only having 200 pages of content.

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