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Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

mardi 20 mars 2018

The subject of this book is something I think about quite a bit - how Americans will pretty much believe anything, no matter how ridiculous. It may sound somewhat similar to "Bunk", but the books are completely different. While "Bunk" focuses on the hoax as a sort of benign joke, this book is more about how people are completely indifferent to facts of any sort.

The seed was planted with the Reformation. The main idea was that rather than just believing whatever we are told, we should think for ourselves, in this case that specifically meant read the bible yourself and draw your own conclusions rather than just believe whatever the Catholic church says. This is a very good thing - people need to think for themselves, but over the intervening hundreds of years that seed has bloomed into the current philosophy of "I will believe whatever I want and facts be damned." The book traces how that transformation happened.

One import milestone was the colonization of America, which gave people whose beliefs were not tolerated in Europe a place to go where they could be with other like-minded people. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, except that a lot of those people were Puritans whose peculiar philosophies largely influenced the new American culture.

Another turning point was the 60s in the US, when anti-establisment sentiment started making any facts that are said by "experts" suspect as elitist. This, combined with the New Age stuff that became popular at the time, really was the turning point when the "reality-based community" was overwhelmed by the fantasy-based community. It should be expected that when people discover they have been lied to by the government, they should start to question everything the government has ever told them, and again I don't really see this as a bad thing. I personally believe that one should not believe anything one is told unless one confirms it independently or can verify it on one's own. However the difference is that my way involves confirming alleged facts, while the American way is mostly to disregard them if they contradict your opinions, no matter how reliable a source they come from.

I have been watching this series on YouTube called "Retro Report" which is about old scandals. The funny thing is that most of the things that people got worked up about - be it Dungeons & Dragons, Satanic pre-schools, the "dangers" of vaccination, or "super predators" - turned out to be completely baseless. But even when the mistaken beliefs are confirmed as being false people don't really care - they still continue to believe them. A lot of this is attributable to cognitive biases - specifically the availability heuristic - which says that if you hear about something a lot - like someone who's child has autism and was also vaccinated who believes the latter caused the former - you will tend to believe it no matter how much evidence contradicts it. 

Although based in psychology, this phenomenon is somehow uniquely America. Living in Europe I find most people to still be a part of the reality-based community, of course there are conspiracy theorists and such everywhere, but the distrust of experts and science and evidence seems to originate in the USA. This is an extremely worrisome trend, and this book is a very interesting exploration of it.

Libellés: books, politics
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Bunk by Kevin Young

vendredi 23 février 2018

I am very concerned by today's "post-factual" climate, where what is actually true is less important than what we feel should be true, and that is why I was drawn to this book. I thought it would be in the same vein as Kurt Andersen's "Fantasyland." I was very pleasantly surprised because the book goes far beyond that subject, giving a very thorough overview of hoaxes from the 1800s to today. Starting with PT Barnum and what he called "humbug," the book traces the evolution of hoaxes as it evolved from Barnum's relatively benign versions, into the spiritualism of the late 1800s and early 1900s, into confidence schemes, the literary hoaxes and plagiarism of the early 2000s and finally finishing with the "post-truth" and "fake news" of today.

The book is something I would have liked to have read in a college sociology class - it is detailed enough to serve well in an academic context, with a great deal of analysis of the social trends underlying the phenomena described. It is also beautifully written, not surprising as Mr Young is a poet, which I did not know until I had finished it. 

"Bunk" does a great deal of exploration as to what the trends and types of hoaxes throughout history say about the culture, and one of it's major conclusions is that race, and racism, play very important roles. From PT Barnum taking advantage of a variety of non-white people in his shows, to modern authors taking advantage of stereotypes to disguise their made-up stories as truth, it seems that racism is much more deeply woven into American culture than most people realize. There are numerous cases cited of people making up stories about being from underground Taiwanese cities to being raised in the inner cities that take advantage of (incorrect) stereotypes of different colors and cultures to sell themselves as truth. As the confirmation bias would indicate, people are much more likely to accept something as true if it confirms their preexisting conceptions of the world than if it challenges them, and this is easily used by hoaxsters to dupe people.

The last chapter, which starts with "euphemisms" and ends with a dissection of "fake news" (which Mr Young says he preferred when it was simply called "propaganda") is especially striking. I have my own theories on why America today is so willing to entertain crazy theories, such as how victims of mass shootings are really actors paid by the anti-gun people, but Young draws a connection through the evolution of hoaxes through history directly to the fake news of today.

This is an amazing and important book, and one I believe should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of American culture.


Libellés: books
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Given my interest in data science I was very excited to read this book, and I was not disappointed. The book mainly discusses information that can be gleaned from web searches, and how it differs from how people respond to surveys and polls, which is a rather narrow topic, but the author manages to find some rather interesting tidbits from the data.

I am more interested in scientific applications of data science, but for people who are not interested in the subject, the book gives a nice overview of what data is really about. Here is an example - you want to find out about something, say how happy people are in their marriages. You send out surveys asking people about how happy they are with their spouses. The people who are responding to the surveys can say whatever they want. Maybe they are miserable, but they want to project a positive image so they say they are very happy. Maybe they see all of their friends on Facebook constantly posting about how wonderful their husbands are so they say their husbands are wonderful too. The researcher receives the surveys and concludes that all marriages are wonderful.

In the meantime the people who filled out the surveys are going onto Google and searching for "I hate my husband" or "how can I tell if my husband is cheating?" This turns out to not be too far from the actual case. For a variety of reasons people are going to say certain things although those things may not be quite true. On Facebook people tend to post idealized pictures of themselves and idealized versions of their lives. But when they go to Google the searches they perform are going to be more honest and revealing. 

Google records every single search made (although the data is anonymized) and Mr. Stephens-Davidowitz has gone through those searches to attempt to draw some actual conclusions about people. For me, the results were much as expected, though less cynical people may be in for quite a shock. One example - after Obama was elected searches for "n-word president" shot through the roof. And the places where those searches were concentrated voted heavily for Donald Trump. Search data seems to indicate that racism in the US is alive and well and also seems to indicate that the election of Trump was largely driven by a racist backlash against the election of Obama.

While the fact that most people do not describe themselves as racist may seem to contradict the search data, in my opinion not many people think of themselves as racist. The people who really are racist are probably going to say "I am not racist, it's just a fact that other races are inferior to mine." Depending on people to self-report their thoughts and attitudes and actions is a very unreliable way to gather information. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes how people who are experts in a subject matter tend to downplay their expertise, while those who are not experts tend to consider themselves far more knowledgeable than they really are. The experts know enough to know how much they don't know, while the non-experts think they know it all. This describes a general inability for people to really objectively evaluate themselves, and this is where data comes in.

Data is a truly objective description of reality. There is the saying "if you torture numbers enough they will confess to almost anything" which means that it is easy to draw almost any conclusion from a large enough data set. Data science is the science of trying to find signals in data in an objective way, and that is something that is desperately needed in the world today, especially as experts are labelled "elitists" when they say things people don't want to hear.

I, as a data scientist, enjoyed this book very much. However it is written in such a way that you do not need to be a data scientist to understand it. I highly recommend this book.

Libellés: books, data science
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The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

lundi 22 janvier 2018

I have always been fascinated by the various ways in which our minds fail us. While we think we are very good at making decisions based on data and evidence, in fact we tend to use heuristics, or rules of thumbs, to come to quick and easy decisions when there is uncertainty involved. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pioneered research into this field and discovered what they call "cognitive biases" which are systematic deviations from making rational decisions and judgments. I first heard about these many years ago, specifically about how the anchoring bias was used in marketing. As the years have gone by I've become more and more interested in the subject.

One cognitive bias you may have heard of is the "confirmation bias" which is where you interpret new information in such a way as to uphold your existing beliefs. This is why it is so hard to convince anyone that their opinion is wrong. When we hear information that contradicts our beliefs we tend to either dismiss it or rationalize it away. This is how Trump supporters can dismiss negative news as "fake news" and Clinton supporters can dismiss any of her scandals as "right wing conspiracy theories." There are many other biases, such as the aforementioned "anchoring bias" which is where you tend to evaluate numbers in relation to other numbers. This is why gas stations in America have three octanes at three prices. People tend to see the cheapest one at the lowest price and the premium at the highest price and think that the one in the middle is the best deal, even though it would be cheaper to mix the cheapest and most expensive octanes. You don't just the price by itself - you judge it in relation to other prices.

The list of biases and heuristics goes on and on - and they apply to PhD level statisticians as well as everyone else. Our brains are just not designed to process lots of information, so we instead use shortcuts to make judgments. Why are people scared of sharks when the chances of being attacked by a shark are less than that of being hit by lightning? Because shark attacks are dramatic and memorable, and whenever there is one it is shown all over the TV news, and we tend to remember it more. This is called the "availability heuristic" and this explains why people are more worried about terrorism than about heart attacks. 

This book is the story of how Kahneman and Tversky met and conducted their research. Like many of Lewis's books, it provides a good summary for the layperson of very complicated subjects, while not going into too much technical detail. The subject is personal for me because the deficits of human ability to analyze and process data have led me to go into data science. However this book should be an enjoyable read for anyone.

Libellés: books, economics, psychology
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Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

mercredi 03 janvier 2018

Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, is a truly amazing book. It is a scientific exploration of why animals need sleep that details a great amount of research and provides a lot of insight into the nature of sleep. While it reads like it was written for general audiences, this does not dilute the science behind it and Walker stays firmly in the area of science.

When I was reading this book and telling my wife about it she kept asking me questions like "does it say what kind of mattress we should get?" The book does not even touch on questions like this and, to its credit, does not even venture into the realm of popular self-help books. Dr. Walker has no agenda, is not trying to sell anything and he has no theories he is trying to promote. He merely lays out the results of his many years of research into sleep and interprets those results in an easily understandable manner. If, like my wife, you want to know what type of mattress to buy or what supplements or medications may help you sleep, you will find no answers here.

In fact, quite the opposite, Walker claims that most medications will actually impair your sleep. While something like Ambien may actually help you get to sleep, on average, twenty minutes faster, it seems to seriously impair the quality of that sleep, disturbing the normal sleep patterns and impairing the processes which the brain performs during sleep. He says the only supplement that will actually help sleep is melatonin, and he only recommends this for cases of jet lag, as an aid to reset your circadian rhythm. As with many people, I feel I have a difficult time sleeping and I used to take over-the-counter anti-histamine sleep aids at night occassionally. After reading this book I completely stopped taking them. I have a harder time falling asleep without them, but I wake up in the morning feeling much better than when I was taking them. On the other hand my brother continues to take massive amounts of assorted OTC and prescription sleep medication, he sleeps an awful lot in terms of hours, but he is always tired and claims he does not sleep well despite the evidence to the contrary. While this seems counter-intuitive, it fits in with the data cited in the book.

For anyone who is looking for tips on how to sleep better this book is not written for you - the only real suggestions are to stick to a regular sleep schedule every day and don't take sleeping medication. For anyone who is interested in why all animals need sleep, why we dream, and the science of sleeping - this is an amazing book.


Libellés: books, health
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