I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Weaponized Lies by Daniel J. Levitin
Published by Penguin on March 7th 2017
Genres: Social Science, Media Studies, Business & Economics, Statistics, Psychology, Applied Psychology
Format: Electronic ARC
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The most important component of the best critical thinking that is lacking in our society today is humility. It is a simple yet profound notion: If we realize we don’t know everything, we can learn. If we think we know everything, learning is impossible.
Who knew a book about numbers could be so entertaining? Weaponized Lies is written for the average person, those of us who aren’t statisticians or scientists. It introduces fundamental critical thinking skills that will assist the reader in making logical decisions and analyzing claims made in the news. The spread of misinformation is not a new problem, but the internet has made it more pervasive. Some people and publications are more likely to be right than others, but no one is infallible. Bad information can be spread by people with an agenda or people who don’t know any better. Regardless of motive, it’s our job to think critically about information before we spread it or form opinions. By knowing what questions to ask, we can better assess the validity of claims. Levitin reminds us to be critical of information that confirms our biases too. I liked his method of asking the reader to question a previous statement in the book. It reminded me to remain alert and critical, even of Levitin’s claims.
Critical thinking doesn’t mean we disparage everything; it means that we try to distinguish between claims with evidence and those without.
This edition is a repackaging of A Field Guide to Lies (pub. 9/6/16). The biggest (only?) difference is the introduction. In the updated introduction, Levitin argues that euphemisms, such as “fake news” or “extreme views,” are doing a disservice to us all. It makes falsehoods sound less insidious than they are. False statements should be called what they actually are–lies.
Biases, inaccuracies, and honest mistakes can enter at any stage. Part of evaluating claims includes asking the questions “Can we really know that?” and “How do they know that?”
Numbers seem so objective and definitive, but they shouldn’t be taken at face value. Statistics and infographics can be manipulated to lead you to a conclusion that doesn’t hold up upon closer look. Sometimes our basic knowledge of the world can weed out the bad information immediately, but other times the deception is more obscured. We should always question how the numbers were collected and interpreted. Visual representations of statistics make a powerful impact and most people only give them a passing glance. Levitin explains the methods used to deceive with infographics. He uses real-world examples to reinforce the points. One example shown is the misleading chart shown at the Planned Parenthood hearing in 2015.
What is the likelihood of something occurring or being true? Probability gives us a much broader view than anecdotes and helps us make better decisions. Make sure you understand the “Probabilities” chapter, especially Bayesian probability, because it comes up in other chapters! I was especially interested in probability in the medical industry, because understanding how probability works can make you a more empowered patient. If you get a positive result on a mammogram, what is the actual chance of having breast cancer? Under 10%, because the disease is relatively rare and the test is not perfect. There are also times when doctors have recommended unnecessary, intrusive operations based on faulty understanding of probability.
This section includes tools to evaluate the information we encounter every day. We depend on experts to provide information, but does everything they say hold the same weight? No! For example, just because someone is world-renowned neurosurgeon* doesn’t make them an expert in other fields, even other medical fields. Sometimes experts engage in speculation like the rest of us and it’s important to be able to differentiate between opinions and evidenced-based claims. Levitin also lists the telltale signs of bias or deception. He explains different techniques used to deceive people, such as burying fallacious arguments in a cluster of facts. Does a website’s claims to reveal “truth” actually indicate the opposite? Before we blindly accept a claim, we should also ask if there are any alternative explanations that weren’t considered or revealed.
EVALUATING THE WORLD
The inner workings of the scientific community are a mystery to many and charlatans take advantage of this. In this section, Levitin explains the scientific method and the rigorous process through which scientists come to a consensus. He addresses the myths about science: (1) scientists never disagree and (2) a single experiment tells us all we need to know. He also explains common logical fallacies, so that we can better evaluate scientific claims. The autism/vaccines controversy is used to illustrate four logical fallacies in action.
The information presented in this book is not just helpful for evaluating the news. Bayesian thinking can help with a legal defense, making an important medical decision, or even evaluating salesperson’s claims. The last chapter includes four case studies that apply the previous lessons in critical thinking to the real world. My favorite of the four was Levitin’s personal story about his dog’s illness. He and his wife were able to logically think through every option and choose the path that was best for their dog. They were able to be a peace knowing they had done everything they could for their dog, while also causing the least harm.
There are not two sides to a story when one side is a lie. …. Two sides to a story exist when evidence exists on both sides of a position. Then, reasonable people may disagree about how to weigh that evidence, and what conclusion to form from it. Everyone, of course, is entitled to their own opinion. But they are not entitled to their own facts. Lies are an absence of facts and, in many cases, a direct contradiction of them.
My only complaint is the “Numbers” chapter felt more fleshed out than the “Words” and “World” chapters. The last two sections went so fast and I was so disappointed when the content ended 2/3s of the way through. I wasn’t ready for it to end yet! Maybe that’s more of a compliment than a complaint! The remainder of the pages are filled with a glossary, supporting documentation, and an index.
We’re far better off knowing a moderate number of things with certainty than a large number of things that might not be so.
Weaponized Lies is about understanding the limits of our knowledge and not being ashamed to admit that we don’t know everything. This book encourages people to think scientifically and suppress the temptation to automatically discount dissenting evidence. It’s easy to submit to lazy thinking when we’re bombarded with so much information and we’re so busy with our everyday lives. None of us are logically perfect human beings, so it’s important to be aware of our flaws. This book is an excellent refresher course in thinking critically. It’s helped me better articulate why I find some information manipulative or misleading. The best part of the book is that it gave me an upper hand in an ongoing argument with my husband (he was essentially “truncating the y-axis” to make a misleading point). Thanks, Daniel Levitin! ;D
* I used a neurosurgeon as an example because of Ben Carson’s recent claims about memory: Washington Post, Wired.
* I read this book around the same time I watched Denial, a movie about a woman who was sued by a Holocaust denier for libel (a real-life case: Irving v Penguin Books). In the movie, the woman is frustrated with the defense’s refusal to allow witness testimony and the lawyer’s heartless questions. The defense maintains that they need to prove the case more objectively if they’re going to win in a definitive way. Richard Rampton:”They’re a strange thing, consciences. Trouble is, what feels best isn’t necessarily what works best.”
* Purple America Has All But Disappeared: This article on FiveThirtyEight terrified me more than anything else I’ve read recently: “In an increasing number of communities …. an entire generation of youth will grow up without much exposure to alternative political points of view. If you think our political climate is toxic now, think for a moment about how nasty politics could be 20 or 30 years from now.”
* “The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know…Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.” – John Adams
* Popular comic about the science news cycle.