Thinking, Fast and Slow

[Amazon Link]

I'd had this 2011 book on my to-be-read list for years, but it kept going on "course reserve" lists at the University Near Here library. I finally broke down and ordered the Kindle version from Amazon. It's very good. The author, Daniel Kahneman, won the 2002 Nobel Economics Prize for his research into how humans make decisions, and that research, and more, is reported here. It is a wonderfully written and accessible book; it's clear that Kahneman really wants to tell you interesting stuff, and he wants you to understand it.

It's the kind of book that makes you think Big Thoughts. Like: Darwinists tell us, and they're probably right, that our brains are the product of eons of evolution; for nearly that entire time, that meant the basics: figuring out how to reproduce, get food, try to avoid becoming food, defend against the elements, etc. But somehow that brain, developed for brute survival, has in a relative eyeblink in time, allowed us to plumb the secrets of the universe, develop all sorts of gadgets, construct art, language, Major League Baseball …

How could that possibly have happened? It's enough to make one believe in Intelligent Design!

But, as Kahneman demonstrates convincingly, our "intelligence" is quirky enough to argue against that thesis too. If God designed our brains to act this way, He's open to a lot of criticism. They work OK, but not that OK.

Anyway: the book discusses (as you might guess from the title) two distinct modes of thinking. Kahneman nearly anthropomorphizes these modes, calling them "System 1" and "System 2". (He's careful to note that this is a shorthand for what's actually going on.)

System 1 is the fast thinker. It's responsible for most of the activities we carry out "without thinking" (although it is thinking). It is impulsive, liable to reach conclusions on the basis of incomplete information, therefore gullible, and does a decent job most of the time. Its operations are mostly subconscious.

But it's overmatched on any issue that requires deliberation, calculation, or other higher reasoning, for which it calls in "slow" System 2. Problem is, System 2 is—Kahneman's own word—lazy. (I think this implies that the brain areas involved in System 2 thought gobble up a lot more energy; evolution-wise, it makes sense to use System 2 only when absolutely needed.)

Now, if you're a researcher into how this all works, as Kahneman is, your methods involve mostly trickery: lead System 1 into error, see under what conditions System 2 is invoked, see when System 2 rolls over, goes back to sleep, tells System 1 to just deal with it already. It turns out to be absurdly easy to lead our brains into fallacy, bias, and irrational choices. Kahneman tells these tales with a lot of sly humor—which makes sense, because such mental errors seem to be the source of a lot of comedy as well. Some of Kahneman's humor is refreshingly self-deprecating; he's not shy about discussing the episodes in which he was led into fallacy.

He details a large variety of those biases and how they manifest themselves in everyday life. Another "big idea": most entrepreneurship and innovation is, strictly speaking, based in fallacious optimism about how things could turn out. Most entrepreneurs crash and burn, most innovations aren't necessary, many new businesses fail, etc. But the ones that do prevail, against the odds, drive economic prosperity.

So we may be rich, not in spite of our flawed mental processes, but because of our flawed mental processes. Hm.

Now it's not all wonderful. Kahneman veers into the political in his final chapters, arguing that Research Shows the untenability of the "Chicago School" economics as explicated by (say) fellow Nobelist Milton Friedman. Instead he seems to advocate "libertarian paternalism" like "Nudge" authors Sunstein and Thaler. I remain skeptical.


Last Modified 2017-01-08 8:24 AM EST

URLs du Jour

2017-01-08

The Makers of CeraVe® Skincare have declared today National Winter Skin Relief Day. So get out there and moisturize.

  • Today's pet peeve: labelling your stupid policy proposals as "common sense" or "smart". Today's example:

    President Obama advocated for more gun control measures in an editorial he wrote for the Harvard Law Review on Thursday.

    In a lengthy essay titled “The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform,” Obama urged the country to “take commonsense steps to reduce gun violence” while celebrating the executive orders he has enacted.

    The about-to-be-ex President's essay contains multiple occurrences of "commonsense". (I don't know why he spells it like that.)

    • "… adopting commonsense measures to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are a threat to others or themselves …"

    • "Here are commonsense steps that I am hopeful could be accomplished in the next few years,…"

    • "I believe we can take commonsense steps to reduce gun violence that are consistent with the Second Amendment.…"

    • "Congress should pass the kinds of commonsense reforms supported by most of the American people …"

    Even more common is "smart":

    • "… the Department of Justice has made important changes to federal charging policies, starting first and foremost with the “Smart on Crime” initiative …"

    • "… equal justice depends on individualized justice, and smart law enforcement demands it."

    • "One promising proposal in my second term was the Smarter Sentencing Act,…"

    • "… smarter ways to integrate new technologies, like social media, to enhance public trust and public safety …"

    • "A few years ago, the Department of Justice also launched the Smart on Juvenile Justice Initiative …"

    • "… I have pushed for reforms that make the criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective …"

    Now, let it be said: it's not just Obama. Or even those on the left. Everybody wants to be on the side of "common sense". Everybody wants to be "smart".

    But slapping "smart" or "common sense" into an argument is pointless, dishonest, and lazy:

    Pointless because it never adds anything useful to the discussion;

    Dishonest because it's almost never true, it's just there to sound good and sway the easily gulled;

    Lazy because it's not an argument; it's meant to substitute for an argument that the writer is unwilling, or unable, to make.

    Bottom line: don't tell me you're smart, and that your proposals embody "common sense", show me. I bet you can't.

  • At Reason, Baylen Linnekin notes Congressional efforts to protect us all from the dangers of…

    Last month more than 30 Members of Congress wrote a letter to the FDA asking the agency to require makers of non-dairy milks—including almond, rice, and soy—to stop using the term "milk" to describe their milk. The congressional letter is ridiculous, and reeks of a mix of unconstitutional protectionism and unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.

    Leading the effort is Rep. Peter Welch (D-Ben&Jerry's). A little searching finds the referenced letter; NH CongressCritter Ann McLane Kuster signed on to the ridiculosity. (My own CongressCritter/Toothache, Carol Shea-Porter, has only been in the job a few days, give her time.)

    I like Linnekin's alternate modest proposal: the dairy industry should be required to label their own product more honestly: not "Milk", but "Cow Milk". I would go further. In the interest of providing consumers useful information, the cartons should replace "milk" with "cow lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum". Which is actually shorter than the full legal definition. But I don't want to be unreasonable.

  • Back in the campaign, Trump issued a list of his possible Supreme Court picks. On the list was Texas state Supreme Court Justice Don Willett. That wasn't enough to make me vote Trump.

    Yesterday's print WSJ had a funny article: "A Week in the Life of Justice Don Willett".

    From the article:

    I’m probably the tweetingest judge in America, which, admittedly, is like being the tallest Munchkin in Oz. Americans can debate whether the judiciary remains government’s “least dangerous branch” (Hamilton’s description). But “the branch with the costumes” (my daughter’s description) is certainly the least understood.

    Fingers crossed that Trump will keep this promise, in this specific way.

  • A team of geniuses has figured out how to get two Google Home devices to literally converse with each other. The result is pretty amusing.


Last Modified 2017-01-08 10:05 AM EST