Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human Hardcover – Apr 14 2009
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“Obvious logical errors are always the ones other people make. Michael and Ellen Kaplan put this self-serving idea to rest, brilliantly and wittily exploring the sources of the fallacies that infect the thinking of us all. Bozo Sapiens is a book rich not only in examples, but in wisdom. Every one of its readers will learn from it.” ―Denis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
“A beautifully written book; a heartfelt and powerful summary of decades of research into human reasoning quirks -- the bizarre heuristic and biases which make up the vast majority of our everyday practical 'reasoning'.” ―Metapsychology
“The mother-son co-authors of Chances Are…: Adventures in Probability (2006) turn their considerable authorial skills and wit to human behavior, from our isolated cave-dwelling ancestors to today's globalized, interconnected world… Gourmet reading--rich in ideas, global references and amusing and provocative examples, served with great style.” ―Kirkus
About the Author
Michael and Ellen Kaplan are mother and son, and coauthors of the bestselling Chances Are…: Adventures in Probability. Michael is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker who resides in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ellen is an archaeologist and cofounder of the Math Circle, a program for the exploration and enjoyment of mathematics. She is coauthor of The Art of the Infinite: The Pleasures of Mathematics and Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free. She lives in central Massachusetts.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book intrigued me, because I have a strong interest in books on human intelligence or the lack thereof. Bozo Sapiens talks about the mistakes we make and misperceptions we have, and the reasons behind them. It explained some things I have been wondering about and caused me to think about other things I hadn't previously considered.
Bozo Sapiens was also well-researched. Since it draws from the literature in areas of brain research, neurochemistry, behavioral science, evolutionary biology, and other related topics, many of its references will be familiar to a person who is reasonably well-read in these topics.
One of the key concepts this book brought to me is there are good reasons for why we get things wrong. The brain adapts and alters its perceptions of reality to fit its expectations of reality. If we can account for that, we can avoid pointless self-flagellation and get on with things. We can also understand others better by recognizing that people can see the same facts or situation differently for reasons that have nothing to do with comparative intelligence.
The authors devote a significant amount of page space to exploring how and why our illusions and delusions serve good purposes. This concept that such mechanisms are helpful is a fundamental assumption behind treating maladaptive coping behaviors with talk therapy (what used to work no longer works).
This book consists of seven chapters and an extensive notes section.
Chapter One is titled From the Logbook of the Ship of Fools. It doesn't have a single theme or thrust. Mostly, it explores some basic concepts of logic and reasoning. This includes discussions of fallacious reasoning, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, word connotations in arguments, and the scientific method.
Chapter Two is titled Idols of the Marketplace. Here, the authors say things that would make any Libertarian pause. A major point in this chapter is that the markets are not rational. Computers (which are purely rational) make choices one way and humans make them in another way. Therefore, the market on its own won't produce the best outcomes. But for the same reasons, neither will a centrally-controlled economy. This chapter is full of great stuff for fascinating dinner conversation. For example, loss aversion typically causes people to cheat themselves.
Chapter Three is titled Tinted Glasses. This chapter draws heavily on recent works (of original research) to explain why the brain sees a different version of reality than what's actually there. I like the way the authors thread things together. I've read many of the works they reference, but then I read more books in a year than 40% of Americans read in their adult lifetimes. It simply is not possible to write accurately on this topic without drawing from authoritative works.
Chapter Four is titled Off the Rails. It naturally follows the previous chapter. In this chapter, the authors look at what we do with the distorted information our brains produce from our senses. One subtitle in "Complex systems, simple mistakes." That is the territory where this chapter takes you.
Chapter Five is titled One of Us. The focus here is on kinship, group formation, belonging, and various aspects of becoming "us" as opposed to "them."
Chapter Six is titled Fresh Off the Pleistocene Bus. Subtopics include sex, marriage, and food. The authors discuss cultures, anxiety, and the tragedy of the commons. They briefly discuss why the French use a great deal of butter and sugar in their cooking, but manage to stay lean.
Chapter Seven is titled Living Right. Here, they discuss how people arrive at different views about what's right. They discuss moral axioms, national characters, altruism, and polarized politics. Quite a discussion of ethics, and not just in the human realm. One subheading is "Why the Great are Rarely the Good." The discussion that ensues helps explain the Dilbert work environment.
This book is a good one to add to your collection. It helps you understand more about what makes us human, and why we do some of the crazy things we do.
But *Bozo Sapiens* is much more than just an assortment of oddments. In the last decade or so, philosophers and scientists from a multitude of disciplines have been converging on a new understanding of human nature that favors the irrational over the rational, the unpredictable over the regular, the probabilistic over the absolute. The Kaplans survey this new understanding from the standpoint of human error: "Wrong thinking, reasoning that could never stand up to scrutiny, is universal and nearly constant. Why?" They examine the origin and consequences of flawed logic and perceptions gone haywire in a variety of settings, including economics, cognitive psychology, engineering and design, group dynamics, evolutionary biology, and moral reasoning. Errors, they conclude, are "the permanent companions of our capabilities.... We err because we seek, we fail to grasp because we try the furthest reach."
As in the Kaplans' previous books (*Chances Are*, as well as *The Art of the Infinite* and *Out of the Labyrinth*, by Ellen Kaplan and her husband Robert), the writing in *Bozo Sapiens* has the virtues of the best conversationalists: clarity without pedantry, wit without ostentation. (In fact, it has taken me several tries to finish this review, because each time I flip through the book, I cannot resist rereading a few paragraphs...and then another page...and another.) Highly recommended.
But, there was something in its construction that left me flat. For one thing, there was no particular narrative arc that led anywhere. It was just a, seemingly random, collection of explorations that support the premise that we don't think nor act so rationally. And, then, at a more atomic level, there was something about sentence construction and analogy that stopped me rather than propelled me. For instance, to "illuminate" they offered that the subject they were explaining was like:
* Aishawarya Rai, or
* Waiting for Mr. Darcy, or
* The Great Fear of 1789, or
* The Maori Haka
Maybe what this illustrates is that I'm not as learned as they are. But, it seems to me that if you are using analogy to illustrate, you would choose more recognizable examples. I already knew about what they were trying to explain, but I didn't know about their analogies. It was things like this -- effects of construction -- that detracted from a cogent take-away.
Bozo Sapiens is a book based on the above premise: that error in thinking is endemic to human nature. Take away our tendency to err, and you take away a part of what makes us human. While no one is saying that humans do not possess a good deal of rationality, the truth still runs contra to what logicians and some philosophers want us to believe: we are not always the rational animal.
The book starts with a lively discussion on what logic is (a tool for thought), why it is important, and why it is not the natural state of the mind. One must work at logic, as evidenced by the bevy just as alive today as when Aristotle first catalogued them. Rather than being the laws of thought (as some have supposed) logic is a sometimes unnatural tool that we can, but often don't, use to think our way to conclusions.
What else do we use? The answer is taken up by the next 2/3rds - the meat - of the book. First, there are sensory mistakes (optical illusions, false memories, selective listening, etc.). Since we humans rely on our senses for much of what we believe, when our senses go wrong, it is hard indeed to rectify the situation (try convincing the schizophrenic that there is no CIA plot to listen to his inner thoughts, or the ghost-hunter that it is all smoke and mirrors).
Another favorite fallacy of the Kaplan's is "motivated reasoning,"; what is more commonly called "confirmation bias." We humans have a tendency to favor our own leanings rather than to see situations objectively. This leads not only to people "sseing evidence everywhere" for some most foolish beliefs (holocaust denial, UFOlogy), but to our tendency to erroneously believe that others err more than we. All of this is made possible by our very very human tendency to attend to the "hits" while ignoring or discounting the "misses."
An entire chapter is devoted to errors made in economics. The authors rightly see economics and finance as a field where inordinate amount of errors occur, and rightly note that this is largely becuase our evolved brains were not "designed" to handle large numbers and statistics. We come from hunter/gatherers whose brains helped them get food and deal with things right in front of them, rather than placeholders, decimals, and commas.
Lastly, we deal with the very human areas of love and ethics. We have all done stupid things for love. How stupid? Well, our authors detail some fascinating examples (which show that we have not gotten far beyond our ancestors' tendency to think short-term when the heart is concerned.) And ethics? Well, philosophers have debated its fine points for years, and our authors fare no better. What do we make of humans' conflicting impulses towards doing for onesself and helping others, for short-term gain and long-term happiness, for 'ends in themselves' and 'ends justified by means.'
All in all, Bozo Sapiens is a page turning read for those who, like myself, marvel at our remarkable human strength and frailty. The Kaplans never intend to degrade humans by pointing out the more stupid things we do, but only to remind us that we are human and that this is for better or worse.
One complaint I have about this book is that it is often whirligig in nature, never sticking to one subject long enough to do more than offer a brief taste. There is not much original here (that cannot also be found in books like "Nudge," and "Predictably Irrational.") That said, the writing and examples used are fascinating, and I reccomend this book to anyone fascinated with how our brain works (or does not).
A good way into the book, the authors explain the title to mean "wise fools." Our brains may be the most complex thing in the universe. Their workings are a marvel. We can do so many things that no other creature, and none of our own computers and other creations, can do.
But our brains also make mistakes. Big mistakes. Despite our best efforts to avoid them. Ellen Kaplan (the mother) and Michael Kaplan (the son) team up in their second co-written book to tell why to err is human, so human that we all do it, and all in much the same way.
In fact, the Kaplans may have made some of their own mistakes in their book. Two examples. First, they say that Ted Williams could see a baseball so well when he hit it that he knew whether he hit it on one seam, on two seams, or on no seams. They say that hard as that is to believe, we can believe it. Why? Because an umpire, who was a disinterested observer and had no reason to lie, said that Ted Williams could do it. But how could the umpire know?
Second, the Kaplans use the Mormon Church as an example of a faith that has some key beliefs that are hard to swallow. They say, for example, that Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected in Mexico. Not really. Mormons believe, like other Christians, that Christ was resurrected in Jerusalem. But Mormons also believe that Christ visited the New World, maybe in Mexico or maybe elsewhere, after he was resurrected. So the authors' point is well taken, but not quite accurate.
Similarly, the authors say that Joseph Smith "decoded" the Book of Mormon. Not really. Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Mormon was written in an ancient language -- reformed Egyptian -- that he had to translate into English. Saying the Book of Mormon was written in code sounds a lot more kooky than saying it was written in an ancient language. At least give his claim an unslanted telling.
But those are minor points. Bozo Sapiens is filled with interesting points, supported by interesting stories. Clearly, the Kaplans did a lot of research. They are not experts in human brains and how they work. But they do not need to be. Gifted amateurs who do their research and write well can do better, this book shows, than experts.
Several ideas and stories from the book stuck with me. I'll share just one. The authors tell how a general from Iraq in the early days of the occupation went to the White House to tell President Bush three things that needed urgently to be done.
When the general arrived, despite his deep desire to convince the president to do these things, he found himself instead telling President Bush how much the Iraqi people loved him. The people in the Oval Office, the atmosphere there, and the way the conversation went turned his planned sincere pleading into insincere flattery. How horrible. But how human.
While Bozo Sapiens reads well, for me the too-cute title was not the only jarring note. The authors' tone also, from time to time, was too didactic for my taste. Think of a know-it-all nerd who explains everything a little too well. A little of that tone. Not enough to turn me away from the book. But enough to mention.
Still, every book has to have its faults. To err is, indeed, human. The Kaplans do a great job telling us why that is. A few errors in their book only serve to pound the point home.
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