Friday, July 22, 2022

Review of Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt, and Stephen J. Dubner

This review was written by Eugene Kernes  

Book can be found in:
Genre = Philosophy, Epistemology
Book Club Event = Book List (09/03/2022)
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“The fact is that solving problems is hard.  If a given problem still exists, you can bet that a lot of people have already come along and failed to solve it.  Easy problems evaporate; it is the hard ones that linger.  Furthermore, it takes a lot of time to track down, organize, and analyze the data to answer even one small question well.” – Steven D. Levitt, and Stephen J. Dubner, Chapter 1: What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?, Page 11 

“But a lot of obvious ideas are only obvious after the fact – after someone has taken the time and effort to investigate them, to prove them right (or wrong).  The impulse to investigate can only be set free if you stop pretending to know answers that you don’t.  Because the incentives to pretend are so strong, this may require some bravery on your part.” – Steven D. Levitt, and Stephen J. Dubner, Chapter 2: The Three Hardest Words in the English Language, Page 42

“An opponent who feels his argument is ignored isn’t likely to engage with you at all.  He may shout at you and you may shout back at him, but it is hard to persuade someone with whom you can’t even hold a conversation.” – Steven D. Levitt, and Stephen J. Dubner, Chapter 8: How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded, Page 128

While easy problems are evanescent, complex problems have evasive complex solutions.  Resolving even small problems well requires a lot of time and effort.  Rather than delegate thinking to the authors, to others, this book is a guide on how to approach problems.  Rather than make a case for any particular way to resolve problems, the object is to think differently.  There are many cultural inhibitors to challenging prior ideas, and acknowledging a lack of knowledge.  But learning anything requires admitting to what is not yet known.  There is a lot of uncertainty and lack of knowledge about the causes of complex problems that have multidimensional cause-and-effects with distant outcomes.  With such complexity, money tends to be spent on the symptoms rather than the root cause.  With such complexity, many claim that they know more about resolutions to complex problems than they actually know.  Need to experiment and approach the problems differently, to get feedback on potential alternative.  Facts are not enough for socially complex problem, as judgement is needed to consider the meaning of the facts, and what to do.

The book stems from an economic understanding.  The economic approach applies to many of life’s challenges and facilitates concern for resource allocation.  The approach incorporates incentives, finding what to measure and how to measure it appropriately, questioning accepted ideas, and that correlation is not causality.  When private and socially responsible benefits are in conflict, people tend to follow their incentives and choose private benefits over the socially responsible benefits.  To make effect policy changes, policy makes need to align private benefits with social benefits.  Incentives can backfire as there will be those who scheme against any incentive plan.  People are different, and will respond differently to the same incentives.  Financial incentives are not enough to motivate people.  Although difficult, need to understand how people will respond to given incentive changes.  

Everyone has biases, moral or otherwise.  The ask of the book is not to remove the moral righteousness, but to understand that they influence judgement.  Even people of intelligence normally seek confirming evidence, rather than evidence that challenges their claims.  This is problematic because responding to the challenges makes claims more robust.  Many views are accepted because the individual resonates with them, rather than look for other problems that might be important, or small.  Those who are heavily invested in their ideas, will not want to change their mind.  To argue with someone, acknowledge their strengths.  Recognizing the oppositions strengths can be used to learn how to improve ideas, and makes the opponent feel heard. 

Even experts claims and predictions about complex problems are only about half right, as the other half is proved false.  Massive overconfidence in the answers causes a lot of the problems with the claims, especially after disproving evidence of the answers.  Having lots of knowledge in a single area, does not make the knowledge useful in other areas.  Faking ability and not recognizing knowledge limitations can lead to disaster.  Within certain contexts, such as school, faking and pretending knowledge does not have much of a cost.  But policies have a lot of social costs, in which faking and pretending cause.

Pretending knowledge has damaging consequences, but is done for various reasons.  One reason is that there are higher costs on the individual to claim a lack of knowledge, than the cost of being wrong.  There are many social pressures and demands on people to know more than they actually do within complex fields.  The people who made the wrong claims, tend to leave before their errors are found.  In many cases, bad predictions go unpunished.  Unpunished bad predication incentivizes more bad predications.  

Complex problems make it difficult to obtain appropriate feedback.  Learning needs feedback.  With feedback, more information about the problems and potential resolutions can be found.  Information that can be used to adjust forthcoming behavior.  A way to get more information through feedback is by applying known facts to experiments.  There are many reasons why experimentation is inhibited such as sticking to tradition, or lack of expertise to run an experiment.  A large reason for a lack of experimentation, is that experimentation requires someone to admit that they do not know and ask for that information.  

Experimentation leads to more information, but experiments are not created equal.  Experiments that take place in controlled environments, do not reflect well the complexity of the actual situations.  Natural experiments are uncommon because it is difficult to even consider making randomized large scale social policy changes.  But when natural experiments do happen, even without purposeful direction, the feedback provides quality information.   

Certain questions have often been asked, and their answers are normalized but do not satisfy as solutions to problems.  Responses change depending on how a question is asked.  Asking a question differently cause people to look for answers in different places, and seek different information.  Redefining the problem leads to discovery of alternative solutions.  Good practice to get as many possible ideas for resolution, but not all ideas are good in practice.  Many ideas appear great in the moment, but have many unconsidered flaws.  Pausing and thinking before implementation of the ideas, can filter the ideas. 

Solutions to symptoms are easier to understand and undertake, which causes a lot of money to be spent on the symptoms.  The problem is that the symptoms will reoccur if the root of the problem is not resolved.  But the root of the problem can be hard to find, especially with complex problems.  Better to favor small problems because they are more manageable, can be resolved, and have appropriate feedback.  As small problems are rarely investigated, there is lots of to learn.  

As the book asks to think differently about assumptions, the basic economic assumptions within this book also need to be rethought.  As there are many social sanctions against thinking differently, and against experimentations, some practical guidance to encourage those practices would have been valuable.  The stated reasons for the inhibitions do create an understanding on what the problem is, which might inspire thoughts about their resolutions.  

The focus is on thinking differently as that is assumed to improve situations.  The problem is that there can be various advantageous reasons for normal behaviors, traditions, and cultural aspects.  Useful unstated reasons for having certain assumptions and behaviors.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•Why think differently? 
•What is complicated about complex problems?
•What is difficult about claiming a lack of knowledge?
•How do people learn?
•How to get appropriate feedback?
•What prevents experimentation?
•What are incentives? 
•Why consider smaller problems rather than large problems?
•How to convince someone?
•What makes someone biased?
•What happens to unpunished bad predictions?
•What questions should be asked about questions?
•How did King Solomon perform trials?
•How to filer people’s motivations?

Book Details
Publisher:         William Morrow [HarperCollins Publishers]
Edition ISBN:  9780062218360
Pages to read:   140
Publication:     2014
1st Edition:      2014
Format:            eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5