Notes from The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis’s recent book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds, has received a lot of positive reviews. Others have written (and podcasted) extensively about the contents and merit of Lewis’s book (I especially like the NYT’s focus on the author and Kate Vane’s focus on the interwoven features of the story). There are plenty of places to find a great synopsis or commentary on the book, so I’ll just share some reflections on a few of my favorite quotes from this chronicle of the lives and collaboration of two scientists who introduced to the world many fundamental ideas about how humans think.

undoing

Danny would tell his students: “When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.” That was his intellectual instinct, his natural first step to the mental hoop: to take whatever someone had just said to him and try not to tear it down but to make sense of it.

This strikes me as excellent advice for so many of us. In particular researchers often set out to evaluate a hypothesis, design and carry out an experiment to test it, and end up with data that don’t really speak to the hypothesis. They’re messy, but there seems to be some signal in the noise… they tell you something, but not what you had intended. Maybe this is especially true when you study humans. Either way, this is the point to step back and ask what you can learn, even if it’s not what you wanted to learn. I’m still working on this.

Danny’s advice to ask what it might be true of also seems to be good advice for communicating science more broadly. When communicating to someone with different background experiences and beliefs, if they express a concern like scientists are still uncertain about global warming, communicators will probably be tempted to quickly react: That’s false! It’s not true on the whole, but you can find the truth in it by recalling that there is actually uncertainty about details of the consequences — when, where, and what kinds of catastrophes will strike. There is not uncertainty among scientists that global warming, if left inadequately addressed, will be catastrophic. It’s just the catastrophic details that are unclear. Acknowledging the specifics of uncertainty in this case seems likely to help communicate the falseness of the claim that scientists are uncertain about global warming without alienating an audience.

The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, [Danny] thought, was by studying the mistakes it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”

Isn’t this how we all come to understand ourselves better? Introspecting about the unideal — Why did my heart rate and breathing speed up during that conversation? Why was I rude to that person on the phone? Why do I want to be somewhere other than where I am right now? — I have come to know myself much better than by dwelling on picture-perfect moments.

The point of bothering to discover this was unclear, even to Danny, except that there was a demand for such stuff in psychology journals, and he thought that the measuring was itself good training for him. “I was doing science,” he said. “And I was being very deliberate about what I was doing. I consciously viewed what I was doing as filling a gap in my education, something I needed to do to become a serious scientist.”

My dissertation in a nutshell: I’m not always sure why I’m investigating the things I am, but I am always confident that doing so is helping me become a better scientist and a better thinker.

3240500871_bd1a2d300e_z.jpg
Danny Kahneman in 2009, Image by Eirik Solheim. CC

“The idea that everyone is entitled to his/her opinion was a California thing—that’s not how we did things in Jerusalem.”

Lol.

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.

Good research can happen when you have time and space to think. Cramming your life full of meetings and obligations may feel productive, but is more likely to lead to incremental progress, not true impactful work. I am still working to internalize this advice.

“Because metaphors are vivid and memorable, and because they are not readily subjected to critical analysis, they can have considerable impact on human judgment even when they are inappropriate, useless, or misleading,” said Amos. “They replace genuine uncertainty about the world with semantic ambiguity. A metaphor is a coverup.”

Yes, yes, yes, but I’m unconvinced about the use of a coverup as a metaphor for a metaphor (meta, I know). Metaphor is a pervasive and unavoidable feature of human language and thought.

And with that comment, I have just engaged in confirmation bias and justified my own line of research. Back to research!