Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Wrong

Wrong: Why experts* keep failing us--and how to know when not to trust them *Scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, ... consultants, health officials and moreThe full title of the book Wrong by David H. Freedman is

Wrong: Why Experts* Keep Failing Us--And How to Know When Not to Trust Them

*Scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, high-powered consultants, health officials, and more

And though it is about all those things, the primary experts Freedman asks us to keep an eye on are scientists. Actually, perhaps it is more fair to say he is mostly concerned about scientific studies. And perhaps it is even more fair to say he wants us not to blindly accept any news article that begins "A new scientific study suggests..."

So why should you listen to this guy? Freedman himself is the first to admit (under questioning) that it is an odd paradox to be writing a book on how experts are wrong and expect anyone to believe him. To his credit, he devotes a 10-page appendix to the subject. But this very paradox does make it a little difficult to read the book; I found myself asking myself, "Should I believe this?" far more often than I might in other circumstances.

In other ways, though, the book is a very easy to read, clearly written, fun, thorough, and well-documented. It's worth it for the knowingly-ironic final chapter, Eleven Simple Never-Fail Rules for Not Being Misled By Experts. In fact, there are far more than 11 suggestions, more tentatively grouped under "Typical Characteristics of Less Trustworthy Expert Advice" (e.g. It's simplistic, universal, and definitive), "Characteristics of Expert Advice We Should Ignore" (e.g. It appears in a prestigious journal [yes, you read that right]), and "Some Characteristics of More Trustworthy Expert Advice" (e.g. It's a negative finding). All of these suggestions are backed up by the evidence and data of previous chapters which, thanks to Freedman himself, I do view with a more jaundiced eye.

Immediately after reading this book, I saw an article that had many of the characteristics of bad expert advice. I do owe this book for the ability to look at articles like that with greater clarity and recommend it for that reason. Now I'm going to lower my cholesterol with another cup of tea.

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