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Don’t Believe Everything You Think

February 6, 2006

Let’s talk about a book that hasn’t been published yet. We can do this because the book has announced its intentions. The title is “Don’t believe everything you think: the 6 basic mistakes we make in thinking” by Thomas Kida, a professor in the School of Management at UMass.

Kida puts the list of six up on the cover:

  1. We prefer stories to statistics.
  2. We seek to confirm, not to question, our ideas.
  3. We rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events.
  4. We sometimes misperceive the world around us.
  5. We tend to oversimplify our thinking.
  6. Our memories are often inaccurate.

I’m almost fond of Mistake #1. I’m empathetic about #4, especially since reaching the age of needing reading glasses. It takes some humility to accept that #6 is true, but I accept it as a necessary condition for Mistake #1.

We can forgive ourselves the tendency in #5, assuming we countenance the idea of evolution, because there must have been great selective pressure long ago for making quick decisions. “Let’s see: A lion is chasing me. Shall I run left toward Crocodile Creek or right toward Elephant Cemetery?”

Mistakes #2 and #3 bother me, though. They are most within our conscious control, and yet hubris often keeps us from acknowledging them.

I can summon a little compassion for our desire for comfort in confirming rather than challenging ideas we hold dear. But the unwillingness to see the role of chance in our lives often strikes me as willful. Then again, the nature of luck is hard for us to understand; otherwise, we would always fasten our seatbelts and never play Lotto.

I’m reading a memoir that squarely faces all these weaknesses as they are practiced in a very real world. It’s called “Snowstruck: In the grip of avalanches” by Jill Fredston, who with her husband, Doug Fesler, run the Alaska Mountain Safety Center. Jill is also the author of an authoritative guide: “Snow sense: a guide to evaluating snow avalanche hazard.”

One story after another confirms H.L. Mencken’s observation that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Nevertheless, the stories are compelling, the analysis of avalanches and the nature of snow and ice are fascinating, and not all the stories in the book are disasters.

One satisfying aspect of the book is that Jill and Doug are true experts with decades of experience combined with continual refinement and testing of their knowledge. Plus, Fredston is a good writer.

Stories like these threaten to become Reader’s Digest tales of survival that typically sound like this: ‘Born in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Bob awoke to the smell of coffee and headed out into the already windy day …’

However, the author really knows her stuff, and her hard-won experience and detailed knowledge make the book gripping. I notice the occasional food stain in the book and imagine a previous reader staring open-mouthed at the page.

This kind of deep expertise impresses me more and more as I get older. I suppose my appreciation grows when I realize anew how special such expertise is in any field. It’s the result of time, passion, dedication, and luck.

I think of my 18-month-old granddaughter who can only approximate many words but who will watch her older sister carefully and then join in on “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” with perfect enunciation. And so it begins.

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