Humans have such an affinity for story that we are easily misled. Every shiny sentence carries with it the possibility for truth of one kind or another. On one hand, it is obvious that made-up fiction, even the most outlandish science fiction, romance, horror, or mystery, may be the means of conveying subtle but intractable and important truths.
On the flip side, it is equally obvious that many statements of so-called fact are nothing of the kind. In the latter case, we often really need to know what is true and what is false, and Daniel J. Levitin’s book A Field Guide to Lies proves to be witty, though-provoking and flat-out useful in this regard. He gives fib-spotters everything but a special hat to wear– no binoculars required.
The book is divided three sections; one dealing with numbers, one with words and one with “the world.” Numbers are pretty easy to deal with, and Levitin has a lot of fun here. He asks what one might make of the claim that “In the thirty-five years since marijuana laws stopped being enforced in California, the number of marijuana smokers has doubled every year.” On the face of it, this sounds plausible (the section deals with “Plausibility”). But as Levitin points out, assuming just one smoker 35 years ago and then doubling that number 35 times adds up to more than 17 billion. Clearly, we’re being misled. And so it goes – but not without an enjoyable classification by Levitin.
While Levitin believes that graphs are the most succinct way to present numerical information at a glance, he also demonstrates that they are an excellent way to present misinformation. We see pie charts that add up to far more than 100%, and bar graphs that have left-right or up-down axes that are scaled to deceive, not inform. He also dives into some symbolic logic problems that are extremely informative with regard to debunking BS-artists. All of this he does with a nicely understated mordant sense of humor. This is quite easily the best field guide to anything you’re likely to read this year.
Once he’s done with numbers, Levitin turns his attention to words, most specifically their misuse and abuse. Here he dives into our storytelling nature, which makes us easy marks. And then, from Baby Mozart to experts at everything but the subject upon which they are currently being asked to speak, Levitin goes another hunt for lies in the wild. His discourse on alternative explanations is priceless, and especially important when it comes times for citizen to listen to plans for the future. It turns out that for all that humans are concerned with and think about the future, we’re pretty bad at predicting it.
Levitin even gets us to “counterknowledge…misinformation packaged to look like fact and that some critical mass of people have begin to believe.” This might seem to account for the vast majority of verbiage on offer today. and again, the draw of a good story has everything to do with this. Just witness the moon landing conspiracy theories. What could be a more powerful human truth than the accomplishment of a moon landing? Obviously, the cover-up.
And so it goes, but perhaps just a bit less effectively thanks to Levitin. When he and I spoke about the book, I heard the last bit of his previous interview while waiting, and he was asked to opine on current events. During that interview, and ours afterward, he pointed out that he had been handed the opportunity to add to the lying landscape by offering an option that seemed like expertise but was in fact outside his range of expertise. He declined to offer an opinion.
Or you can sink into our in-depth interview here: