How We Know What Isn’t So

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

There’s an enormous gulf between the way we reason in everyday life and the formal study of reasoning and argument, as anyone who has taken an introductory logic course can attest. Recently, cognitive scientists from various disciplines have taken an increased interest in this gap. Studies such as Deanna Kuhn’s THE SKILLS OF ARGUMENT, published by Cambridge University Press in 1991, explore the processes by which people construct arguments and form judgments outside the boundaries of the classroom.

Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology who has studied commmon cognitive errors, had the good idea to make the fruits of this research accessible to the general reader. The result is HOW WE KNOW WHAT ISN’T SO, a book conceived along the lines of John Allen Paulos’ best-seller INNUMERACY.

Unfortunately, Gilovich’s book largely fails to fulfill its promise. The problems are many, including an unsure sense of audience (Gilovich sometimes adopts a primer style, while at other times he assumes a more sophisticated audience) and a failure to define clearly the scope of his project. Indeed, the bland pontifications in the introduction—“Thinking straight about the world is a precious and difficult process that must be carefully nurtured”—may drive some readers away before they’ve ever really started.

Gilovich begins his first chapter with what he considers to be a prime example of flawed thinking: the widespread belief in...

(The entire section is 407 words.)