Suss Out Your Truthiness

A mug with the inscription "Thinking ... Please Wait".
By Wade M from San Francisco, USA (Thinking) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Two definitions:

Post-truth: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Truthiness: “Believing something that feels true, even if it isn’t supported by fact.”

Quick: conjure the zeitgeist with a single word. A decade ago, that word (according to Merriam-Webster) was “truthiness.” This year, the feeling of truthiness is back with a sequel:  citing a 2000% increase in its use during the year, Oxford Dictionaries has proclaimed “post-truth” to be the word that best reflects the spirit of the times. These two words are subtly different in meaning, but both point to a reliance on feeling rather than objective fact in decision-making.

But wait–aren’t we humans, with our big brains, inherently rational? Turns out that we are deeply influenced by thought processes that are largely automatic and unconscious, and even our “rational” thoughts are built on the shaky foundation of intuition. So how can we escape a post-truth world plagued by truthiness? Knowledge is power; there is always hope.

One of the occupational hazards of being a librarian is that you will always have on hand a teetering stockpile made of books that randomly caught your eye while you were walking through the stacks. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow was one such serendipitous find; it has been oddly soothing to delve into the quirks of human thought as I’ve grappled with the recent sea changes in our political landscape. Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002; the impact of his wide-ranging research on judgment, decision making, and intuitive prediction has been felt in fields as disparate as medicine and politics. Kahneman’s best-selling work is a guidebook to the current research on human rationality (and irrationality), and reading it will give you a better understanding of how to suss out instances of truthiness in your own thinking.

Using the conceit of “System 1”–the processes of unconscious perception and thought that provide gut reactions–and “System 2”–the slower, conscious (and easily exhausted) processes of thought that vet evidence and evaluate the snap judgments of System 1–to organize his discussion of human thinking, he details the variety of ways in which the interplay between these two types of thinking lead to judgments muddied by an array of cognitive biases. Key points among them are overconfidence in our own knowledge and understanding, susceptibility to the power of suggestion, and an inclination towards the familiar.

While Thinking predates current events by five years, its content sheds light on how the constant avalanche of information that surrounds us, paired with the weaknesses of our System 2 thinking processes, lends credence to fake news and hyperbolic political rhetoric. Besides raising awareness of the tendencies to which we are inherently prone, Kahneman also offers practical suggestions for sidestepping those tendencies and building your internal truthiness-fighting toolkit.

Kahneman’s work, while weighty (and humbling!) is leavened throughout by his clear empathy for the human condition and his ready acknowledgement of his own tendency to succumb to the biases his research has explored. Also, Thinking provides a glimpse into the extraordinary partnership Kahneman shared with fellow researcher Amos Tversky, itself the subject of a fascinating new joint biography, Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds.

Want more tools in your anti-irrationality toolbox? Howard Wainer’s surprisingly readable Truth or Truthiness: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction by Learning to Think Like a Data Scientist provides a deep dive into the issue of statistical reasoning and its relationship to data visualization. Examine your biases, gain a greater understanding of statistics, and resist the rise of a post-truth world.

-Melissa Fisher Isaacs is the Information Services Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

The Undoing Project

Truth or Truthiness

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