About a dozen years ago, smack-dab in the middle of the Bush II administration’s misadventure in Iraq, a friend despairingly said to me, “I feel like everything I’m being told is a lie.” I shared her despair, which has, of course, returned—on steroids—during this year’s fraught, overwrought presidential campaign. I’m agitated hourly (no, make that every waking minute) by the thought that a shameless liar of Donald Trump’s magnitude might conceivably be elected to the world’s most powerful post, but, frankly, I’m also irritated by Hillary Clinton’s unbecoming lapses from the truth and her incurable (it appears) penchant for secrecy.
So I was looking forward to reading Daniel J. Levitin’s new book, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, hoping it might offer an antidote to the poisonous sea of mis- and disinformation we’re all drowning in. Well, I’m still flailing my arms and gasping for air.
Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t a bad book, nor a worthless one. But it isn’t what it says it is. In fact, its title is an instance of false advertising: Far from providing “a field guide to lies” in the “information age,” Levitin has written a primer on widely applicable critical-thinking principles that can be used not just to dissect and refute the falsehoods mouthed by unscrupulous politicians or the creative fabulations of conspiracy theorists (like moon-landing deniers) and internet deceivers, but also to evaluate the unintentionally misleading statistics that regularly appear in news reports—and that can even help people making complicated health-care decisions to map out a game plan. In short, there’s much too much—about matters that are distantly connected, if at all—crammed into this little book. Levitin at one point offers tips on recognizing fallacious “apples to oranges” comparisons without apparently realizing that his Field Guide is a mixed-up greengrocer’s bin of several unrelated fruit varieties.
That said, Levitin does give some clear guidance on spotting political dissembling—zeroing in, for example, on a poster-size graph wielded by Utah Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz during a 2015 House committee grilling of Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. The graph, which appears in a video of the hearing, seems to show that the number of Planned Parenthood–provided abortions rose dramatically from 2006 to 2013 while cancer-prevention procedures performed by the organization fell equally dramatically during the same period. The problem isn’t with the stats that appear on the graph—those, in fact, are accurate—but rather with the graph’s completely misleading visual, which bolstered Chaffetz’s contention that Planned Parenthood was becoming little more than an abortion mill. As Levitin demonstrates with an alternative, non-misleading graph, cancer screenings and other preventive procedures had indeed fallen off at Planned Parenthood clinics, but their number in 2013 was still three times larger than the number of abortions performed.
But back to the book’s flaws: Levitin devotes the first half of A Field Guide to examining how statistics, probabilities and visual representations of data can be misused (intentionally or not) and misinterpreted. That’s all well and good, but, unfortunately, the text often sails well above the head of a smart-enough but somewhat innumerate person such as myself—a real drawback, since I’d guess that readers like me are Levitin’s intended audience. This problem is, I think, partly editorial: For example, in his discussion of the misuse of averages, Levitin uses the terms mean, median and mode without ever defining them. And his discussion of graphs refers frequently to the x and y axes—sending my mind scrambling back to dim memories of high school math—without ever stating that the x axis is the horizontal one and the y axis the vertical. A sensible editor would have fixed this stuff.
A Field Guide to Lies is, in places, an entertaining read, especially in the four case studies Levitin presents near the book’s end. The most engaging of these stories concerns Levitin’s effort to figure out whether a 2008 feat performed by illusionist-stuntman David Blaine was an actual endurance test or a meticulously staged trick. In the feat, which was broadcast on Oprah, Blaine held his breath underwater for more than 17 minutes—then a world record. (It has since been surpassed.) Interviewing medical specialists and professional magicians and collecting reams of evidence, Levitin finally admits that he’s stumped; even the most rigorous application of critical-thinking principles cannot help him discern whether Blaine is a superhuman athlete or an extremely talented fraud.
So there are limits to critical thinking’s power. One important limitation that, curiously, goes unmentioned in Levitin’s book is this: How can you persuade idiots—people, that is, who show absolutely no interest in using their rational faculties—to abandon their idiocy and begin thinking critically? That’s the difficulty America—and, indeed, the world—is facing this political season. And that’s why Levitin’s book cannot help alleviate my despair. The author, finally, is preaching to the choir, while just outside the church, a barbarian horde is bellowing a very different, beastly tune.