The Big Read

Book review: Weaponized Lies the alternative to alternative facts

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the crowds watching Mr Donald Trump's presidential inauguration in January (above) the largest, "period", despite photographs showing otherwise.
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the crowds watching Mr Donald Trump's presidential inauguration in January (above) the largest, "period", despite photographs showing otherwise.PHOTO: REUTERS

At a time when many peddle outright lies as truths, record producer turned neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin arms you with an arsenal of lie-spotters

WEAPONIZED LIES: HOW TO THINK CRITICALLY IN THE POST-TRUTH ERA (formerly titled A FIELD GUIDE TO LIES: CRITICAL THINKING IN THE INFORMATION AGE)

By Daniel J. Levitin

Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, paperback/294 pages/$22.42 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 001.422 LEV or 153.42 LEV

Forty-eight years ago , three Americans became the first human beings to land on the Moon, in their spaceship Apollo 11.

Yet almost half a century later, conspiracy theorists still deny that man has walked on the Moon. They pick away at details of the too-perfect photograph of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the flag of the United States on the Moon.

Why, the theorists ask, are there no stars in the sky in this photo? Why is the flag fluttering when everyone knows there is no wind on the Moon? And how did the astronauts manage to take such a sharp photo?

In this already updated edition to the best-selling book Weaponized Lies, formerly titled A Field Guide To Lies, its author Levitin cites this moon landing as a classic instance in which some try to fly in the face of facts and bend a story to their will.

In the Apollo 11 example, he notes, the photo was taken during daytime on the Moon when, as on Earth, you would not see stars in the sky. The camera they used, he adds, was a Hasselblad with 70mm high-resolution film. And the flag's flutters were folds in its fabric.

  • In a nutshell

  • THE GOOD

    Record producer and musician turned neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin has melded his knack for engaging others with his firm grasp on how to filter out falsehoods from facts and figures. Better yet, he gives the reader copious examples for every point he makes, in the manner of a wise and patient teacher. Reading this, you will soon easily see how gaping the knowledge gaps are between him and lesser-informed authors in the genre, such as Malcolm Gladwell.

    THE BAD

    After noting upfront that almost everyone is "intimidated" by statistics, and so accepts unquestioningly what numbers suggest, Levitin proceeds to give the reader heavy-duty crash courses in probability theory, how to read graphs and how to test various assertions. This is all very handy, but will likely put off those who cannot be bothered to make the effort to master such tools of critical thinking.

A recent example which springs to mind is former White House press secretary Sean Spicer calling the crowds watching his boss Donald Trump's presidential inauguration in January the largest, "period".

He said so despite photographs of the event, widely published by responsible sources, showing that the number of people who turned up was much smaller than that for Mr Trump's predecessor, Mr Barack Obama, in 2008.

His then colleague Kellyanne Conway then called such a falsehood an "alternative fact".

Even acclaimed authors with impressive legwork slip up.

Levitin notes how in the 2013 book David And Goliath, its author Malcolm Gladwell said his research suggested that those with dyslexia might actually be gifted just because they had dyslexia.

This led many who read Gladwell's book to stop sending their dyslexic children to much-needed skills-building classes. The thing is, Levitin points out, Gladwell never thought to ask whether dyslexics would be at an even greater advantage if they had gone for such improvement classes.

  • Five questions this book answers

  • 1 How can you tell if an expert really is an expert?

    2 What do number- crunchers and bean-counters use to manipulate you?

    3 Why do some people believe that vaccines cause autism?

    4 How do top corporate leaders make numbers work for them?

    5 How do illusionists such as David Blaine fool everyone with their death-defying feats?

Levitin, a neuroscientist who used to produce records for top artists such as Santana and The Grateful Dead, wrote this book to arm everyone with the skills to think critically, although he also stresses that often, all you need to think critically is to ask three questions: "Why?", "Can we really know that?" and "How do they know that?"

  • Meet Singapore's IT pioneers on Aug 30

  • Singapore has always been the little nation that could, but when it came to early computers, quite a few people were afraid to go near these big and very expensive machines for fear of breaking them accidentally.

    So how have Singaporeans gone from that to hosting some of the world's most promising start-ups in just 30 years?

    Singapore's information technology (IT) pioneers and old friends Grace Chng and P. Ramakrishna, who are curators of the new book Intelligent Island, will answer that at The Big Read Meet from 6.30pm on Aug 30 in The Possibility Room, Level 5 National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street. Other IT pioneers, including those from the now-defunct National Computer Board, will also share their views.

    Sign up for the meet at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary.

Also, he adds, it is crucial to remember that it is people - with all their biases, moods and ability to err - who collect, crunch and report on statistics. So numbers can, and often do, lie.

It does not help that most people cower when faced with numbers and so lose focus. For example, if your pay is cut by 50 per cent and then later restored by 50 per cent, you cannot sigh with relief. This is because the restored pay is based on your already lower pay and so you are not getting back your original pay.

It is not just numbers that people are fudging, though.

The way people interpret or leave out certain words can be very misleading. Consider this published statistic: People have more cellphones than toilets. The problem with the people who interpreted this statistic from the United Nations, Levitin points out, is that they left out the word "access". Worse, just because a person has access to something, for example, by living where that thing is sold, does not mean he will buy it or be given it.

A more insidious danger is pattern-spotting, much like how one spots examination questions.

Levitin shows how badly one can jump to conclusions, via the example of a cup of hot coffee. Fact: A cup of coffee cools by 5 deg C every minute. If you conclude that the coffee-cooling pattern is therefore 5 deg C by the minute, what you are in effect saying is that coffee will soon reach freezing point. But that ignores one fact - that the lowest point coffee can cool to, naturally, is room temperature.

All told, this fascinating, succinct book is a reliable divining rod in an age weighed down by freewheeling invention, angry liars and conclusion-jumpers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2017, with the headline 'The alternative to alternative facts'. Print Edition | Subscribe