Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Publisher's Summary. Our investments are devastated, obesity is epidemic, test scores are in decline, blue-chip companies circle the drain, and popular medications turn out to be ineffective and even dangerous. What happened? Didn't we listen to the scientists, economists and other experts who promised us that if we followed their advice all would be well? Actually, those experts are a big reason we're in this mess. And, according to acclaimed business and science writer David H. Freedman, such expert counsel usually turns out to be wrong--often wildly so. Wrong reveals the dangerously distorted ways experts come up with their advice, and why the most heavily flawed conclusions end up getting the most attention-all the more so in the online era. But there's hope: Wrong spells out the means by which every individual and organization can do a better job of unearthing the crucial bits of right within a vast avalanche of misleading pronouncements.
Review. Do you remember the study from a few years back that claimed that “workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers?” It turns out that the study was the product of corporate sponsorship (Hewlett-Packard); involved an extremely small test pool (eight students) who were subjected to continuous noise and flashing lights while taking a standard IQ test. The author of the study, Dr. Glenn Wilson, later admitted that, “it didn’t prove much of anything . . . .” Yet none of this qualifying information was included in the sensational stories that were published at the time. According to author David H. Freedman, in Wrong, this is just one of too many to count examples of misleading or flat out wrong expert information.
Wrong is a provocative book that challenges conventional beliefs about the value of scientific studies (including random controlled trials) and the expert opinions. Some of the most explosive statements come from noted medical researcher John Ioannidis who opines, “most medical treatment simply isn’t backed up by good, quantitative evidence.” Moreover, Ioannidis claims that these problems are not limited to medicine, but rather opines that “the facts suggest that for many, if not the vast majority, of fields, the majority of published studies are likely to be wrong . . . . [Probably] the vast majority.”
Why do experts get it wrong so often? Freedman convincingly argues that several forces are at play including: flawed evidence and faulty assumptions; “fudging” of results or plain fraud by scientists seeking to advance their professional careers; publication preference for positive and sensational findings; audience preference for experts who provide certain and simplistic advice; and internet shenanigans such as for hire services that bump up the paying client’s study in Google search results. In Wrong Freedman explores these and other pitfalls in thorough detail.
Wrong is a book that repeatedly had me scratching my head in amazement, but I think I am the wiser for having read it. In addition, I will no longer blindly accept the latest study results or expert de jour opinion. However, I don’t claim that I “won’t be fooled again.” Rather I think I will be a bit more skeptical or at least more cautious in the future.
Wrong is a revealing book that challenges many sacred cows, but ultimately succeeds in reminding the reader that caveat emptor reigns even when the advice is served up by an expert.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (June 10, 2010), 304 pages.
Advance review copy provided courtesy of the publisher.