Bozo Sapiens by Michael and Ellen Kaplan

(Conflict of interest: I received my copy as a freebie from the publisher.)

Michael and Ellen Kaplan’s book, Bozo Sapiens, begins with the observation that (always other…) people tend to make stupid mistakes, by their own measures of stupidity.  PopSci books related to your research topic can be painful to read (the combination of results not being reported in detail with the realisation that they can’t be reported in detail), but the reward tends to be a reminder of what initially attracted you to the field and the occasional anecdote for teaching. So, off I went.

Where the book really shines is in its many examples of reasoning and decision making in the wild. For instance, how a pilot with too much (but unfortunately just recently out of date) knowledge of the air conditioning system on a 737 contributed to the death of 47 passengers (p. 117). Examples of the way pilots and air traffic control communicate successfully with each other in times of crisis (p. 142). A transcript of the events leading up to the mistaken shelling of friendly forces in Iraq (p. 91) revealing the conflicting decision processes and realisation of the error. The book is packed with great examples.

There were a couple of annoyances. The introduction of (classical) logical validity on p. 7 is wrong. They confuse it with consistency. Take this example.

All dogs have five legs.
Rex is a dog.
Therefore Rex has five legs.

The argument is valid because if the premises are true, then so is the conclusion. Now take a description of people at a party:

Some of the cute girls were tipsy
Some of the tipsy people were German
Therefore some of the cute girls were German

The conclusion is consistent with the premises: it is possible for the conclusion to be true if the premises are true. For instance if there were 50 people at the party, and 7 of them were cute German girls who were tipsy. The argument is, however, not valid: it is not necessary that the conclusion is true if the premises are. Suppose all the cute girls were Austrian, and none of the other girls were cute. A few of the Austrians were tipsy. There were Germans at the party, but none of them were female.

There are some fun psychological things going on with these kinds of sentences related to assumptions of cooperativeness and sensitivity to information ordering (one of which is called… the figural effect).

Wason’s 1966 selection task is introduced very briefly (pp. 115–116). There’s a mass of literature studying the task, and much of it was declared a waste of space by Sperber and Girotto (2002) [Use or misuse of the selection task? Rejoinder to Fiddick, Cosmides and Tooby. Cognition, 85, 277-290] and others. Still, it would have been nice to have a few words on the different interpretations people have. How some of these may be reasonable. How people with high g tend to give the answer Wason expected. The effect denotic content, e.g., about drinking laws, has on people’s performance. And so forth. But I guess the point was, as is often the application of the task, to demonstrate that the reader is stupid.

There are a few similar glosses on lab tasks which don’t really do them justice.  However the endnotes are very detailed so you can follow up references and see what the original papers said.  There are many good choices in there, e.g., a paper by Kemp and Tenenbaum on structure learning.

So overall, the book is great as a collection of examples and anecdotes, and might encourage people to learn more about the details.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s