Kahneman and Tversky approached their personal lives and their research in extremely divergent manners. At times, Lewis’...

THE UNDOING PROJECT

A FRIENDSHIP THAT CHANGED OUR MINDS

The bestselling author combines biography with recent intellectual history in a saga about the influential Israeli psychologist team of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Tversky died in 1996, before Lewis (Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, 2014, etc.) even recognized his name. But Kahneman is still living, and Lewis spent lots of time with him studying his theories of how the human mind works while making decisions ranging from product purchasing decisions to choosing a marriage partner. Lewis’ fascination with Tversky and Kahneman began with a reference in a review of his bestseller Moneyball, a book that explained how the Oakland Athletics organization overhauled its decision-making processes in order to sign the best athletes possible on a limited budget. The review praised Lewis for explaining how most baseball executives had been choosing players using irrational criteria. The review also emphasized that the author seemed unaware that the techniques were grounded in the decades-old research of Tversky and Kahneman. That research demonstrated the irrationalities of the human brain and recommended how such irrational thinking could be minimized. By the time Lewis approached Kahneman, the potential book subject had won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, despite identifying as a psychologist. However, he had not yet completed his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), so Lewis would be chronicling an individual nearly unknown outside academia. The result is largely successful. As always, Lewis’ writing style is engaging and mostly irresistible. The opening chapter is slightly disorienting because it never mentions the book’s subjects; instead, the author chronicles the journey of a professional basketball executive hoping to construct a systematic method of choosing players. However, after Lewis eases into the main subjects, he ably captures their outsized personalities, explaining how they came to collaborate and how that collaboration slowly frayed.

Kahneman and Tversky approached their personal lives and their research in extremely divergent manners. At times, Lewis’ details about the unlikely coupling overwhelm the larger narrative, but that is a minor complaint in another solid book from this gifted author.

Pub Date: Dec. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-25459-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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