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February 22, 2009
Economic Facts and Fallacies
Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies

Just finished reading Thomas Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies. 'Highly recommended.

Renowned economist Thomas Sowell spends a chapter on each topic — urban, gender, academia, income, race, and the third world. And for each of these areas, he rips apart some commonly held beliefs with real world data. The book includes 24 pages of references, so it's not just handwaving.

The obvious question that comes up is: Why are we so freaking gullible? These are important issues of the current day, and the existence of so many commonly held beliefs that are demonstrably wrong is downright frightening.

I believe there's a natural human tendency for people to accept an explanation for things, regardless of whether the explanation is correct or not. And that's for completely Darwinian survival of the species reasons. When there are a ton of data points out there, some of the data readily available, some of it not, some of it requiring massaging, some of it requiring filtering, some of it relevant, irrelevant, accurate, inaccurate, or in between, it's simply not possible for the human mind to take it all in and analyze it in a useful objective way so as to make a time critical decisions, especially while other things are going on. So we rely on abstraction; we accept an overall explanation for the data points, and make our daily assumptions and decisions based on that explanation.

What if the accepted explanation is wrong? Then eventually enough evidence contrary to the assumption accumulates to convince the mind that it's time to dismantle the explanation and replace it with another. Or perhaps convince the mind that there is no explanation yet, and we just don't know.

Of course the cognitive act of relying on an accepted explanation, bogus though it may be, for day to day decisions will have a natural tendency to filter out contradictory data as part of its regular operation. Which means a larger than expected number of contradictory experiences are required to reverse an accepted explanation. And if the available experiences are filtered by the media, political propaganda or the word on the street, than the bogus explanation could live on permanently.

I think it's sad that the current American educational system, and with it American popular culture, seem to have lost the ability for any sort of critical thinking, accepting dogma without much evidence of confirmation. When we're told something in school, through television, books, or newspapers, do we really just accept it without demanding some degree of proof? Apparently so.

I say "American" above, but I don't mean that literally as the problem is universal. I hold America up to a higher standard and I'm more familiar with America than the rest of the world. Of course the people of each nation have naturally adopted different filters for their media input and their schooling input depending upon how much they believe the media and educational system are managed by the government, by a particular political party, or in other was untrustworthy. Or by how much their cultural value critical thinking.

America does, however, have Dr. Sowell. (Ha, I'll bet you thought I'd never get back to the original topic!) And books like this that debunk the accepted dogma are important.

Economic Facts and Fallacies at Basic Books
Economic Facts and Fallacies at Amazon
Thomas Sowell's web site

Posted by DonTillman at February 22, 2009 09:58 AM

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