The Day After April Fool’s

True confession. If one refuses, and I do, to write about current political events, then finding subjects can be challenging. As I wondered how to appropriately memorialize the day after April Fool’s, I thought about my recent reading. “Gosh, I thought, I haven’t read much lately.” Then, I looked around the room I call “my office.” (My wife calls it something rather different; let’s not go there.) I really have read quite a lot, but mostly related to “The President and the Poet,” a project that is worth checking out  if you are not familiar with it. (Also, have a look at Reunion ’64 and please consider some modest support, $10 or $20, for the project on Kickstarter.)

Then, I thought about my Kindle. Yes, I’ve read a good bit on it, too. Most recently, I completed Aldo Schiavone’s Pontius Pilate. Deciphering a Memory. The book received a nice review in the New York Times, but there are two problems. First, the translator was very fond of obscure academic English terms. He lost me, not once, but several times, in a dense fog of theological scholarship. Second, the entire historical record can be summarized in two sentences. Solid historical evidence indicates that a Roman, Pontius Pilate, governed the territory around Jerusalem around the time that we have arbitrarily picked as the beginning of the “common era.” A brief interaction between Pilate and an itinerant Jewish teacher named Jesus resulted in the latter’s death. Building a full book from those sentences requires injecting a lot of material that, at the best, could be called ‘scholarly interpretation.’  Not highly recommended.

So then, I really looked around the office. I’m struck that the books I keep coming back to are the ones I should write about. The two that never get far off my desk these days are Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk. How Randomness Rules our Lives.

Back in the early 1980s, I thought that game theory might offer a useful approach to understanding clinical decision-making. I published a little-known paper about this, but the real bonus was that the background reading lead me to Kahneman. I have been a fan ever since.

I found Mlodinow after I started working at Scios and realized that I was so inept at statistical thinking that I did not even know how to ask statisticians good questions. This ineptitude became embarrassing when it was revealed on an almost-daily basis, and it accounted for my purchasing a number of books. Mlodinow’s is one of the better ones; his strength is that his language makes critical concepts accessible for lay readers.

So, as I look around the office, I’m going to come up with a new rule. I hope you know some of my old ones, for example “Sicker patients do worse.” Or, “Non-fatal diseases generally get better.”

Here is the new rule, based on the concept of “presentness,” (last post) and the two books I have just discussed…

“Any intuitively obvious conclusion based on present data is very likely incorrect.”