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Eyes Wide Open

How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World

Noreena Hertz

(London Times)

Noreena Hertz must be every doctor's nightmare. When she came down with a condition that left her permanently exhausted and losing weight, she started trying to find a cure. But each doctor she went to see gave her a different diagnosis. One wanted to take her gall bladder out, another told her to eat more sugar, yet another suggested a course of antidepressants.

A lesser woman might have lain back and said, 'Yes doctor.' But Hertz, who is a professor of economics, the author of The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, and has provided a keynote address at the World Economic Forum, had done her homework on the internet and quickly discovered that she was more up-to-date on the research on her condition than the people she was seeing. So she refused to accept their recommendations, and her persistence (and academic training) led her eventually to the right doctor and she is now in perfect health.

It was this experience of discovering that, in the majority of cases, the experts she consulted were dispensing arrogance masked as expertise, that led Hertz to write this guide to making critical decisions.

Although Eyes Wide Open looks like a business self-help book, and although it is written in the adjective- and bullet- point-heavy style of the airport book, it is actually a practical guide to critical thinking in the digital age that is as useful for students as is it for CEOs (my 22-year-old has filched my copy already). There are chapters on the corrosive effect of information overload (have a digital-free Sabbath), how to spot an online fake - Hertz cites the case of the famous lesbian blogger from Damascus who turned out to be a heterosexual man from Canada - and check lists on howto filter out the unseen triggers that affect our behaviour. Apparently, you make a better decision on a full stomach and a full bladder, and you should always have someone to hand who tells you what you don't want to hear.

For me, the most useful chapter is the one on maths anxiety. Do you know the relative chances of a coin landing heads up twice in a row? If you do (the answer is, of course, one in four), then you can feel smug, as you have done better than 40% of the MPs who were asked this question. Worryingly, 60% of the MPs questioned said they were good at figures: that deluded 20% may explain why so many government departments are capable of getting their sums so catastrophically wrong.

For someone as number phobic as myself, Hertz's advice on how to tell if someone has doctored a y axis on a graph, or how to decode those tabloid statistics that claim that eating bacon gives you a 20% chance of colon cancer, is probably the most useful thing I have read this year.

But learning how to decode statistics to make them less frightening has its own problems, as another study cited by Hertz shows. People are much more likely to remember information they want to believe - focusing, if they are smokers, say, on the story of the 99-year-old lady who smokes 50 cigarettes a day but is still going strong rather than on the more depressing trend among heavy smokers of dying young.

Eyes Wide Open is a slightly exhausting book, in that Hertz encourages the reader to question everything and everybody - she even suggests you ask the surgeon about to perform an operation on you whether he or she has had a good night's sleep (surgeons who have slept well are safer than those who haven't). She thinks this perfectly reasonable, and she is probably right, but what if the surgeon says, "No, I didn't sleep a wink"; do you cancel the operation? Hertz clearly would, whereas most of us just want to believe that the men in the white coats know what they are doing.

Most books of this type urge us to do what they say and everything will be fine. Hertz's is an antidote to this kind of thinking. The problem is not the book, which is an admirable guide to predicting the factors that affect our decision-making, but its readers: even if you know, for instance, that the statistics that 'prove' a certain miracle cream will stop wrinkles in their tracks have been doctored, it doesn't stop you buying it in the hope that perhaps, just perhaps, it might be true. As TS Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."

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