Noise: A flaw in human judgement by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein – a book review

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Noise: A flaw in human judgement
Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein
Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9781984832061

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Noise draws together statistical research to show how skewed judgement can be in fields from criminal justice to medicine, public health to economics, human resources to child protection – and just how rampant the problem is.

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Since 1973, more than 182 people sent to death row in America were innocent. The March issue of National Geographic tells the story of people among this number who were eventually released, but who’d been incarcerated for years.

The story is accompanied by portraits of many of the tainted, all by the same imperfect system. These are the faces of people giving a face to the type of “noise” raised in a new book now available on South African shores.

Noise: A flaw in human judgement is the work of Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein – a trio of academic powerhouses whose individual statures themselves are an indication of what the reader is in for.

Kahneman is the author of Thinking, fast and slow. He won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and the US National Medal of Freedom in 2013. Sibony is professor of strategy and business policy at the HEC Paris business school. Previously, he spent 25 years as a senior partner at management consultancy McKinsey & Company. Sunstein’s publications include Nudge, co-authored with Richard H Thaler. He is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

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The first thing to know about Noise is that while its release coincides with an era of chronic information overload, it is more to the root of the problem, as it applies to professional judgement.

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The first thing to know about Noise is that while its release coincides with an era of chronic information overload, it is more to the root of the problem, as it applies to professional judgement. Noise draws together statistical research to show how skewed judgement can be in fields from criminal justice to medicine, public health to economics, human resources to child protection – and just how rampant the problem is.

“Wherever there is judgement, there is noise – and more of it than you think,” the book repeatedly tells the reader. It digs into the reasons why bias is actively countered, but noise is largely ignored.

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It begins by identifying noise as the problem, moving on to a discussion on the mind as a measuring instrument. It looks at judgements as predictions, and noise involved in this process; at how noise happens; and at how we can improve our judgements.

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The authors go about their task in a considered and structured way. It begins by identifying noise as the problem, moving on to a discussion on the mind as a measuring instrument. It looks at judgements as predictions, and noise involved in this process; at how noise happens; and at how we can improve our judgements. The book concludes on the topic of “optimal noise” – essentially, how noise may even be tolerable and, in some cases, desirable.

In the end, the book is part spotlight and part alarm bell. It reveals how the solutions are available to us to make dramatic changes in the quality of life of individuals and communities, should we be brave enough to break with tradition.

And while the authors reference work almost exclusively from the US and UK, their book remains a very worthwhile read for the ways it shows noise as a human problem.

The book includes discussions on, among others, superforecasters; why entire books can be written about noise in medicine, and particularly psychiatry; how groups can be the sources of more noise, but also a way of reducing it when managed correctly; how artificial intelligence and algorithms can solve many of the problems of noise; how noise-free judgement relies on statistical thinking rather than gut-feel or naïve interpretations; and how employee recruitment and performance reviews are fraught with noise.

“We will never be 100% rid of noise, but we can strive for accuracy,” the authors say.

Noise: A flaw in human judgement is fascinating and dense with research – a book that will appeal to anyone curious about the workings of our thought processes and how we might improve.

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