The Perils of Perception:Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything – Bobby Duffy

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Is the Great Wall of China visible from Outer Space? My answer to this seemingly innocuous question would have been a resounding yes until I happened to read “The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything” (“the book”) by Bobby Duffy. A Managing Director of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute and also the Global Director of Ipsos Social Research Institute, Mr. Duffy brings to bear his prodigious statistical expertise and experience in delivery a myth busting work that makes you think twice before even thinking. In The Perils of Perception, which surprisingly happens to be Mr. Duffy’s first book, the author attempts to tackle the various social, emotional, and cultural factors that converge and conflate to birth misperception. As he is quick to point out at the commencement of his work, Mr. Duffy makes a distinction (although “fine”) between misperception and ignorance. To paraphrase him, “ignorance means literally ‘to not know’ or to be unacquainted with. Misperceptions, however, are a positive misunderstanding of reality………”

The great Israeli American psychologist and Nobel Laureate in Economics, Daniel Kahnemann (in the company of his late redoubtable colleague Amos Tversky), has been the torch bearer and very beacon in pioneering the efforts to both understand and challenge the assumptions of human rationality. Mr. Duffy also treads the same path of empiricism in highlighting to his readers the perils of perception that characterizes the various assumptions, which, otherwise are perceived to be accepted wisdom or common place conventions.

True to the sub-title of his book, Mr. Duffy takes on various issues of topical importance that have a bearing and influence over how we as human beings go about our personal and professional endeavours, and regarding which there are extraordinary differences at what seems to be two extreme ends of an incredible continuum. From estimates about consumption of sugar to the prevalence of obesity and conflicting emotions undergirding the need for and abhorrence to vaccinations, Mr. Duffy demonstrates by way of extraordinary surveys and statistics, the differing (and wrongful) perceptions of the respondents to such surveys. Sample this startling fact: “three in five people across the countries as a whole were unsure, or believed that there is a link between vaccine and autism in healthy children.”

What is the underlying rationale behind such irrational thinking? Mr. Duffy elucidates that all varied explanations of our misperceptions can be classified into two groups: how we think and what we are told. Mr. Duffy talks about ‘emotional innumeracy’, “a theory which proposes that when we are wrong about a social reality, cause and effect may well run in both directions. For example, say that people over estimate the level of crime in their country. Do they over estimate crime because they are concerned about it, or are they concerned about it because they over estimate it?” In this particular case, Mr. Duffy proposes that it is a bit of both. Mr. Duffy also presents a vital link between our misperceptions and the media. “It (media) is still a vital actor in the system creating and reinforcing misperceptions. However, the media more generally is not actually the most important root cause of our misperceptions, though it is influential: we get the media we deserve or demand.”  It is not hard to fathom this logic especially in times where a referendum to either Remain or Leave the European Union is influenced by preposterous claims pasted boldly on the sides of buses, and where a dangerous clarion call of ‘nativism’ results in the election of a virtual demagogue to the highest office of the world’s oldest and powerful democracy. Not to mention a word about the dangerous dalliance between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica that had in the eye of its storm, the minds, decisions and future of 87 million human beings.

The book makes for a stirring and thought provoking read. We are made to get a contrasting glimpse of enthusiastic radical optimists and somber prophets of doom as they go about breathing life into myriad surveys. The moral arc of the respondents to the survey seemed to seek their curve depending upon the nature of information fed to them. For instance, the relationship between public concern about immigration, net migration and media coverage of the issue presented an interesting tendency: immigration numbers rise before the media and then the public notice. Also attitudes to immigration were starkly different depending on the respondents’ preferred choice of media.

Ronald Harry Coase the late a British economist and the Clifton R. Musser Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Chicago Law School and also the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991, once famously exclaimed, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” Mr. Duffy in his highly engaging book, not only concurs with Coase but also produces his own proofs.

After treating the foible of misperception in great detail and depth, Mr. Duffy, then proceeds to provide a ‘checklist’ for managing our misperceptions. Exhorting us to “cultivate skepticism, but not cynicism”, goading us to “accept the emotion, but challenge the thought”, Mr. Duffy exudes confidence in the fact that “things are not as bad as we think – and most things are getting better.”  It is with this very positive exultation that I nurse my only reservation with what otherwise is a marvelous piece of work. Mr. Duffy with his ‘Pinkeresque’ conviction about the world being a better place to live now as compared with the past, might be misconstrued as urging his readers to view the Planet that we inhabit with rose tinted glasses. Even though one of the items in his ‘managing misperception’ checklist is ‘fact checking’, an unsuspecting reader might be forgiven in harbouring the impression that his erudite author is not averse to producing a paean to Pollyanna. One classic example being the subject of poverty. Mr. Duffy expostulates that “just one in ten correctly identified that extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years.” While there is no disputing the fact that world now is definitely a more positive and healthy place than what it was two decades ago, the measure of ‘extreme poverty’ and its definitions may be subject to a myriad of interpretations and a plethora of contrasts. This shenanigans of Statistics may have the undesirable outcome of flattering to deceive.

As Thomas Pogge poignantly pointed out, “the morally relevant comparison of existing poverty is not with historical benchmarks, but with present possibilities: How much of this poverty is really unavoidable today? By this standard our generation is doing worse than any in human history.”  Also as Jason Hickel, painstakingly and adroitly shows in his phenomenal treatise “The Divide”, “the present International Poverty Line (“IPL”) theoretically reflects what $1.25 could buy in the United States in 2005. But the US Government itself calculated that in 2005, the average person needed at least $4.48 per day simply to meet minimum nutritional requirements, and that is to say nothing of housing and other costs necessary for basic survival.”  This and the preceding paragraphs are by no means either illustrative of a negative opinion or a criticism of Mr. Duffy’s work. It is just an instructive attempt to show that the tool of statistics can, – in fact is – a double edged sword.

“The Perils of Perception” by Mr. Duffy is an invigorating, timely and essential read. This is a book that needs to be not just read, but absorbed and assimilated, more so in a world where ‘truthism’ competes with ‘fake news’ for attention and ‘post-truths’ and propaganda walk in lockstep. By the way, The Great Wall of China is NOT visible from outer space. For all you skeptics, since the legendary Neil Armstrong is no longer amidst us to prove this fact, the next best clarifying port of call would be Mr. Bobby Duffy.

Over to you Mr. Duffy!

Bobbin Along

(Photo Credit: Yarnspinnerr)

Her world was a splash of riotous colours. An intricate abode of yarns, spindles and bobbins. The staccato burst from the sewing machine that accompanied a fast yet methodical movement of arms and legs was her way of embellishing an unsung melody. What began as an exciting calling had now transcended into a very affirmation of her soul.

Today was no different than what was yesterday and what would be tomorrow. Helen lived her present which was moulded by the past and made malleable to the future. Arranging her multicoloured yarn and threads in tidy boxes, she perched herself on her chair facing a table upon which sat her trusted sewing machine. Order was a perfect necessity for the desired outcomes.

With great precision Helen wound the thread on the spindle. Working with a dexterity that was ridiculously perfect, she began to stitch the first scarf of the morning. It was not always like this. Even now she involuntarily shuddered when she remembered the stumbles and slips when she first lost her vision.


This story has been written as part of the FLASH FICTION FOR ASPIRING WRITERS – FFfAW Challenge #190, more details about which may be found HERE

For reading similar entries submitted in response to the FFfAW Challenge #190 please click HERE

Thank You Yarnspinnerr for the photograph!

Mother Earth’s tears are red

(Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia | © Google Maps)

“Please do not venture deep into the bushes”, warned Arunny using her palm to shield her face from the angry rays of the sun. Siew Kuan armed with a Canon EOS 5D, nodded perfunctorily. But since the tone of her host had a steely ring to it, Siew Kuan reigned in her enthusiasm and slinging the strap of her camera over her shoulder, proceeded towards the steps of the house that appeared as though it was on stilts.

“Arunny means the sun”, said the middle aged woman whose weary face held more tales than a cartographer’s map. “But the sun set down upon me many years ago in this very backyard. It was when my little Botum stepped on a landmine.” Anger, anguish and angst had played a dance of death on her threshold.

“My land is sullied my child. The tears of Mother Earth here are red in colour.”

(Word Count: 150)

This has been an edition of What Pegman Saw

For the complete list of entries, please click HERE


The Prism of Hope

April Pearson

(Photo Credit: April Pearson)

“Grandpa, Parveen tells me there is a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.” Ashita exclaimed without taking her eyes off the magnificent Vibgyor. “Can we get there first before anyone else gets the treasure?”

Not desiring to quell the palpable excitement in his nine-year-old grand-daughter, Francesco patted her head and replied, “Ashita, there is no pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But in every rainbow there is hope. A hope bathed in a riot of colours and a hope that unites sky and sand. Every time you see a rainbow my child, you experience happiness and joy. There are however many souls on earth deprived of happiness. You have to help them find their perfect rainbow. Now do you know how a rainbow is formed?”

“No! Please tell me grandpa! I am sure even Parveen does not know this!” squealed Ashita.

Joanne who was walking a few yards behind her daughter and father, smiled listening to the conversation and even paused fleetingly to look at the rainbow once more. There would come a time, eventually, when she would share with her daughter, her own tale of hope. She had chased her own rainbow too.

(Word Count: 200)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Susan Spaulding. For more details, visit HERE.

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, visit HERE

I am Scared

I feel scared. Every single moment I spend in her company makes time irrelevant and space insignificant. The future becomes reducible and the past a forgettable inevitability. Seconds coalesce into minutes, which in turn melt into hours. Yet time stands still. The hands of the clock might tick away bowing to the pressures of Physics and logic, yet the elemental aspects of time do not observe neither Science nor Standards. It is just serendipity. That is what scares me.

Untouched by Janus and blessed by Dike, she is a symbol of fascinating truth and fecund transparency. Shouting out her views yet subservient to reason, she both shocks and soothes. I feel scared. She is the Portia of dogged resolve, and the delightful Elizabeth Bennet of immortal fame. As insecure as Scarlett O’ Hara yet possessing the steely nerves of Sonya Marmeladova, she is a delightful paradox. This is what both inspires and scares me.

Bringing out the child in me and yet making me aware of my hesitant and insecure conscience, she conflates my triumphs and tribulations into one moment of surreal peace. It is this very peace that makes me scared. Oblivious to pain and ignorant of pleasure, I am transported to a realm that is so pure that no conflicting emotions are allowed entry into that sacred domain. This is precisely why time stands still and space loses significance. It is this purity that scares me. It is this very domain across whose threshold I am wary of stepping. Yet with hands spread apart she beckons. With eyes brimming with meaning she reckons. But I feel scared.

She is so near yet so distant. I know not whether to fear the proximity or the aloofness. While the remoteness makes me crave, the immediacy produces a chill that runs right down my spine. What is it that I am afraid of? The fact that I will never be able to possess her or the possibility that she would invariably be mine? Hell is when she moves away from my vicinity, but is it heaven when she beseeches me to spend a wee bit more time with her drinking and not head home in a haste? It is this conundrum that scares me. With sparkling eyes speaking a thousand words, having for punctuations a luscious cascade of wavy hair, she is an epic of indelible meaning and irrepressible form. It is this very form that makes me vulnerable and this very meaning that has me in a bind. Yes, I feel scared.

More intoxicating than any brew, yet possessing an influence that is sobering, she leads me into territories unchartered yet traversed from time immemorial. Bestowing me with the license to dream, she also reigns me in when those dreams take on proportions unrealistic and dimensions unconstrained. It is this very balance that scares me. In her presence I am an eagle that soars uninhibited with regal wings spread apart; In her closeness, I am an idea whose time has certainly come; I see my future in her smile and chart out my destiny in her laugh. Each time she throws back her head and loses herself in her peal of uninhibited, unrestricted and unshackled laughter, it is as if I am holding a mirror to my very conscience. And it is this conscience that has me all scared.

I think; I conjure; I ponder; I speculate; I surmise; I despair; I pine; I judge; I deign; I decide; I wander; I shirk; I expand; I wither; I blossom. More than anything else I HOPE. It is this very hope that drives and demands; propels and pleads; enthuses and enervates; motivates and mars. But ultimately it this very hope that keeps me going and makes me live.

I feel scared.

Dracula’s Tickle

(Bran Castle, Romania | Google Maps)

“So Romania it is”, exulted Parveen with undisguised glee and enveloped Mika in a bear hug. Even though Mika lost out on her choice of destination she had no choice but to be taken in by the enthusiasm of her best friend.

Days that had melted into months, were spent planning this trip. It was tough to coincide the schedules of a certified Scuba Diving instructor (Parveen) and an accredited Pilates trainer (Mika). A draw of lots ensured that Romania won over Latvia. It was Dracula over the Vecriga.

Around 1.00 A.M the tickling began. Parveen woke up to what sounded like squeals. A sleeping Mika was giggling away wildly flailing her arms and thrashing her legs. Both amused and amazed, Parveen shook her companion awake.

“Dracula tickled me” laughed Mika and at that moment Parveen’s legs turned to water as she saw her friend’s pupils go an angry crimson.

(Word Count: 150)

This has been an edition of What Pegman Saw

For the complete list of entries, please click HERE

Mr. Francesco’s Respect

(Photo Credit: Jeff Arnold)

“Oh no Grandpa not again” wailed Ashita as a gleaming Francesco checkmated his nine-year-old grand-daughter.

Ruffling Ashita’ s hair, Francesco proceeded to impart his precocious bit of wisdom. “listen Ashita, chess is more than just a game. It teaches you tact and thought. It inculcates patience and induces pressure. It lures you to take risks while simultaneously warning you.”

Joanne bringing in a tray of freshly baked cupcakes and steaming cups of tea for her dad and daughter sat next to Francesco.

Francesco continued. “However, the greatest lesson this regal game teaches you Ashita is – always respect your opponent”

(Word Count: 99)

This story was written as part of the FRIDAY FICTIONEERS challenge, more about which may be found HERE

 For the complete list of entries, please click HERE

The credit for the breathtaking photograph goes to Jeff Arnold