I didn’t immediately get into this book as, strangely, the opening section about David and Goliath is a little contrived, as if the author had decided on the title and was trying to shoehorn it in, even though it didn’t really fit the material. But the book is excellent and rewarding to read.

The key point is that things are not what they seem, if you look at them statistically and realise that the simplistic explanations are not always the right ones. The author selects a number of unrelated human activities – basketball, war, imprisonment of other human beings, entering university – and explains how our intuitions and suppositions can mislead us.

For example, when the British Army was trying to suppress social unrest in Belfast in the 1970s, they based their approach on the (at the time) standard work of Leites and Wolf, who theorised that rioters or those involved in unrest were rational and, if forced to choose between actions that would bring them harm and actions that wouldn’t, they would choose the latter. So if you convinced them they would come to harm, they would choose on the basis of a rational assessment of probabilities to disperse, rather than riot. But of course, that is not what happened. The injustice the people felt that they had suffered only made them more resolute.

This is a fascinating book, full of insights. Required reading for anyone who fancies themselves as a policy maker.

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