The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
The story this book tells is quite extraordinary – a look at huge changes and developments at the point where psychology and economics intersect, and also a story of academic life and of a unique friendship. Many people first came across Daniel Kahneman when his book Thinking Fast and Slow hit the bestseller lists a few years ago: his theories of how we make decisions and judge probabilities, and how and why we nearly always get it wrong, made for fascinating reading.
The Undoing Project tells how Kahneman worked with Amos Tversky on these theories.
Michael Lewis has an unequalled ability to tell a true story - it doesn’t seem to matter what the subject matter is, he can make sense of it and spell it out so anyone can understand with a little effort. He writes non-fiction, and three of his books have been turned into films. All were Oscar-nominated, and two won Oscars (including Sandra Bullock's for The Blind Side). He is a very clever man and a very good writer.
His past topics have included Wall St, Silicon Valley, American football, baseball statistics, and the economic crash. The statistics book was Moneyball – a phrase that has now entered the language for a form of gaming the system by NOT trusting experts and intuition.
And it was via that book – and a gently critical review - that Lewis came upon the work of Tversky and Kahneman and decided to write about them. The Undoing Project explains all that, but also starts with a very long section about college basketball – I had to trust him that he was going somewhere, but he did manage to make even this subject interesting(ish). After that the book becomes close to unputdownable, and I cannot think of any other author who could have written so well both about the academic content, and about the unusual friendship between the two men. So The Undoing Project is highly recommended – it is educational, exciting, and touching, and you will feel a better and cleverer person for having read it.
And now I am going to write about a completely different aspect of the author.
I have mentioned before how I am not very good at knowing famous people (Carla Lane, here) and Michael Lewis, the celebrated and highly successful best-selling author, is another example.
More than 15 years ago (when he was already a bestseller for Liars’ Poker) he wrote regularly for Slate magazine in the USA, where I also worked. He wrote a hilarious series of reports on the Microsoft trial, and then I think lost interest. The readers of Slate (which was at that time owned by Microsoft) were all convinced that he had been stopped from writing the pieces, because Bill Gates/Microsoft didn’t like them. This wasn’t true at all (and would have been fairly unimaginable to anyone who knew Slate and MS and their general climates at the time) but it was simply stated and accepted as fact: the readers weren’t having it. It was a minor point, but I found it quite interesting. If you couldn’t tell the truth on a statement of fact, and be believed, well, what did the future hold?
Lewis then wrote a series of dispatches from Paris, where he had gone to live with his family. They were amusing entertaining pieces (since collected in a book called Home Game) – he wrote about his family in a way that would be very familiar now, but was much less common then.
And this is where I came in. Part of my job at Slate was to look at the way the readers responded to the writers. This wasn’t a big deal, no-one thought this was very important, but I found it endlessly interesting. Online commenting was, relatively, a very new thing, and I wrote about it for Slate every week. I also chose particularly good comments to feature in the magazine, and I wrote about responses to individual articles at the end of those articles. Most people at Slate didn’t take reader comments seriously at all – they didn’t see it as a force for good or bad, or a source of information, or useful audience research.
And Michael Lewis’s articles posed a problem. I don’t believe he ever looked at the online comments himself, though perhaps looked at my filtered version.
His (fairly) regular column attracted a group of regular readers and commentators, who formed a circle and held pretty much a week-long conversation: it would become much more active just after Lewis’ piece was posted, but carried on all the time. And the discussion was fascinating and hilarious – they would use his words as a starting point and then move on to all kinds of related areas.
But the commentators would make quite personal remarks about Lewis, his wife and his family. It is hard to remember now, but actually this was a new and very strange thing. When his wife gave birth to a baby his piece talked about them all. And some of his regular commenters started being rude about his children’s names. They said they were awful names, and these children would grow up as idiots, that they would be teased, and that Lewis and his wife (whose own name was criticized: ‘what do you expect with a name like that?’) were seriously to blame for giving them such ridiculous names.
Now, as I said, I don’t think Lewis knew or cared – he probably had other things on his mind with a new baby in the house – but I was bothered, and I thought for a long time as to whether these were acceptable comments to make. Criticism of the writer was fair game on the whole – but little children who had done nothing but have a writer for a father?
Given the way the world, and particularly the online world, has developed since then, this probably sounds like ridiculous overthinking. But it was a serious matter. In the end free speech won out, but I didn’t highlight or draw any attention to the posts. But it was a sign of things to come.
On another occasion Michael Lewis and his family made a trip to Rome, and he wrote a funny piece about his problems with a rented apartment then. Next thing I know, the landlord of the vacation rental is coming into the online comments to take issue with the Lewis version, and to defend himself and offer a different point of view. He was quite cross and temperamental, and made multiple posts. I had some email contact with the landlord to try to calm him down.
These two incidents were my epiphany: when I realized just how strange and new and different online commenting was, and that it wasn’t going to go away, or ever be controlled. I spent some time trying to make this point to others, but I wasn’t very persuasive and no-one could quite see it.
Some time over the next few years, everyone realized it, each person had their own epiphany,and would quite often then explain it to me…
Picture of Kahneman and Tversky in 1974, taken by Tversky’s wife Barbara. Picture of Michael Lewis from his website, taken by his wife, Tabitha (perfectly-good-name) Soren.