It seems that much of what we ‘know’ is an illusion according to Daniel Kahneman who wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow and was the recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics.  As Leon Louw stated back in March 2014 we needed to prepare for a ‘feeding frenzy of certainty based on ignorance’.    We avoid gathering, checking and analysing balanced evidence and tend to base our beliefs on whatever valid or flawed evidence happens to be available, regardless of ‘absent’ evidence.   Instead we need to think ‘slowly’ and reliably and remember that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.

Leon Louw’s contribution Pistorius and the dubious certainties of fast thinking first appeared in Business Day on 5 March 2014 and it seems that he correctly predicted the reaction of some citizens to the outcome of the criminal trial that reached a climax today.


WHY we believe what we believe, and the certainty of our belief, have recently been the subject of fascinating — and disturbing — insights and research.   Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, “the most important psychologist today”, explains in his best-seller, Thinking Fast and Slow, that much of what we “know” is an illusion caused by the “availability heuristic” and compounded by a preference for inferior “fast thinking”.

Prepare yourself for a feeding frenzy of certainty based on ignorance.   “Is he guilty?” has become the pretext for telling you what the questioner thinks.

Long before access to evidence about to be presented in Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial, ordinary folk supposedly knew, and will increasingly know, whether the fastest man on no legs was wearing legs, how many shots he fired, their trajectory, whether Reeva Steenkamp had an affair, whether they fought, whether any of this is relevant, and so on, down to the tiniest detail.

. . . .

We do fallible “fast” thinking instead of reliable “slow” thinking.   One plus one?   Fast thinking reliably answers two.   But 347 times 2,753?   That requires exhausting slow thinking.

. . . .

That personal convictions and public opinion tend to rely on flimsy or flawed evidence and sloppy fast thinking has serious implications.   Unlike vulnerable political policy and opinion, Pistorius, Simpson and Zuma are protected from misplaced certainty by elaborate judicial checks and balances.

Sloppy fast thinking explains, for instance, why people want “protection” for workers against dismissal, low wages and harsh terms.   Superior slow thinking is difficult, prolonged and exhausting.   It demands meticulous gathering and consideration of complex evidence, and of secondary effects called “unintended consequences”.

Its great virtue is that it predicts and explains why “protection” is counterproductive, and leads to such evils as high unemployment and discrimination in favour of preferred employees, and explains why most black youths have never had, and may never have, a job.

Kahneman cites disturbing examples of the “availability cascade”.   Our minds have a “basic limitation in the ability … to deal with small risks: we either ignore them or give them far too much weight”.   Flimsy evidence of minor health and consumer risks, for instance, cascade into draconian controls.   The innate preference for sloppy fast thinking results in the exaggeration of risk regarding everything from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to “junk food”.

During the Pistorius trial, a cascade of fast-thinking twaddle will overwhelm reasoned slow thinking.   The challenge will be, as it always is in matters of public opinion and policy, to remember that people are entitled to their own opinions, not their own facts.