cover image Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

Russ Roberts. Portfolio, $27 (224p) ISBN 978-0-593-41825-3

Many “big decisions can’t be made with data, or science, or the usual rational approaches,” contends Roberts (How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life), president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, in this lucid treatise. Wild problems, according to the author, are the major life decisions—such as choosing a career path and deciding how to devote one’s time—that resist rational analysis and call for alternative modes of evaluation. Roberts tells of how Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, and Johannes Kepler attempted to quantify such decisions as whether and whom to marry using balance sheets of pros and cons, which the author suggests are ineffective because of their reliance on subjective judgments (Is each pro equal to each con? How does one decide?). He is equally critical of optimization, arguing that imperfectly reducing a matrix of considerations to a single measurement by which to judge which option is “best” obscures the complexity of choosing a partner or where to go to college. Instead, Roberts recommends that readers “privilege your principles” and base one’s choices on “what kind of person you want to be and who you might want to become.” Roberts’s thought-provoking take on the limits of data and the overquantification of contemporary life provides a bold and original perspective on how humans can make better decisions. Daniel Kahneman’s fans will find much to ponder. (Aug.)