Daniel Kahneman’s Success: a creation of the media

Daniel Kahneman, who recently passed, is a creation of the media. What I mean is, after the financial crisis, at around 2008-2011, the media collectively made him the most important and highly-cited public intellectual in the world, with an interminable stream of articles praising or referencing his ideas as a matter of fact or truth (even though they were, and still are, only theories) up until his death. To wit, a Google search gives 12,800 results for Danial Kahneman when restricted to just the ‘nytimes.com’ domain, about the same as Albert Einstein.

The last time, AFIK, a public intellectual was similarly universally lauded was Richard Dawkins in the early to mid 2010’s (who only has 3,800 mentions by the NYTs), until he became notorious for his opinions about Islam more so than evolution, which led to his soft cancellation. Kahneman, unlike Dawkins or Pinker, was politically correct to a fault, and also no baggage or unpredictability. You didn’t have to worry about Kahneman suddenly going off the rails about ‘PC culture’ or the like.

Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011, was one of many best-sellers in the long line of the post-2008 pop-behavioral science canon about the ‘irrationality of man’–or how people who profess to be experts or are held up as experts are just as clueless as everyone else–in contrast to Pinker whose 2021 book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters literally praises rationality in the title. Whereas Pinker valorizes expertise and individual human exceptionalism, Taleb, Dan Ariely, Gladwell, Kahneman, and others tear-down that notion of individual exceptionalism and omnipotent guiding rationality.

Epistemic overconfidence led to the conditions of the 2008 crisis, in which there was an overreliance on complicated, opaque financial models, which worked until they spectacularly failed. This led to a demand for alternative, more holistic approaches that rely more on heuristics instead of cold, dispassionate equations and calculations. Unfortunately, as the replication crisis has shown–which in 2023 Dan Ariely, author of the 2008 bestseller Predictably Irrational, was caught in the crosshairs when one of his papers not only failed to replicate but may have been fabricated–these newer models may be more flexible but not necessarily correct.

Kahneman became something of a demigod in the social sciences, or even science altogether, whose observations that people are risk adverse, make snap judgements, or are otherwise irrational would somehow lay waste to the status quo of neoclassical economics, which at best was met with a collective “hmm, that’s interesting,” but otherwise it’s hard to build off of behavioral economics. Prospect theory was an attempt at a mathematical depiction of what everyone already suspected or knew to be true, which is that losses are more painful than wins, so it doesn’t readily lends itself to additional inquiry, unlike, say, the theory of evolution, which was both new and surprising.

To to his credit he was humble about his fame, almost being apologetic. He later admitted that he held too much confidence in underpowered results when some of his findings failed to replicate, as part of the broader replication crisis. A notable example was the failure of priming to replicate, a cornerstone of pop behavior psychology of much of the aughts. He set a good example of how being a scientist is about being open to the possibility of being wrong when the evidence also changes, instead of treating ideas as possessions. In contrast, Levitt may have held on to his abortion-crime hypothesis a little too long when the evidence began to pile up against it.

In trying to understand the enduring popularity of Kahneman and similar academics, behavioral psychology and behavioral economics are at the perfect intersection of being applicable and understandable to the masses and journalists, not being too math-heavy, jargon-laden, or politically radioactive. Such ideas seem profound yet are easy to to distill into public-radio soundbites or a byline. And most importantly, it confers a sense of intellectual or epistemic superiority among one’s airport-book-reading, NPR-listenership social circle. Instead of having to understand the intricacies of the banking system or economics, you can just summarize it as ‘people behaving irrationally’ or ‘models failing’.