Dan Gardner

Journalist, Best Selling Author

Dan Gardner

Dan Gardner is a journalist, author, and lecturer who enjoys nothing so much as writing about himself in the third person.

Trained in law (LL.B., Osgoode Hall Law School, Class of ’92) and history (M.A., York University, ’95), Dan first worked as a political staffer to a prominent politician. In 1997, he joined the editorial board of the Ottawa Citizen. His writing has won or been nominated for most major prizes in Canadian journalism, including the National Newspaper Award, the Michener Award, the Canadian Association of Journalists award, the Amnesty International Canada Media Award for reporting on human rights, and a long list of other awards, particularly in the field of criminal justice and law. Today, he is an opinion columnist who refuses to be pigeonholed as a liberal or a conservative and is positively allergic to all varieties of dogma. If you must label him — and he’d rather you didn’t — please call him a “skeptic.”

In 2005, Dan attended a lecture by renowned psychologist Paul Slovic. It was a life-changing encounter. Fascinated by Slovic’s work, Dan immersed himself in the scientific literature. The result was a seminal book on risk perception, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Published in 11 countries and 7 languages, Risk was a bestseller in the United Kingdom and Canada. But more gratifying to Dan was the support of leading researchers, including Slovic, who praised the book’s scientific accuracy.

In his latest book, Future Babble, Dan delved deeper into psychology to explain why people continue to put so much stock in expert predictions despite the repeated — and sometimes catastrophic — failure of efforts to forecast the future. Again, Dan was delighted that his book garnered the praise of leading researchers, including Philip Tetlock of the University of California, who called it “superb scholarship,” and Steven Pinker of Harvard University, who said it should be “required reading for journalists, politicians, academics, and those who listen to them.”

Psychology is fundamentally about how people perceive, think, decide, and communicate — and modern research shows that much of what people assume to be true about these basic processes is, in fact, wrong. The success of Risk led Dan to develop a series of lectures that expose and correct those assumptions, helping people think, decide, organize, and communicate better. Dan is also Panelist on CTV’s Question Period.

He lives in Ottawa, Canada, with three young children and one exhausted wife.

    Topics 
  1. The Forecast for Tomorrow: More Future Babble

    The prediction business is huge. It always has been. Wise men have forever claimed special insight into the future, which they were happy to share for a fee, and people have always been willing to pay. They still are. Is that because wise men deliver results? Hardly. Their forecasts routinely failed in the era of goats’ guts and tea leaves and they keep on failing today, in the era of pundits with PhDs. Research proves the point. So does experience: Out of 54 leading economists consulted by an American business magazine, 54 said there would be no recession in 2008. The most comprehensive experiment on expert forecasting ever conducted revealed something even more startling: The more famous an expert is, the more likely it is that his predictions will be wrong. So why do we keep taking these would-be prophets seriously? The media are partly to blame for not holding experts to account when their predictions fail. But more fundamentally, the answer lies in psychology and the brain’s profound aversion to uncertainty: We believe because we want to believe. But we don’t have to be suckers for soothsayers. If we understand the psychology that compels us to believe, we can learn to distinguish between reasonable forecasts and the tales of confident experts. And that can help us make good decisions that leave us better prepared for the future. No matter what happens.

  2. Getting Risk Right

    Risk is serious business. Get it right and good things happen. Get it wrong and the results will be very different — as the global meltdown of 2008 so vividly demonstrated. Unfortunately, research shows people routinely get risk wrong. We worry about things we shouldn’t. We don’t worry about things we should. And we swing from complacency to panic, and back again. The result is one bad decision after another — with costs measured in lost dollars, health, and peace of mind. Why does this happen? How can we do better? The author of the international acclaimed bestseller Risk delves into cognitive and social psychology to explain where our perceptions of risk come from and why they so often don’t match reality. Understanding how we form perceptions, and how they can go wrong, is the indispensable first st

  3. Thinking Like a Fox

    George Soros has plenty of reasons to boast. As a financier, he has been right often enough over the decades to make billions of dollars. And long before the 2008 crash, he said real estate was a bubble and the financial system was dangerously unstable. So in January, 2009, when an interviewer asked Soros why he was so good at what he does, he had every reason to smile and say,” because I’m smart” or “because I can see further into the future.” But he didn’t. Instead, Soros said, “I think that my conceptual framework, which basically emphasizes the important of misconceptions, makes me extremely critical of my own decisions. I know that I am bound to be wrong, and therefore am more likely to correct my own mistakes.” To use the terminology of Philip Tetlock, a renowned psychologist at the University of California’s Haas School of Business, George Soros is a classic “fox.” Tetlock distinguishes between two types of thinkers — “hedgehogs” and “foxes.” Hedgehogs insist on simplicity and certainty. They see problems through a single analytical lens. And they are very confident. They know the answer. Foxes are much more comfortable with complexity and uncertainty. They’ll use lots of analytical lenses to look at problems, and ask other people what they see. They are not nearly so confident as hedgehogs. They may know the answer, but they’re never sure. In the most comprehensive experiment of its kind, Tetlock assembled almost 300 people in the business of providing advice on politics and economics — political scientists, economists, journalists — and had them make predictions about everything from inflation rates to wars. In all, Tetlock collected an astonishing 27,450 judgments about the future. The results were dismal. The average expert did no better at forecasting than a dart-throwing chimpanzee. But some experts were even worse — while others did significantly better than the average. What made the difference? Not education or experience. Not profession or politics. No, what counted was whether they were foxes or hedgehogs: The foxes came out on top every time. Styles of thinking are not innate. They can be learned. Gardner explains how.

  4. Harnessing the Full Power of Language

    Puppy. Sunshine. Lollipop. Reading those words, did you feel anything? A rush of warmth and happiness? Did you smile and think, “gosh, puppies are cute.” Probably not. You’re only reading words on a screen, after all. You felt nothing. Or so you think. Cognitive science tells us you almost certainly did experience an emotional response to these words. You just weren’t conscious of it. Language is like that. It always works on multiple levels. Yes, there are the words we see, the words we hear, the words defined in the dictionary. But that’s only one dimension of language. As neuroscience and psychology have revealed, language has many other dimensions and all influence what people perceive, feel, and decide. Drawing on the latest scientific research and his own long experience in the business of communication, Gardner explains how to harness the full power of language.

  5. Frightened by Shadows

    We are by far the safest, healthiest, and wealthiest people who ever lived. But we sure don’t act like it. From terrorism to child abduction and chemical contamination, the list of our fears is long and growing. So is the list of bad decisions we make as a result: like the parents whose wildly exaggerated fears of child abduction have convinced them to forbid their children from playing alone outside — which stunts their psychological development, reduces their exercise, and increases their risk of obesity and diabetes. If we are so safe, why are we so afraid? Gardner demonstrates that the media’s portrayal of the risks we face is consistently wrong. He explains how politicians, activists and corporations promote fear to win votes, generate support and make money. And he delves into the latest scientific research to explain how the human brain decides what is worth worrying about and what is not, and why it is often wrong. We do face real risks. And we need to respond to them. But doing that intelligently means we also have to recognize a basic and delightful fact: We are very lucky people who have every reason to feel more gratitude — and less fear.

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