Thursday, September 12, 2013

Similarities Between Rolf Dobelli's Book and Ours

Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss writer, published a book called The Art of Thinking Clearly earlier this year with HarperCollins in the U.S. The book’s original German edition was a #1 bestseller, and the book has sold over one million copies worldwide.

In perusing Mr. Dobelli’s book, we noticed several familiar-sounding passages. On closer examination, we found five instances of unattributed material that is either reproduced verbatim or closely paraphrased from text and arguments in our book, The Invisible Gorilla (Crown, 2010). They are listed at the end of this note.

Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan and other books) has also publicly noted similarities between his work and material in Mr. Dobelli’s book. We have also become aware of a similarity between material in Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz and material in Mr. Dobelli’s book.

We sent a letter to Mr. Dobelli and his publishers noting our concern about these five passages. Mr. Dobelli replied to us privately and posted the following text on his website (since removed):
“I received two letters claiming inadequate attributions or citations in the book 'The Art of Thinking Clearly.' Some of the claims are true, some false. For the ones that are true, I take full responsibility. I will work closely with the publishers of my book that the corrections are put in effect as quickly as possible.”
In the interest of transparency, we have decided to post the list of similar passages here. We understand that Mr. Dobelli will be identifying the changes he intends to make to his book on his website as well.

— Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons

Passages with overlap between The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, and The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli (portions of greatest similarity between the books are highlighted in red):

1.   Chabris/Simons: In April 2006, rising waters made a ford through the start of the Avon River temporarily impassable, so it was closed and markers were put on both sides. Every day during the two weeks following the closure, one or two cars drove right past the warning signs and into the river. These drivers apparently were so focused on their navigation displays that they didn’t see what was right in front of them. [pp. 41–42]
Dobelli: After heavy rains in the south of England, a river in a small village overflowed its banks. The police closed the ford, the shallow part of the river where vehicles cross, and diverted traffic. The crossing stayed closed for two weeks, but each day at least one car drove past the warning sign and into the rushing water. The drivers were so focused on their car’s navigation systems that they didn’t notice what was right in front of them. [p. 263; opening paragraph of Chapter 88]

2.   Chabris/Simons: The “Nun Bun” was a cinnamon pastry whose twisty rolls eerily resembled the nose and jowls of Mother Teresa. It was found in a Nashville coffee shop in 1996, but was stolen on Christmas in 2005. [p. 155]
Dobelli: The “Nun Bun” was a cinnamon pastry whose markings resembled the nose and jowls of Mother Teresa. It was found in a Nashville coffee shop in 1996 but was stolen on Christmas in 2005. [p. 310]

3.   Chabris/Simons: “Our Lady of the Underpass” was another appearance by the Virgin Mary, this time in the guise of a salt stain under Interstate 94 in Chicago that drew huge crowds and stopped traffic for months in 2005. Other cases include Hot Chocolate Jesus, Jesus on a shrimp tail dinner, Jesus in a dental x-ray, and Cheesus (a Cheeto purportedly shaped like Jesus). [p. 155]
      Dobelli: “Our Lady of the Underpass” was another appearance by the Virgin Mary, this time as a salt stain under Interstate 94 in Chicago in 2005. Other cases include Hot Chocolate Jesus, Jesus on a shrimp tail dinner, Jesus in a dental X-ray, and a Cheeto shaped like Jesus. [p. 310]
4.   Chabris/Simons: In other words, almost immediately after you see an object that looks anything like a face, your brain treats it like a face and processes it differently than other objects. [p. 156]
      Dobelli: As soon as an object looks like a face, the brain treats it like a face—this is very different from other objects. [p. 310]

5.   The paragraph in Dobelli is a condensation and paraphrase of a longer passage and argument appearing in The Invisible Gorilla:
      Chabris/Simons: It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that talking to a passenger in your car is not nearly as disruptive as talking on a cell phone. In fact, most of the evidence suggests that talking to a passenger has little or no effect on driving ability.40
            Talking to a passenger could be less problematic for several reasons. First, it’s simply easier to hear and understand someone right next to you than someone on a phone, so you don’t need to exert as much effort just to keep up with the conversation. Second, the person sitting next to you provides another set of eyes—a passenger might notice something unexpected on the road and alert you, a service your cell-phone conversation partner can’t provide. The most interesting reason for this difference between cell-phone conversation partners and passengers has to do with the social demands of conversations. When you converse with the other people in your car, they are aware of the environment you are in. Consequently, if you enter a challenging driving situation and stop speaking, your passengers will quickly deduce the reason for your silence. There’s no social demand for you to keep speaking because the driving context adjusts the expectations of everyone in the car about social interaction. When talking on a cell phone, though, you feel a strong social demand to continue the conversation despite difficult driving conditions because your conversation partner has no reason to expect you to suddenly stop and start speaking. These three factors, in combination, help to explain why talking on a cell phone is particularly dangerous when driving, more so than many other forms of distraction. [p. 26]
      Dobelli: And, if instead of phoning someone, you chat with whomever is in the passenger seat? Research found no negative effects. First, face-to-face conversations are much clearer than phone conversations, that is, your brain must not work so hard to decipher the messages. Second, your passenger understands that if the situation gets dangerous, the chatting will be interrupted. That means you do not feel compelled to continue the conversation. Third, your passenger has an additional pair of eyes and can point out dangers. [pp. 353–354]


  1. I haven't read any of the books, but this seems to be a growing problem in many different areas, including what you might call 'primary science", that is the acquisition of new knowledge of the natural world.
    If you haven't already done it, run the entire book through a plagiarism check tool.
    Corrections are an interesting point. One has to ask why were the examples plagiarised. Is the book derivative in an intellectual sense, so requires similar exemplars to argue for the same thesis or antithesis? Fairly classic that publishers resort to the minimum, they are happy counting the cash and couldn't care less how it is acquired.
    Resorting to lawyers probably too expensive and also time consuming, but you could build up the evidence and then use the 'crowd' to build a momentum of opinion.

  2. Hmm. Seems to me, theft is theft. What other evidence could be required?

  3. Doesn't the phone-in-car example come from Daniel Kahneman? I could be wrong but I don't think it's an original idea.

    1. No -- our book was published before his, and we didn't get the idea, or the three-point argument, from anything he had written.

  4. ethics and conscience speak louder. for the good of the readers and self creativity. be true to self.

  5. startling and very sad - all it would have taken would be a credit to the original source. I love Rold Dobelli's book and it would have benefited me as a reader if the links and credits to other books would have been made - I have actually read all three: Antifragile, Invisible Gorilla and The Art of Thinking Cleraly

  6. He has apologised to you. Let it be.

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  9. Dobelli wrote well even if he plagiarized from even his friend. That's amazing really. But am sad it destroyed his friendship with Nassim.

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