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Reasons for despair: Confirmation bias, paradigms, and just-so stories

by Migeru Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:14:34 AM EST

Recently I followed a link out of ET to the website of Susan Blackmore, a freelance writer and researcher on consciousness with a long previous academic career researching paranormal claims. In her article Why I have given up (2001) she details three cases where people she worked with held on to their paranormal beliefs in the face of evidence that nothing unusual was going on.

But the take-home point in her article has a much wider applicability than just paranormal claims.

The lesson we should learn from [these examples] is not that believers find it hard to be open-minded but that we all do.
Or rather, we are all believers in one thing or other and have a hard time considering theories outside our paradigm, let alone dropping the paradigm altogether.


She summarizes the cases thus:

In all these cases the people involved stuck to their own familiar paradigms - and here the much over-used word `paradigm' is quite apposite (Kuhn, 1962). When the results were not as they expected they did not consider the possibility that their whole paradigm was false, but instead preferred to patch it up with ad hoc explanations for every failure. Although James did change his mind in important ways, he did not abandon the idea that aliens were abducting him. But then imagine how hard it would have been for him, or any of them. In all cases they were deeply committed to their world views and to some extent their whole lives were bound up with their beliefs. James was involved with various UFO organisations and with magazines about aliens. David and Virginia made their living out of selling bio-electric shields and other similar products, and David Spark once told me, referring to his work with us "It is the actual focus of my life".
This goes beyond the confirmation bias that has been mentioned here on ET repeatedly as a pitfall to avoid. It is not just a matter of highlighting favourable evidence and ignoring unfavourable evidence, but a more serious cognitive bias of inserting unfavourable evidence into one's worldview consistently with the existing paradigm along with an ad hoc justification (a "just so" story) in a way not unlike epicycles being added to Ptolemaic astronomy as astronomical observations of the planets' paths became more and more accurate.

This is related to our earlier discussions of "frames", "narratives" or "mythologies" which are most often the cause of people talking past each other or drawing contradictory conclusions from the same agreed evidence.

Awareness of just how powerful "paradigms", "mythologies", "narratives" and "frames" are, especially when they become entwined with "the focus of someone's life" makes it clear just how difficult fact-based progress is.

Sometimes the convincing force is just time itself and the human toll it takes, Kuhn said, using a quote from Max Planck: "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
(wikipedia)

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European Tribune - Confirmation bias, paradigms, and just-so stories
Awareness of just how powerful "paradigms", "mythologies", "narratives" and "frames" are, especially when they become entwined with "the focus of someone's life" makes it clear just how difficult fact-based progress is.

I was having this conversation with a colleague yesterday - and with izzy actually - on how difficult it is to talk about an issue when it is totally filtered through another person's world view that is drastically different from your own.  I don't know if there is a way to get around that when people absolutely will not budge in their beliefs.

The same issue applies with democratic processes wrt people who will resolutely refuse to take on board any change to their opinions based on new evidence.

Whereas I strongly believe in the importance of democracy, I despair when ignorant and hugely prejudiced people collectively provide motivation for some 'populist' policy that is so not in the public's best interests (although that of course is only my opinion).

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:20:54 AM EST
I was having this conversation with a colleague yesterday - and with izzy actually - on how difficult it is to talk about an issue when it is totally filtered through another person's world view that is drastically different from your own.  I don't know if there is a way to get around that when people absolutely will not budge in their beliefs
I think we have identified a number of issues like this here on ET where no rational debate can really take place because the underlying issue is not a factual disagreement but a clash of frames. Nuclear energy is one of them.

Most economists teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless. -- James K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:23:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The process of reconciling people with conflicting frames is known as negotiation - with other sub variants like mediation and arbitration - which is basically about establishing closer relationships between people of conflicting frames and building on areas where there IS agreement - or where shared experiences can result in shared interpretations.  As Migeru noted people have an enormous emotional investment in their particular world-view - so much so that they can't imagine life without it - thinking of a religious fanatics fear of losing their faith - a tae worse than death in their world view.

It follows that the processes of negotiation are as much about emotional change as any rational, evidence based, persuasion process.  Those who are dedicated to a rational, factual, evidence based paradigm find this process entirely frustrating not to say dumbfounding, and refer derisively to such processes as "politics" and evidence of an inferior beings at work.

However so long as we remain societies of emotional human be4ngs rather than pre-programmed robots the processes of negotiation and emotional change are possibly more important to a functioning society/democracy than the input of the scientific community.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:35:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I'm overwhelmed...
Said Richard Feynman in his 1974 Caltech Commencement Address on Cargo Cult Science
But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down -- or hardly going up -- in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress -- lots of theory, but no progress -- in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

...

... In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas -- he's the controller -- and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

I think it is ThatBritGuy that has articulated most explicitly the idea that Economics is a collection of "woo woo" and "just-so stories" to defend a paradigm, and that it is pseudoscience or at least cargo-cult science because, as we can see around us with the toppling international finance house of cards, "the [economic] planes don't land". As Keynes wrote
Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again
Supposedly we know much more now than we did in 1929, but are we doing any better, policywise?

Most economists teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless. -- James K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:34:48 AM EST
Brilliant.

Except for absolute obvious claim like "the quantity of printed money matters" or "the number of product a country produces is not the same as the sevices hi provides, and this is not the same that the amount of money printed"  or "the velocity of money matters" I would not dare to say anythign else about economics :)

Oh..and great post... however, the most important narratives are the mythical naratives because as Strauss said they are believed without being aware of the fact by every single member of your "extended family". And sometimes the extended family means all the human members of any big european or american city :)

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:44:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem of mainstream economics is scientism - applying a too exact system to complex and vague topics. Since the input cannot be caught in its reductionist terms and is not critically examined, the output is garbage.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 07:59:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
nanne:
applying a too exact system to complex and vague topics.

Yes, but I feel I must add

"...upon a metaphysics of value which is complete bollocks, with no relationship to Reality as generally experienced."

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 09:24:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As for doing better or worse, do we even understand what is going on?
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 08:25:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice piece, Mig. Thanks.

Long years ago, the Center for the study of Democratic Institutions, a think tank that my father participated in under the auspices of the University of Chicago, discussed the idea of progress- is there any such thing?
With their traditional fascination with the classics, their conclusion was rather negative. Theirs was a structure that selected for the rigid. The chicago school of economics not only selects for the rigid, but only makes sense if viewed through a stringent reality filter.
 I bring this up because I see several distinct categories here-- crackpots exist, but are a poor example of the range of human mental abilities.
The people who described their life's focus as selling bioelectric shields may well have been immovable, but  representative of only one segment of the curve.
Feinmann is a good example of the opposite side of the curve, as are people such as Capra, --and myself.
My world view has undergone a radical change--almost a complete wipe-out of old structures and ideologies, and a sometimes painful construction of a very different view.

The fact that the world is a very different place today than it was in the past, and my belief, if correct, that it is better, is pretty good proof that attitudes can change over time. My own experience, and those of people like Feinmann and myriad others, show that personal ideologies can be modified, dumped and exchanged, and world views become radically different within one's lifetime.

The lesson we should learn from [these examples] is not that believers find it hard to be open-minded but that we all do.

Trite, but most of the good things seem to be --difficult.    

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 08:12:56 AM EST
One reason I'm not ever going to be a politician is that I don't have enough certainties - or maybe said differently, the ability to ignore people altogether - to be able to consciously ride roughshot over other people or other people's ideas.

Maybe I sound very vocal and assured in my blogging, but I'm nothing but. This is not to say that I don't actually ignore people or their arguments or feelings, but I don't do it willfully. Which is maybe worse if it happens. Which I find a terrifying thought.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 08:57:57 AM EST
This was the point I was trying to get across in my consumer narcissism diary - the roots of narrative aren't based in objective reality, but in subjective self-esteem.

In this case the feeling of being someone special who can predict horse races is more important than the ability to predict horse races.

Finance and economics are no different. Science is no different either. The reason Blackmore, Dawkins, Randi and the Psicop people wasted thirty odd years treating the paranormal as something which threatened to bring down civilisation, while elsewhere economic narcissism was far more of a pressing social problem, is because attacking psychics was far more subjectively profitable and emotionally satisfying for them than attacking the Chicago School would have been.

Many of the arguments - that psychics are fraudulent, exploitative, irrational, deluded, and so on - vanish into a thin smoky haze of social insignificance compared to the impossibly vast levels of real damage created by the Chicago-ists.

And yet - there was never any coherent organised scientific resistance to ideas that were transparent silliness. Meanwhile relative trivia, such as claims of alien abduction or being able to guess the winner of the 3:15 at Aintree, were studied and criticised with the utmost seriousness.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 09:01:07 AM EST
Ummm... but for an economist, any critique of the conventional economic narcissism (brilliant...) has not been a good career move this last 30 years...

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson
by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 09:32:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's only true up to a point. Galbraith, Krugman and even Dean Baker are still out there, and their careers haven't suffered.

But I was really making the point that reality-based science failed to ask the questions that mattered. A scientific broadside from outside of economic academia could have left Chicago-ism dead in the water. That didn't happen. Although there were isolated outbreaks of critical research, it was never in any serious danger of happening.

That's been as much a failure of scientific culture as of economics.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 09:51:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
until fairly recently. He's turned shrill in the past decade, as "economics" moved ever more neofeudal. Same with Stiglitz, but a few years earlier.

Galbraith and Baker were mostly ignored. Not disrepected, just ignored.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 12:57:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the feeling of being someone special who can predict horse races is more important than the ability to predict horse races

What does that tell us about "motivation"?

Most economists teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless. -- James K. Galbraith

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 04:35:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Brilliantly observed. Especially about the Dawkins-Randi set. Many of them uncritically believe and promote Chicago School economic doctrine.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 04:49:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep. An example is Michael Shermer, head of the Skeptics Society, and a great promoter of James Randi (and, to be fair, Carl Sagan), who is a libertarian. Not long ago, I came across an article by him (can't find it now) that quite irked me (litotes alert) in its assumptions about economics.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 05:13:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Social Darwinism has a definite "scientific" appeal.

Most economists teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless. -- James K. Galbraith
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 05:41:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What I call "The First Law of Narcissism" is that everyone wants to think well of themselves.  There are almost no thoughts or actions that cannot be self justified by that "Law."  The best antidote of which I am aware is cultivating a mental habit of preferring ugly truths to soothing lies.  This can be taught, but it cannot be taught effectively by coercion.  This makes it unlikely as a basis for public education, especially when effectively applied in a school setting.

None of these thoughts are particularly comforting, especially considering the present situation.  But, since accepting that we all are probably doomed has profoundly negative consequences to our mental states, I continue to "believe" that improvement in our condition is possible and to take heart from such examples as I see.

It is an improvement that we see that debunking Neo-Classical Economics is orders of magnitude more important than debunking psychics or UFO abduction cults.  The vulnerabilities of NCE are currently prominently on display and a significant number of critics and criticisms are current.  The greatest favoring factor is that so few really are "experts" in NCE.  This is by design.  It was formulated as bitter medicine.  In times such as these a tastier alternative should fly off the shelves.  Time for an updated Henry George.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 10:42:00 AM EST
ARGeezer:
Time for an updated Henry George

Hear, hear!

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Mar 21st, 2009 at 01:19:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The best antidote of which I am aware is cultivating a mental habit of preferring ugly truths to soothing lies.

Reminds me of the old irish toast that ends with
"--and God give me the wit to know the difference."

This can be taught, but it cannot be taught effectively by coercion.  This makes it unlikely as a basis for public education, especially when effectively applied in a school setting.

Yes, it can be taught- by teaching first that the truth--all truth-- is beautiful, and then teaching a method of assembling the pieces of the world that does a better job of approaching truth.
Google "Edwin Fenton", or wik it.

Another useful technique is to balance your sources to include at least a third (by time) stuff from people with whom you disagree- perhaps strongly. Explain to yourself why you disagree--then apply the same methods to people with whom you agree. Then to your own cherished positions and beliefs.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 08:11:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Another useful technique is to balance your sources to include at least a third (by time) stuff from people with whom you disagree- perhaps strongly.
My local newspapers and The Economist serve that purpose rather well, although I have been planning to let my subscription to The Economist expire--for the same reason I can't watch Fox News for any length of time.  My taste for ugly truths does not imply a taste for ugly lies, and I can only hope I can, at long last, tell the difference.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Mar 22nd, 2009 at 04:00:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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