October 19, 2017

QotD: Confirmation bias and anecdata

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

First, identify some linguistic thing everyone believes, or can be persuaded to believe, that women do (for this purpose it doesn’t matter whether they really do it, or whether men do it just as much). You could choose something that’s already been defined as a problem (like uptalk or vocal fry), or, more ambitiously, you could go for something no one’s been paying close attention to (like women over-using the word ‘just’ at work). Pitch a piece on ‘Why this thing women do with language is damaging to women’ to the editor of just about any publication. It’s a perennially popular formula and there’s always a place for it somewhere.

You can establish that the thing is a real thing by using anecdata and exploiting confirmation bias. ‘Have you noticed that thing women do?’ you might begin. If the thing is already a cliché, like uptalk, then you’ll immediately have them nodding; if it’s not then they probably won’t have noticed it, but many of them will think that’s only because they’re not as observant or as keenly attuned to the zeitgeist as you are. Either way, you’re priming them to accept your premise. Then you can follow up with a tedious anecdote involving some everyday scenario your reader can relate to. Like, ‘the other day at my office, a woman made a presentation where she did X a heck of a lot; my interest was piqued and I started counting Xs, which confirmed that women do X far more than men.’

Once people have accepted that there’s something to be noticed, they’ll be susceptible to the phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’ — a tendency to notice things that match your expectations (in this case that would be instances of women doing X), while failing to register counter-examples (women not doing X, or men doing X). Soon, everyone will be sharing your article on Facebook with comments like ‘This is so true! I’d never noticed women doing X before, but after I read this piece I heard it everywhere!’

debuk, “How to write a bullshit article about women’s language”, language: a feminist guide, 2015-08-03.

April 3, 2017

“Politics is like the weather; it doesn’t care what you think about it”

Filed under: Government, History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Jonah Goldberg, from last week’s “G-File ‘News’letter”, on the notion that the old political rules no longer apply:

Here’s the important point. Politics is like the weather; it doesn’t care what you think about it. It simply is. And at least in this sense, I was right when I said that democracy gives the illusion of control.

In 2006, I wrote in the Corner about the Left’s belief, as expressed by Simon Rosenberg, that we were entering an era of “new politics.” Conservatism was over. A new era of modern, expert-driven political management was upon us. To his credit, Rosenberg didn’t say that politics was over, just that this was some new era where the old playbook didn’t apply. But it’s sort of the same thing. The idea that politics will go away if we elect the right person is a form of utopianism that plagues the Left — and, alas, the Right.

Barack Obama entered office thinking the exact same thing (So did LBJ. So did JFK. So did FDR. So did Woodrow Wilson). As I’ve written 8 trillion times, Obama really believed that he was a post-ideological president who only cared about “what works.” This progressive understanding of pragmatism is a kind of exquisite confirmation bias. We’re not ideological, we just want to do the smartest, best thing (which just happens to line up with our undisclosed and unacknowledged ideological biases).

The problem? Politics doesn’t vanish just because you want it to. Wilson was convinced that the wisdom of the Treaty of Versailles was akin to scientific fact. It wasn’t, but let’s say that it was. His view didn’t erase the political necessity of selling it to Congress.

During the election, lots of people told me that a businessman would cut through all the politics by running the government like a business. Jared Kushner is apparently heading up the latest version of this incredibly hackneyed and ancient idea. The simple problem is that government isn’t a business (never mind that Donald Trump is not a typical businessman). The incentive structure of politics is entirely different than the incentive structure for a businessman. A CEO can walk into a meeting and explain to his employees that if they don’t hit their widget sales quota, no one will get their bonus. Politics doesn’t work like that.

Moreover, people who say “Who cares about politics” or “Politics are irrelevant” are like people who go sailing in a hurricane on the assumption that weather shouldn’t matter.

March 3, 2017

QotD: Is the Internet itself making us less tolerant and more prone to confirmation bias?

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I think it’s time to declare the internet a failure. At least with respect to its early promises of increased knowledge sharing and positive impact on collaboration.

Decentralization of media, Social media, has increased the rate in which misinformation is being transmitted. Once learned invalid information has to be unlearned and that is a much harder task than educating people with accurate information in the first place.

Social media also appears to have increased the rate that people cluster around misinformation and create specialized groups of individuals that aggressively seek to disseminate their ideas.

The asocial aspect of social media encourages individuals to behave in ways that they normally wouldn’t when face-to-face with people that don’t share their views. It has made intolerant people more belligerent and it has forced tolerant people to adopt less tolerant stances.

The trend seems to be to continue to partition people into increasingly specialized and narrowly focused groups. At the extreme we see individuals with highly individualized views agitating groups with more generally accepted views.

People have become more militant, intolerant, and unaccepting of society. The impact on society is a weakening of collaborative spirit, increased cynicism, and further increases to militancy.

In the mid-90s I was very excited at the opportunities collective information sharing could produce. We’ve realized some of those but I simply didn’t foresee the degradation of democratic values that reveal the best in the humanity.

Social media has increased the ability to create social anxiety by pouring misinformation into peoples’ lives with ideas that they are directly threatened or that there are limits to resources, ideas that are often mere fabrication.

Today we are bombarded daily with absurdity, aggression, fear mongering, and intolerance. It’s as if we unwound the clock a hundred years and abandoned the great freedom experiment. Only now the weapons to resolve differences of opinion are much more destructive.

Hard to be bullish on the consequences of increased nationalism around the globe.

The world does face some difficult issues we need to address but things are not nearly as bad as what has become status quo thinking.

Douglas Gunn, posting to Facebook, 2017-02-20.

November 8, 2016

QotD: Media bias

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true.

Emma Roller, “Your Facts or Mine?”, New York Times, 2016-10-25.

October 31, 2015

Is it a ghost or some boring old rational explanation?

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Shaunacy Ferro is here to harsh your paranormal mellow with six possible explanations for ghostly activities:


For decades, a Canadian neuroscientist named Michael Persinger has been studying the effects of electromagnetic fields on people’s perceptions of ghosts, hypothesizing that pulsed magnetic fields, imperceptible on a conscious level, can make people feel as if there is a “presence” in the room with them by causing unusual activity patterns in the brain’s temporal lobes. […]


Infrasound is sound at levels so low humans can’t hear it (though other animals, like elephants, can). Low frequency vibrations can cause distinct physiological discomfort. Scientists studying the effects of wind turbines and traffic noise near residences have found that low-frequency noise can cause disorientation, feelings of panic, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and other effects that could easily be associated with being visited by a ghost [PDF]. […]


Shane Rogers, an engineering professor at Clarkson University, has spent the past few months touring reportedly haunted locations looking for not-so-paranormal activity: mold growth. Preliminary research indicates that some molds can cause symptoms that sound pretty ghostly—like irrational fear and dementia. […]


In 1921, a doctor named W.H. Wilmer published an odd story about a haunted house in the medical journal the American Journal of Ophthalmology. The family who lived in this haunted residence, called the H family in the medical literature, began experiencing weird phenomena when they moved into an old house—hearing furniture moving around and strange voices in the night, feeling the presence of invisible specters. They report being held down in bed by ghosts, feeling weak, and more. As it turned out, a faulty furnace was filling their house with carbon monoxide, causing aural and visual hallucinations. The furnace was fixed, and the H family went back to their lives, sans ghosts.


In a 2014 study, Goldsmiths, University of London psychologists had participants watch a video of a “psychic” supposedly bending a metal key with his mind. In one condition, study subjects watched the video with a “participant” who was actually working with the researchers and professed to see the key bending. Those subjects were more likely to report that they saw the key bend than subjects who were paired with someone who asserted that the key didn’t bend or said nothing. […]


“There is a motivational side to belief in ghosts,” French explains. “We all want to believe in life after death. The idea of our mortality is one we are not generally comfortable with.” Confirmation bias holds powerful sway over our perceptions. “We find it much easier to believe evidence for something we want to believe anyway,” he says.

September 19, 2015

The miraculous cornucopia that is the welfare state

Filed under: Economics, Europe, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

J.R. Ireland explains how the New Republic has it all figured out, so we can stop fretting about that boring old “capitalism” thing:

The beautiful thing about confirmation bias is that you never actually have to provide any evidence for your argument. All you have to do is find the first person or the first scrap of evidence which can be twisted and distorted to fit an already extant narrative, and you can carry on your marry way, gleefully the nearly infinite number of reasons that the argument you just made is actually quite terrible.

For example, in The New Republic, a once important magazine now fading into oblivion, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig wrote an article which declared airily that Paid Parental Leave Is Fueling Sweden’s Start-Up Boom. What evidence does she have for this? Well, she doesn’t actually have any — it just fits her biases so she purposefully chose not to actually look into any of the claims being made. If she had, she probably would have realized that virtually everything she is saying is wrong.

First of all, her entire argument is based on one woman’s opinion, which Breunig, true to form, never bothers to check up on:

    Each week, Sweden’s national Twitter account allows a different Swede to take over tweeting and tell his or her story. Last week it was Louise Samet, a new mom and an employee of Swedish e-commerce giant Klarna. But unlike Amazon, where women only receive eight weeks of paid leave and men receive none, Klarna supplements 68 weeks of paid leave, which is split evenly between mothers and fathers. According to Samet, Sweden’s parent-friendly policies mean not only a better corporate culture, but also fertile ground for people interested in breaking into the start-up scene. I caught up with Samet to get a little more of a tech start-up insider’s view on paid leave, innovative business, and workplace culture.

    Samet began her week of tweeting discussing paid leave. “I have a son who’s 5 months old and am currently enjoying the generous parental leave,” Samet tweeted on Monday, adding a few minutes later: “[Paid leave] enables me to have a career and spend time with my son, and it really promotes gender equality.” A little later in the week, Samet considered the role of Sweden’s robust welfare system, of which paid leave is a part, in shoring up its start-up companies: “I find the startup scene in Sweden very interesting, people dare to try out their ideas, prob partly thanks to the social welfare system.”

How very European! All that is good in life is thanks to the welfare state! Wunderbar!

The problem, however, becomes immediately apparent — this is just one random women’s opinion. She thinks the reason that there are so many startups in Sweden is because of the ‘social welfare system’ but offers quite literally no evidence that this is so. Breunig just takes her at her word.

July 24, 2015

The long-term damage to scientific credibility

Filed under: Health, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Matt Ridley on the danger to all scientific fields when one field is willing to subordinate fact to political expediency:

For much of my life I have been a science writer. That means I eavesdrop on what’s going on in laboratories so I can tell interesting stories. It’s analogous to the way art critics write about art, but with a difference: we “science critics” rarely criticise. If we think a scientific paper is dumb, we just ignore it. There’s too much good stuff coming out of science to waste time knocking the bad stuff.

Sure, we occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience — homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.

Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.

This should have been obvious to me. Lysenkoism, a pseudo-biological theory that plants (and people) could be trained to change their heritable natures, helped starve millions and yet persisted for decades in the Soviet Union, reaching its zenith under Nikita Khrushchev. The theory that dietary fat causes obesity and heart disease, based on a couple of terrible studies in the 1950s, became unchallenged orthodoxy and is only now fading slowly.

What these two ideas have in common is that they had political support, which enabled them to monopolise debate. Scientists are just as prone as anybody else to “confirmation bias”, the tendency we all have to seek evidence that supports our favoured hypothesis and dismiss evidence that contradicts it—as if we were counsel for the defence. It’s tosh that scientists always try to disprove their own theories, as they sometimes claim, and nor should they. But they do try to disprove each other’s. Science has always been decentralised, so Professor Smith challenges Professor Jones’s claims, and that’s what keeps science honest.

What went wrong with Lysenko and dietary fat was that in each case a monopoly was established. Lysenko’s opponents were imprisoned or killed. Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise shows in devastating detail how opponents of Ancel Keys’s dietary fat hypothesis were starved of grants and frozen out of the debate by an intolerant consensus backed by vested interests, echoed and amplified by a docile press.

December 18, 2014

“[C]onservatives are underrepresented in academia because they don’t want to be there, or they’re just not smart enough to cut it”

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:55

The advantage of the quote in the headline is that it allows the person saying it to feel more positive about his or her own worldview, while side-stepping the real issue. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry looks at a new report that addresses this issue:

I have had the following experience more than once: I am speaking with a professional academic who is a liberal. The subject of the under-representation of conservatives in academia comes up. My interlocutor admits that this is indeed a reality, but says the reason why conservatives are under-represented in academia is because they don’t want to be there, or they’re just not smart enough to cut it. I say: “That’s interesting. For which other under-represented groups do you think that’s true?” An uncomfortable silence follows.

I point this out not to score culture-war points, but because it’s actually a serious problem. Social sciences and humanities cannot be completely divorced from the philosophy of those who practice it. And groupthink causes some questions not to be asked, and some answers not to be overly scrutinized. It is making our science worse. Anyone who cares about the advancement of knowledge and science should care about this problem.

That’s why I was very gratified to read this very enlightening draft paper [PDF] written by a number of social psychologists on precisely this topic, attacking the lack of political diversity in their profession and calling for reform. For those who have the time and care about academia, the whole thing truly makes for enlightening reading. The main author of the paper is Jonathan Haidt, well known for his Moral Foundations Theory (and a self-described liberal, if you care to know).

Although the paper focuses on the field of social psychology, its introduction as well as its overall logic make many of its points applicable to disciplines beyond social psychology.

The authors first note the well-known problems of groupthink in any collection of people engaged in a quest for the truth: uncomfortable questions get suppressed, confirmation bias runs amok, and so on.

But it is when the authors move to specific examples that the paper is most enlightening.

May 20, 2014

Charles Stross on heroic archetypes in fiction

Filed under: Books, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:00

Charles Stross doesn’t typically write stories with traditional hero characters, and he explains why, before digging deeper into the likely origins of the stereotype:

I will confess that I find it difficult to write fictional heroes with a straight face. After all, we are all the heroes of our internal narrative (even those of us who others see as villains: nobody wakes up in the morning, twirls their moustache, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of EVIL™ today?). And people who might consider themselves virtuous or heroic within their own framework, may be villains when seen from the outside: it’s a common vice of fascists (who seem addicted to heroic imagery — it’s a very romantic form of political poison, after all, the appeal to the clean and manly virtue of cold steel in subordination to the will of the State), and also of paternalist authoritarians.

[…] it seems pretty damn clear that the superhero archetypes hail back to the polytheistic religions of yore, to the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons and their litany of family feuds and bad-tempered bickering. (And is it just me or are half the biggest plots in superhero pre-monotheist mythology the punch-line to the God-Father (or occasionally one of his more troublesome sons) failing to keep his cock to himself, and the other half due to a jealous squabble between goddesses that escalates into a nuclear grudge-fest until suddenly Trojan Wars break out?)

We have this in common with our 5000-years-dead ancestors: we’re human beings, and our neural architecture hasn’t changed that much since the development of language and culture (unless you believe Julian Jaynes — and I don’t). We still have the same repertoire of emotional reactions. We still have a dismaying tendency to think it’s all about us, for any value of “it” you care to choose. We fall for a whole slew of common cognitive biases, including a complex of interacting heuristics that make us highly vulnerable to supernatural beliefs and religions. (The intentional stance per Dennett means we ascribe actions to intentionality; confirmation bias leads us to assume intentionality to natural events because this is something that’s been bred into us throughout the many millions of years of predator/prey arms races that weeded out those of our ancestors who weren’t fast enough to correlate signs such as lion prints at the nearby watering hole with other signs like Cousin Ugg going missing and realize there was a connection. So our ancestors looked on as lightning zapped another unfortunate Cousin Ugg, felt instinctively that there had to be a reason, and decided there was a Lightning God somewhere and he’d gotten mad at our tribe.)

We have other biases. We look at people with good skin and bilaterally symmetrical features (traits indicative of good health) and we see them as beautiful (hey, again: we’re the end product of endless generations of organisms that did best when they forged reproductive partnerships with other organisms that were in good health), so obviously they’ve been blessed by the gods. And the gods bless those who are virtuous, because virtue (by definition) is what the gods bless you for. So beauty comes to be equated with good; and this plays itself out in our fictions, where our heroes and favoured protagonists are mostly handsome or pretty and the villains are ugly as sin …

April 10, 2014

QotD: Confirmation bias for thee but not for me

Filed under: Humour, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:09

The last few days have provided both a good laugh and some food for thought on the important question of confirmation bias — people’s tendency to favor information that confirms their pre-existing views and ignore information that contradicts those views. It’s a subject well worth some reflection.

The laugh came from a familiar source. Without (it seems) a hint of irony, Paul Krugman argued on Monday that everyone is subject to confirmation bias except for people who agree with him. He was responding to this essay Ezra Klein wrote for his newly launched site, Vox.com, which took up the question of confirmation bias and the challenges it poses to democratic politics. Krugman acknowledged the research that Klein cites but then insisted that his own experience suggests it is actually mostly people he disagrees with who tend to ignore evidence and research that contradicts what they want to believe, while people who share his own views are more open-minded, skeptical, and evidence driven. I don’t know when I’ve seen a neater real-world example of an argument that disproves itself. Good times.

Yuval Levin, “Confirmation Bias and Its Limits”, National Review, 2014-04-09

October 15, 2013

Lies we tell to pollsters

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:46

David Harsanyi wishes the nonsense we tell to pollsters was a bit closer to the truth, at least in some cases:

A recent Rasmussen poll found that one in three Americans would rather win a Nobel Prize than an Oscar, Emmy or Grammy.

Though there’s no way to disprove this peculiar finding, I’m rather confident that it’s complete baloney. The average American probably can’t name more than one Nobel Prize winner — if that. Even if they could, it’s unlikely many would choose a life in physics or “peace” over being a celebrated actor, musician or television star. Put it this way, any man who tells you he wants the life of Nobel Prize-winning Ahmet Uzumcu, Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, instead of George Clooney is lying. And that includes Ahmet Uzumcu.

Polls might have been precise in forecasting recent elections (though, 2012 pollsters only received an average “C+ grade” in a poll conducted by Pew Research Center; we’re waiting on a poll that tells us what to think about polls that poll polls), but it’s getting difficult to believe much of anything else. Beyond sampling biases or phraseology biases, many recent polls prove that Americans will tell pollsters what they think they think, but not how they intend to act. Part of the problem is social desirability bias — the tendency to give answers that they believe will be viewed favorably by others. That might explain why someone would tell a pollster that he would rather win a Nobel Prize than a Grammy. There is also confirmation bias — the tendency of people to say things that confirm their beliefs or theories. Whatever the case, voters are fooling themselves in various ways. And when it comes to politics, they’re also giving small-government types like myself false hope.

Over the last few months, we seem to have been added to some sort of polling telephone list, as we’ve had dozens of calls from various institutions conducting “important public research” and insisting that we have to take part in their surveys. It’s quite remarkable how angry they get when I say we don’t want to take part. They go from vaguely pleasant at the start of the call to downright authoritarian by the time I hang up the phone … how dare I not want to give them the data they’re asking for? They’ve collectively become more irritating than the calls from “Bob” at “Windows Technical Support”.

July 30, 2012

If your source data is flawed, your conclusions are useless

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:30

James Delingpole on the recent paper from Anthony Watts and his co-authors:

Have a look at this chart. It tells you pretty much all you need to know about the much-anticipated scoop by Anthony Watts of Watts Up With That?

What it means, in a nutshell, is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — the US government body in charge of America’s temperature record, has systematically exaggerated the extent of late 20th century global warming. In fact, it has doubled it.

Is this a case of deliberate fraud by Warmist scientists hell bent on keeping their funding gravy train rolling? Well, after what we saw in Climategate anything is possible. (I mean it’s not like NOAA is run by hard-left eco activists, is it?) But I think more likely it is a case of confirmation bias. The Warmists who comprise the climate scientist establishment spend so much time communicating with other warmists and so little time paying attention to the views of dissenting scientists such as Henrik Svensmark — or Fred Singer or Richard Lindzen or indeed Anthony Watts — that it simply hasn’t occurred to them that their temperature records need adjusting downwards not upwards.

What Watts has conclusively demonstrated is that most of the weather stations in the US are so poorly sited that their temperature data is unreliable. Around 90 per cent have had their temperature readings skewed by the Urban Heat Island effect. While he has suspected this for some time what he has been unable to do until his latest, landmark paper (co-authored with Evan Jones of New York, Stephen McIntyre of Toronto, Canada, and Dr. John R. Christy from the Department of Atmospheric Science, University of Alabama, Huntsville) is to put precise figures on the degree of distortion involved.

March 10, 2012

“[A]theists and theists […] are quacking and waddling in the same way in different ponds”

Filed under: Media, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:19

Kennedy expresses the idea that atheism is a religion and becomes “a minor celebrity and a major troll” to her social media circles:

I didn’t know what fire and brimstone was until I made a throwaway claim recently during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. It seemed pretty unaudacious at the time, but by dropping the simple sentence “Atheism is a religion,” I opened a biblical floodgate of ridicule, name-calling, and abuse.

My Twitter feed and Facebook page became engorged with angry responses. “Your adherence into adulthood to what is usually an adolescent phase (Libertarianism), speaks volumes about your confirmation bias levels,” wrote Kernan. Touchstone Supertramp added; “Damn girl you got a big forehead.” A guy named Kevin and about 70 other people shared this bumper-sticker nugget: “‎If atheism is a religion, then off is a TV channel.” Liz wrote, “Kennedy, is that if atheism constitutes a religious belief than anorexia is whenever you don’t eat.” Michael wrote: “re·li·gion /riˈlijən/ Noun: 1. Whatever Kennedy says it is.” That was awesome. Beth called me a minor celebrity and a major troll—and it was also awesome to have somebody think I’m a celebrity.

[. . .]

Newberg and his late partner Eugene D’Aquili mapped various parts of the brain showing activation in specific areas when people were undergoing certain religious rituals or experiences, such as a shaman being in a trance or a Buddhist entering a mystical state. Regardless of the religion, the brain function was the same. Something was happening when these people experienced their version of religious phenomena, and the scans lit up like Robert Redford’s suit in The Electric Horseman.

This does not prove God exists, but it does show humans are wired or biologically predisposed to believe in something. When I interviewed him for this article, Newberg said his research demonstrates that “we are wired to have these beliefs about the world, to get at the fundamental stuff the universe is about. For many people, it includes God and for some it doesn’t. Your brain is doing its best to understand the world and construct beliefs to understand it, and from an epistemological perspective there is no fundamental difference.”

[. . .]

When atheists rail against theists (as many did on my Facebook page), they are using the same fervor the religious use when making their claims against a secular society. By calling atheism a religion, I am not trying to craft terms or apply them out of convenience. I just see theists and atheists behaving in the same manner, approaching from opposite ends of the runway. The entire discourse about religion stems from those who think they know more than the other guy. But what we really know is that we don’t know much. And we seem to share the same mechanism in our brains that drives us to make claims of faith and rationalism as a way of making sense of the great unknown.

You can call atheism a belief system, which Newberg guardedly does, or you can make a stronger assertion and say that atheists and theists, who have conveniently developed hate-tinged froth and vitriol for one another, are quacking and waddling in the same way in different ponds. Either way, they are ducks and atheism is a religion. At least it is in the hands of those who are so religious about their disbelief that they place the weight of the argument on the feathery shoulders of their believing brothers and sisters.

May 6, 2011

“Reasoning is a non-violent weapon given to us by evolution to help us get our way”

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:59

Remember that old saw about it being impossible to reason someone out of an opinion they were never reasoned into? Ian Leslie looks at a new paper about the function of reasoning:

This is a widespread habit, of course, and one we might notice in ourselves in other contexts. Whether it’s relationships or politics or the workplace, we have a tendency to start off with we want and then reason backwards towards it; to cloak our true motivations or prejudices in the guise of reason. It’s been shown again and again in studies that we have a very strong ‘confirmation bias’; once we have an idea about the world we like (Obama is un-American, my girlfriend is cheating on me, the world is or isn’t getting warmer) we pick up on evidence we think supports our hypothesis and ruthlessly disregard evidence that undermines it, even without realising we’re doing so.

[. . .]

We tend to think of reason as an abstract, truth-seeking method that gets contaminated by our desires and motivations. But the paper argues it’s the other way around — that reasoning is a non-violent weapon given to us by evolution to help us get our way. Its capacity to help us get to the truth about things is a by-product, albeit a hugely important one. In many ways, reasoning does as much to screw us up as it does to help us. The paper’s authors, Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, put it like this:

The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

H/T to Tim Harford for the link.

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