Thursday, April 16, 2009

Guest Ultracrepidarian Musings

This reaction became too long for a comment, thus the guest posting.

"Authoritative but stupid opinions" have been much in the news lately. For example, a recent Nick Kristof column:
"Ever wonder how financial experts could lead the world over the economic cliff? One explanation is that so-called experts turn out to be, in many situations, a stunningly poor source of expertise. The 2005 book 'Expert Political Judgment,' by UC-Berkeley professor Philip Tetlock, is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts' forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about. The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses. The only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones."

They did so because they were over-confidant and so ignored all facts that might contradict their opinions. Remind you of any recent federal administrations?

Wired reports on another study: Expert Financial Advice Neurobiologically 'Offloads' Financial Decision-Making under Risk" by Engelmann, Capra, Noussair, and Berns; Public Library of Science ONE, March 24, 2009. Conclusion: Given "Expert" Advice, Brains Shut Down. This study "and another on hormones and day trading (testosterone is good for individual traders, but possibly bad for everyone else), have cast scientific doubt on a central tenet of free-market fundamentalism. Contrary to neoliberal economic theory, markets are not always driven by individuals acting rationally in their own best interests."

Then there's my favorite book by George Lakoff, The Political Mind. Although we grew up with an Enlightenment view of reason — that it is logical, universal, unemotional, and interest-based — recent brain research (especially that facilitated by functional MRIs that show in which areas the brain is active during tasks) has conclusively demonstrated that the dichotomy between reason and emotion is false. We think we can divorce reason from emotion because most (an estimated 98%) of reason is unconscious. Our ancestors didn't have time to reason consciously about the best thing to do, so we've evolved to think and behave reflexively. They do experiments (see Restak's The Naked Brain) to show that your body reacts before your brain has received the nerve inputs on which to base a conscious decision. Our cognitive unconsciousness is really running the show.

We are making very complex and subtle assessments all the time of which we are not consciously aware. Our reasoning is more like after-the-fact rationalization of decisions we've already made. Now, I do think that that more information makes for better decisions, but both research and the results of "negative campaigning" show that our "free will" is more limited than we like to think. We use the emotional subtext in our decision-making because we can't not do so. And these kinds of subconscious evaluations have been shown to be surprisingly sophisticated.

So, iBRAIN by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan has me worried about a loss of skill in gut-level assessments. Their thesis is that "these kids today" never tear their attention from their phones and computers long enough to hone their ability to "read" people. If our young are losing face-to-face cognitive skills due to immersion in technology, that portends poorer decisions by future voters. If they don't look people in the face anymore, they either never make or gradually abandon the neural pathways allowing them to assess expressions with any validity. Does that mean that our subconscious judgments about who we can trust not to betray us are becoming less reliable? Does it offer some explanation of the popularity of affable empty suits like [insert your favorite populist here]?


Weeping Sore said...

Wait. You said "markets are not always driven by individuals acting rationally in their own best interests." Say it isn't so!
Yesterday's news about the tea parties made me think the same way.

When poor white people are whining about paying taxes, you've got to wonder where their brains are, and how the fat cats managed to persuade the marchers it's in their (poor peoples') interest to cut taxes. It's in the rich peoples' interest, not the dumb people with racist signs who probably benefit more from the taxes than they pay.

Apart from the fact that you read much more serious and complex books than I, your summary scares me too.
I know I like to consider myself an "educated" voter who actually studies the issues before voting, but I also know voters who never get past the bumper stickers.
I'm already worried enough about "kids these days" but I try to reassure myself that every generation looks back from the vantage point I'm at today and finds fault with the next gen.

Yesterday Tech Support Guy had his colonoscopy and the entire experience, from nurses aids, to procedure, to recovery (he was sedated) was performed by people in the 20-30 range. They were uniformly helpful, compassionate, and knowledgeable, and that reassures me.

The fact that the doc doing the procedure was manipulating something that looked like a Game Boy and watching a monitor screen maybe portends that today's wired kids will do just fine because they'll remake the world in a way that works for them.

As I sat in the OR watching the monitor, I saw a side of my beloved spouse that I never wanted to see...

Rose said...

I could have saved all these people lots of money and time--I already know that I act without thinking rationally much of the time:)

And to Weeping Sore, my sympathy to Spouse; at least the worst is behind him:) (I am so sorry--I don't even know you well enough to write such a bad pun. It's just that I've had to have several of these, and they're definitely no fun, but necessary, or so I'm told.I'm always glad when I'm told I don't need another for 5 more years.)

Secret Aging Man (SAM) said...

I like to think my father was correct. In math, an unknown is signified by an x. In plumbing, a spurt is a little drip - the source of the water perhaps many miles away - that is unknown by the plumber and why would he care, anyway? Therefore, an xspurt (expert) is a little unknown drip from many miles away that no one really cares about, anyway.

walk2write said...

Wow, what a complex post, Martha. Maybe a colonoscopy for the brain would be a good invention. Thoughts that sit around for too long in someone's (expert's?) head start to putrefy and create a nasty problem. It seems to me that expert politicians without term limits tend to do the same thing. Hope your spouse is doing okay, WS! No offense intended with the analogy.