Friday, May 5, 2017

Our World Outsmarts Us

When mulling over possible reasons for the alarming nastiness associated with the recent presidential election in the United States, I am reminded of my grade-school bully. Handsome, often charming, superbly athletic, the bully (let’s call him Mike) would frequently, usually without clear provocation, kick, punch and shove other classmates. Fortunately, for reasons not apparent at that time, he never bothered me.

Fast-forward 20 years. After his long-time girlfriend left him for another man, Mike stalked and stabbed to death the new boyfriend. Shortly following his murder conviction and incarceration, I ran into Mike’s father, who spontaneously blurted out: ‘Did you know that Mike had severe dyslexia?’

As soon as his father spoke, I recalled Mike’s great difficulty reading aloud in class. As he stumbled over simple words, the other kids fidgeted, snickered and rolled their eyes. In return, they got bullied. I can still sense my classmates’ fear of Mike even as I cringe at the knowledge that, in our collective ignorance, we were at least partially responsible for his outbursts. What if we had understood that Mike’s classroom performance was a neurological handicap and not a sign of general stupidity, laziness or whatever other pejoratives of cognition we threw at him? Would our acceptance of his disability have changed the arc of Mike’s life? Of ours?

Since running into his father, I’ve often wondered if Mike’s outbursts and bullying behaviour might offer an insight into the seeming association between anger, extremism and a widespread blatant disregard for solid facts and real expertise. I’m not dismissing obvious psychological explanations such as ideological and confirmatory biases and overriding self-interests, or suggesting that a particular human behaviour can be reduced to a single or specific cause. But Mike’s story suggests an additional, more basic dynamic. What if, as a species, the vast majority of us have a profoundly challenging collective difficulty with mathematics and science analogous to Mike’s dyslexia?

Whether contemplating the pros and cons of climate change; the role of evolution; the risks versus benefits of vaccines, cancer screening, proper nutrition, genetic engineering; trickle-down versus bottom-up economic policies; or how to improve local traffic, we must be comfortable with a variety of statistical and scientific methodologies, complex risk-reward and probability calculations – not to mention an intuitive grasp of the difference between fact, theory and opinion. Even moral decisions, such as whether or not to sacrifice one life to save five (as in the classic trolley-car experiment), boil down to often opaque calculations of the relative value of the individual versus the group.

If we are not up to the cognitive task, how might we be expected to respond? Will we graciously acknowledge our individual limits and readily admit that others might have more knowledge and better ideas? Will those uneasy with numbers and calculations appreciate and admire those who are? Or is it more likely that a painful-to-acknowledge sense of inadequacy will promote an intellectual defensiveness and resistance to ideas not intuitively obvious? (...)

Perhaps the best-known relationship between poor performance on reasoning tests and cognitive bias is the study ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It’ (1999) by the psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning, then at Cornell University in New York. The researchers had a group of undergraduates take a logical reasoning self-assessment test. On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile, indicating that most of us tend to overestimate our skills somewhat (the so-called above-average effect). Those in the bottom 25 per cent consistently overestimated their ability to the greatest degree, while those who scored at or below the 12th percentile believed that their general reasoning abilities fell at the 68th percentile. Dunning and Kruger concluded:
People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognise competence, be it their own or anyone else’s. (...)
This discrepancy begins at the most basic level of probabilities. In grade school, we learn that the odds of a coin flip coming up heads or tails are 50 per cent. Though deeply ingrained, this knowledge conflicts with a superb pattern-recognising subconscious. If you see heads come up twenty times in a row, you rationally know the odds of the next toss are unaffected by prior tosses yet have subliminally detected a sequence that seems at odds with pure randomness. Affected by other subliminal influences such as innate optimism or pessimism, some of us sense that the streak is more likely to continue (‘hot streak fallacy’), while others feel that tails is more likely (‘gambler’s fallacy’). This conflict between logic and contrary intuition – the basis of much of modern behavioural economics – is self-evident when watching onlookers rush to the craps table to bet with a player on an extended roll or betting larger sums of money when having a losing streak at blackjack. In short, our visceral sense of the world can dramatically influence our perception of the simplest probability calculations.

Imagine a brain in which the visceral sense of knowing is disconnected from centres for logical thought, yet stuck on a given idea. No matter what contrary evidence or line of reasoning is presented that the idea is wrong, that brain will continue to generate a feeling of rightness. We’re all familiar with this behaviour in its most extreme form – those intractable ‘know-it-alls’ entirely immune to contradictory ideas. We must at least consider the possibility that know-it-all behaviour is a problem of neural circuitry, much like dyslexia.

I am reluctant to invoke evolutionary psychology to explain every nuance of human behaviour. Even so, present-day demands on our mathematics and science skills bear no resemblance to former days, when survival depended on quickly calculating if it’s better run up a tree to avoid a charging lion or pretend to be dead. No one applied complex game-theory matrices to determine the best policy strategies in the Middle East, or carried out complicated risk-reward calculations to decide whether to embrace genetic crop engineering, or used the standard deviation of the mean to understand normal versus abnormal lab values. Most of us have trouble programming a VCR.

Even when we can use the new methodologies, we often do so without any associated intuitive grasp of what we’re doing. Many of us (me included) can solve the equation f=ma (Newton’s second law of motion) without having any feel for what the equation means. Though I might fix a computer crash, I have no sense of what I’ve actually done.

by Robert Burton, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Puck magazine 1909. Courtesy Library of Congress