Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2013, the traffic to my site remained relatively vigorous.  Throughout 2013 my blog had 24,007 hits from 21,042 unique visitors, accounting for nearly 30,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the US and 158 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, Australia, India, China, and Germany also brought in large contingents.

 

Of my posts published in 2013, none made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010,  four were published in 2011, and one was from 2012.  This year the top ranked article (The Moral Instinct) was a 2010 review of a very popular 2008 New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker.   This perennially popular piece ranked 5th last year, 4th in 2011 and 3rd in 2010.   Its bounce to the top this year is more of a testament to Pinker and the popularity of his piece that explores the universality of morals.  In that piece I wrote:

 

Pinker delves into the neurological factors associated with morality and the evolutionary evidence and arguments for an instinctual morality. He reviews several important studies that provide evidence for these hypotheses. But, he argues that morality is more than an inheritance – it is larger than that. It is contextually driven. He notes: “At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason. ” He further contends “But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground.

 

This article may have also remained popular because of its relevance with regard to the state of affairs in today’s political arena and the application of Jonathon Haidt’s increasingly popular work on the Moral Foundations Theory.  

 

The 2013 number two ranked piece Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is, is a review of one of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous articles where he argued that there is no evidence of morality in nature, that in fact “nature as it plays out evolution’s dance, is entirely devoid of anything pertaining to morality or evil. We anthropomorphize when we apply these concepts. Even to suggest that nature is cruel is anthropomorphizing. Any true and deep look at the struggle for life that constantly dances in our midst can scarcely lead to any other conclusion but that nature is brutal, harsh, and nonmoral” (Gould).  Historically this has been a controversial topic and remains so in certain circles today.  This piece has remained popular over the years – ranking 4th last year and 2nd in 2011 and 2010.

 

Brain MRI

Brain MRI

Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the 3rd ranking post this year ranked 2nd last year and 1st in 2011. This very popular piece takes a pragmatic, comparative, and colorful look at the various ways of measuring brain activity.  My 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really?  is finally getting some attention.  Although it ranked 10th last year, it has climbed into the number four slot this year.  I contend that this is perhaps one of the most important articles I have written.

 

Proud as a Peacock  By Mark Melnick

Proud as a Peacock By Mark Melnick

My critical article on the widely used Implicit Associations Test ranked 5th this year, 6th in 2012, and 4th in 2011. Last year’s number one piece on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail  is one of my favorite pieces.  It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill.  It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock’s tail).

 

I am excited to report that Poverty is a Neurotoxin is also finally gaining some traction.  Published in 2011 it has never achieved a top ranking; although, in my humble opinion, it is no less important.  Rounding out the top ten of 2013, my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked 8th this year, 9th last year, and 10th in 2011. One of my all time favorite posts from 2010,  What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule made it back to the top ten list this year coming in 9th.  It was 7th in 2011 and 8th in 2010.  My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked 10th this year, 7th last year, and 5th in 2011.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2013.

 

  1. Moral Instinct  (2010) 4182 page views since published – All time ranking #5
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010) 4616 page views since published – All time ranking #3
  3. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011) 7941 page views since published – All time ranking #1
  4. Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012) 1719 page views since published – All time ranking #8
  5. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010) 2572 page views since published – All time ranking #6
  6. Conspicuous Consumption & the Peacock’s Tail (2011) 7677 page views since published – All time ranking #2
  7. Poverty is a Neurotoxin (2011) 960 page views since published – All time ranking #18
  8. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010) 1702 page views since published – All time ranking #9
  9. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule (2010) 1381 page views since published – All time ranking #12
  10. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011) 1625 page views since published – All time ranking #10

 

Rounding out the top ten All Time Most Popular Pieces are:

wicked-poster

 

These top ranking articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think.   This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.

 

There are several other 2013 posts that ranked outside this year’s top ten list; regardless, I believe they are important.  These other posts include:

 

  1. get out of jail free cardMind Pops: Memories from out of the Blue
  2. Who Cheats More: The Rich or the Poor?
  3. Crime, Punishment, and Entitlement: A Deeper Look
  4. Cheaters
  5. American Exceptionalism: I’m all for it!
  6. Partisan Belief Superiority and Dogmatism as a Source of Political Gridlock

 

Maintaining relevance is an article, published in 2012, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth: Our Microbiome, pertains to the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms (bacteria for the most part) thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain).  These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach.  Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiotic ecosystem as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).  I have continued to update this piece with comments including links to new research on this topic.

Children of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

Children of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)

 

Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention.  If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty.  As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human-kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions (intuitions) have sustained us, and in many ways they still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

 

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover what is indeed true.

 

The Hand of God as an example of pareidolia.

The Hand of God as an example of pareidolia.

 

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Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2012, the traffic to my site doubled.  Throughout 2012 my blog had 35,819 hits from 31,960 unique visitors, accounting for over 46,720 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the US and visits from people from 165 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, India, and Australia also brought in large contingents.

 

This year the top ranked article was my 2011 post on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail, which accounted for 50% more hits than this year’s number two ranked article (Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the number one post from last year).  The piece on conspicuous consumption, is in my opinion, one of my all time most important pieces.  It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill.  It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock). The Brainwave piece, also from 2011, compares and contrasts the different measures used to peer into the workings of the brain.

 

Of my posts published in 2012, only two made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010 and three were published in 2011.  Of those eight from previous years, five were also on the top ten list last year.

 

My 2012 review and discussion of the Broadway Musical Wicked topped the list of posts actually written in 2012, but it came in third overall this year relative to all other posts.  This article explores the theme that “things are not as they seem.”  I relate the story told in the show to the political and historical manipulation American citizens are subjected to, and it stirs up unpleasant and inconvenient realities that many would prefer remain unknown.

 

Great interest persists in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article received a number four ranking, down from a number two ranking over the last two years.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved down two notches this year, ultimately ranking number five.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number six this year, versus a number four ranking last year.  My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked number seven this year, down two spots from its ranking in 2011.  One of my all time favorite posts from 2010, Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is?  returned to the top ten list this year coming in eighth.   In 2010 it ranked number ten, but it fell off the list last year.  My Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number nine this year, compared to a number ten ranking last year.  Finally, in the number ten slot this year,  is my 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really?  This post was perhaps the most important post of the year.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2012.

  1. Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail (2011)
  2. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  3. Wicked! Things are NOT as they Seem (2012)
  4. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  5. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  7. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  8. Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is? (2010)
  9. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)
  10. Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012)

 

Again this year, the top ten articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think.   This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several other 2012 posts that ranked outside the top ten; regardless, I believe they are important.  These other posts include:

 

 

This latter article, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth, pertains to the microbiome, the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain).  These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach.  Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiome as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).

 

Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention.  If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty.  As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

 

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover the truth.

 

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Science has a PR problem.  Perhaps it is because science is responsible for some technological developments that have outpaced our moral capacity.  Or perhaps it is because the knowledge bestowed upon us through the scientific process increasingly pushes God out of the gaps.  But some are irritated by “scientists” who arrogantly assert absolute truths about the universe when in actuality, underneath their assertions, there are only probabilities with error bars.

 

I believe that one of the most fundamental problems with science is that we cannot see it.  The vastness of time and space and the minuteness of science’s edge, right now, defy the senses.  We do not have the capacity to imagine the scope and breadth of time involved in the formation of the universe or even the time scale of the evolution of complex life.  It is beyond our capacity to imagine how incredibly insignificant our place is in the cosmos.  Likewise, the realities of life at the cellular level and the complexity of interactions at the subatomic level, escape logic and defy the rules by which we live our lives.

 

Science is a juggernaut of increasingly and unapproachable complexity.  No longer are great discoveries made with home-made telescopes or in monastery greenhouses.  Science has become so specialized and at its focus, so minute, or so vast, that it is beyond the human experience.  The technical and mathematical skills required, and the sophistication of the instruments employed, all take us deeper and deeper, and further and further beyond anything that most of us can comprehend.

These realities literally bring science to the level of science fiction.  I once read a bumper sticker that said “I don’t have enough faith to believe in science.”  Although that sticker was posted by a Christian troubled about science’s role in the diminishment of God, it strikes me, that it may, on another level, represent the level of detachment science has accomplished through its very own progress.  If one does not truly understand the scientific process and the absolute intellectual scrutiny of the process itself, it is easy to assume that faith is necessary to believe in science. To the average person, buying what science tells us does require a leap of faith.

 

Yet, there is a fundamental difference between science and faith.  I once heard Donald Johanson talk about Lucy, his famous find.  In 1973 Johanson found a fossil that dramatically changed the way we conceptualized hominid evolution.  Lucy was a 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis fossil that provided evidence that hominids walked upright before the brain got bigger.  It had been believed up until then, that in hominids, a bigger brain evolved first, giving our ancestral kin the smarts needed to survive a ground based and bipedal existence. The paradigm shifted based on this new evidence.  Such is the way of science.  In his talk, Dr. Johanson clearly and simply differentiated science and faith.  What he said was:

Science is evidence without certainty while Faith is certainty without evidence

 

I guess it boils down to what degree one values evidence.

 

A related issue pertains to the fact that sometimes the results of science are portrayed with too much certainty.  And sometimes writers overreach with their interpretation of findings.  This is a legitimate concern.  The greater scrutiny I give science, the more I see that this problem generally emanates from science writers (journalists) rather than from the scientific community.  Humility and the acknowledgement of the limits of one’s findings (i.e., error bars), are the hallmarks of good science.  This becomes increasingly important as we investigate deeply remote phenomena, be it the quantum realm, the formation of the universe, or even the geological evolution of our planet.  Science attempts to form a clear picture when only intermittent pixels are accessible.

 

A wonderful example of such humility is evidenced in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Some people use his own skeptical analysis as a refutation of his own theory.  Reading the book negates such an argument.  Every paper published in a reputable peer reviewed journal includes a Discussion section where the authors detail the potential flaws and confounds, as well as suggested areas of improvement for future research.  If one accesses the actual science itself, this humility is evident.  But in the media, over reaching is commonplace, and it warrants reasonable suspicion.

 

There are however, areas of science where the evidence is so broad and so complete that certainty is absolutely asserted.  Evolution by means of natural selection is one of those areas.  Yet evolution and the dating of the planet for example run into controversy as they intersect with the beliefs of those who sustain a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is where two world-views diverge, or more aptly, collide.

 

Long ago, when we lacked an understanding of geology, meteorology, the germ theory of disease, and neurology, people tried to make sense of random events like floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, plagues, seizures, depression, mania, and dementia.  We did this because we struggled to make sense of substantial, catastrophic,  and seemingly random events.  When such events occur, it is our nature to seek out patterns that help us make sense of it all.  Vengeful deities were historically the agents of such destructive forces.  Just as we are universally driven to explain our origins, as evidenced by a plethora of diverse creation stories, we are compelled to make sense of our destruction.  As we have come to develop a better understanding of the world around us, little by little, God as a creative and destructive force has been displaced.

 

This increased material understanding of our world poses a serious threat to literal religion.  Although, for most scientists, the target is not the destruction of God.  On the contrary, knowledge is the goal.  Unfortunately, because of this looming and powerful threat, science and knowledge have become targets for some religious people.  The problem with science is that it threatens deeply held ideological belief systems that, at their core, value faith over evidence.

 

It comes back to that Evidence question again.  As humans we are more compelled by stories that provide comfort and give significance to our existence, than by the data that asserts and demands humility.  This is not a problem with science, it is a problem with the human brain.

 

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We humans are very good at dividing ourselves up into groups.  We accomplish this in a multitude of ways.  Even within homogeneous groupings we tend to find subtle ways to carve people out.  It is far easier however, when people vary by gender, ethnicity, race, class, neighborhood, region, nationality, religion, and/or sexual orientation.  For some reason we are drawn to and comforted by others that share physical resemblance, culture, attitude, values, history, important symbols, and affiliations.  Conversely, we are threatened by those in the outgroup.  Why is this?  What drives us to carve out, cast away and divide our fellow human beings into camps of “us” and “them?” Is it a byproduct of socialization or perhaps a part of our nature?

 

I saw this very clearly growing up in a small rural town in Western New York.  Even though we were all white middle class Christian kids for the most part, we effectively divided ourselves into camps – some actively participating in the parceling and others passively falling victim to it.  There were the popular kids, the tough kids, the village kids, and the farm kids.  And as we became more “sophisticated,” the parcels emerged with more universal group titles such as the heads, the jocks, the brains, the nerds, etc.  Some kids traversed multiple groups quite effectively while others fit into no group at all.

 

It wasn’t until I went to college that I was immersed with young adults who parceled out their peers in even more “enlightened” ways.  I went to SUNY Geneseo where the student body was very similar to that of my home town, again, largely a white middle class subset of New York State – but a bit more diverse geographically and religiously.  The most striking division was imposed by students from Westchester County, Long Island, and New York City who looked at their fellow New Yorkers emanating from any location west of the Hudson River as being inferior.  This “geographism” was shocking to me.  I was clearly in the inferior outgroup.

 

On top of that, there were sorority and fraternity groupings, valuations made by respect for one’s major, and more subtly by the size of the town one came from.  All this being said, I enjoyed college, learned a lot, and have great respect for the institution today.  I am not singling out any one town or university – I suspect that my experience was no different than that most kids encountered growing up.  The point is this – we are seemingly driven to parcel ourselves.  Even during my doctoral training in Cincinnati there was “geographism” whereby people from Kentucky (just across the Ohio River) were cast in a relative negative light by Ohioans much as New Yorkers downcast people from Pennsylvania or New Jersey.  On another level, think about the antipathy between cat lovers and dog lovers.  Then there are Yankee fans and Red Sox fans (insert any sports team where fans divide themselves with similar acrimony).  It is every where!

 

I was very fortunate to have a mother who encouraged me to respect diversity and not to judge others by group affiliation.  She spoke out against or talked with me privately so that I would not emulate other role models who were not so open minded.  I have always been thankful for her influence.  And because of her I have in maturity always tried to emulate her.  It’s not always easy – but I do try.  Something tells me that one’s level of prejudice is not simply a function of having a great role model or a bad one.  This tendency is so universal and plays out in very subtle ways that are not always evidenced as explicit overt racism or sexism.

 

Evidence, as it turns out, is increasingly supporting my hunch.  Group prejudices are evident even in pre-vocal babies (Mahajan, 2011). This growing body of research has been supplemented by an ingenious set of studies of prejudice in nonhuman primates published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  The primary author, Neha Mahajan, from Yale University, was kind enough to share with me her paper entitled The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques.

 

The researchers conducted seven different in-vivo experiments to explore whether old world monkeys, with whom we shared a common ancestor more than 30 million years ago (Hedges & Blair, Ed., 2009), evidence human-like intergroup bias.  This preliminary work establishes that we do share this trait, suggesting that prejudice may in fact be a part of our very nature.  It appears that prejudicial thinking has been adaptive from an evolutionary perspective or at least has been a vestigial stow away linked with some other trait that has been naturally selected.

 

There is some danger in this notion.  If we accept prejudice as a part of our nature, we may be more inclined to devote less effort to address it from a social perspective.  The authors are careful to point out, however, that previous research has established that prejudices can be re-mediated  through exposure and teaching or conversely entrenched through poor modeling.  These results do not diminish the influence of nurture, instead the authors highlight the importance of understanding that our brains are pre-wired for prejudice.  I have discussed human prejudice before within the context of the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) that suggests that our biases are implicit (unconscious).  Although implicit attributes are difficult to measure, there is good reason to believe that we do universally, inherently, and unknowingly harbor biases.  We must accept this and build programs upon this understanding with targeted evidenced based strategies to combat such erroneous thinking.  It is part of who we are – and once again, evidence of how flawed the human brain is.  Hate, bullying, homophobia, and racism – they all are part of our “monkey-brain.”  Here’s hoping we can rise above it.

 

References:

 

Grewal, D. (2011).  The Evolution of Prejudice: Scientists See the Beginnings of Racism in Monkeys. Scientific American: MIND. April 5.

 

Hedges, S. B., & Blair, S. (Eds.).  (2009).  The Timetree of Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Mahajan, N., Martinez, M. A., Gutiezzez, N. L., Diesendruck, G., Banaji, M., & Santos, L. R.  (2011).  The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 100, No. 3. 387-405.

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Narrative Fallacy

13 March 2011

Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things.  We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures.  We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet.  Our feats have been wondrous.  We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space.  We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind.  We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter.  This list could go on and on.  We are very capable and very smart beings.

 

Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible.  Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable.  I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week.  I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.

 

It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years.  Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct.  What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it.  But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”

 

We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology.  The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years.  What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.

 

Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes.  These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment.  We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force.  Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years.  I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control.  And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.

 

Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today.  Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments.  Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did.  As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.

 

We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world.  Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.”  All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be.  We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.

 

It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is.  Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior.  And how about bad behavior and acts of nature?  Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism.  One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy.  I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent.  Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us!  If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima?  Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness.  I could go and on about our silly inclinations.  We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence.  In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.

 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion.  We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts.  Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances.   We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story.  This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.

 

Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind.  For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly.  We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails.  Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting.  Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up.  Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness.  Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence?  I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.

 

I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination.  Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of  them.  This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories.  At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms).  I’m guessing that it will be informative.

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Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief?  Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own?  If so, then this blog is for you.  I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue.  I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people.  I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant.  There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking.  And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be?  I  have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made.  I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.

 

Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought.  Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception.  I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand.   As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.

 

As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:

  1. Attribution Error
  2. Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
  3. Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
  4. Moral Instinct
  5. Pareidolia
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability
  7. Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
  8. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
  9. Illusion of Punditry
  10. Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?

What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet.  It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.

 

I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration.  Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell.  Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs.  Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.

 

Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.  Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs.  These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.

 

There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above.  Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention.  This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot.  Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.

 

The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience.  Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling.  I’ve covered other topics such as  happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents.  Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:

“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”

We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness.  Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps.   Are you ready to move forward?  How do you think?

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Are you as perplexed as I regarding the acrimony in American Politics?  The rift is peppered with claims of amorality and threats of calamity.  It’s almost as if the opposing parties come from entirely different realities.  Perhaps they do.  I have gained some insight into the liberal-conservative divide thanks to Jonathon Haidt’s work, particularly his Moral Foundations Theory.

 

Haidt contends that the political divide itself boils down to five universal and transcendent morals held to varying degrees by individuals across all cultures and civilizations.  He demonstrated how these moral values group in predictable ways.  In particular, he has identified two dichotomous groupings that had been previously discussed respectively by John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim.

 

Haidt describes the first cluster as the Individualizing Foundation, where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals.  Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009).  The second cluster of values is referred to as the Binding Foundation, which weighs more heavily moral issues that increase social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.

 

Haidt noted that liberals value above all the Individualizing Foundation and hold a relative devaluation of the Binding Foundation.  Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to hold the Binding Foundation as being of equal relative importance as the Individualizing Foundations.  This conceptualization helped me understand why less affluent conservatives support the Republican agenda regardless of the negative economic impact that such support bestows upon them.  They vote based on values that resonate with them.  It also helps explain how people at each extreme can take a stand that they contend is morally superior while their adversaries are viewed as being unprincipled and amoral.  The reality is that each perspective stems from a position of deeply held principles.

 

I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s book entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  Rather than looking at this political divide in terms of morality, Pinker frames it in terms of divergent views of human nature. Underlying this political divide is a deeper and more rancorous debate about what defines human nature.  This issue is as old as civilization itself and was, for example, evident in the divergent lifestyles of the conflicted Greek City States of Athens and Sparta.  Pinker contends that the political divide really comes down to how individuals attribute the motives and behaviors of people in general. It is a very basic question of how one views the human race and what drives human behavior.

 

Pinker takes a stand against the commonly held notion that human nature is a blank slate shaped exclusively through environmental circumstances influenced by economic, political, and social forces.   The notion of a blank slate concedes social determinism, which is a position that is favored by liberals.  Evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience bring to the table substantial evidence that suggests that there are indeed genetic or biological determinants of behavior.  Accepting this reality comes with the dreadful reality that such notions guided the eugenics movement that resulted in the holocaust (and other horrible crimes of humanity).

 

As it turns out, political attitudes, for example, are largely, although not entirely, determined by heredity.  Pinker quotes a study of political attitudes among identical twins reared apart where the correlation coefficient was .62.  This suggests that genetics accounts for 38% of the determination of political attitude.  Such a notion is sacrilege to those on the left.  It is deeply disturbing for me, as one who leans heavily to the left on political issues, to learn that my inclinations to accept the findings of these increasingly powerful sciences at some level, distances me from other liberal thinkers.  How can this be?

 

You see, liberals emanate from the sociological tradition that holds the position that society “is a cohesive organic entity and its individuals are mere parts.  People are thought to be social by their very nature and to function as constituents of a larger superorganism” (Pinker, 2002 p. 284).   On the other hand, conservatives tend to hold the belief that “society is an arrangement negotiated by rational, self-interested individuals.  Society emerges when people agree to sacrifice some of their autonomy in exchange for security from the depredations of others wielding their own autonomy” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).

 

The modern theory of evolution aligns best with the latter economic contract paradigm, where natural selection results in complex individual adaptations benefiting individuals rather than the species or community.  This theory holds that “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation” and that “reciprocal altruism, in particular, is just the traditional concept of the social contract restated in biological terms” (Pinker, 2002 p. 285).  To make this dichotomy more clear it might help to think of the sociological tradition as being consistent with Marxist thinking while the social contract is more consistent with Milton Friedman’s free-market conservatism.

 

At the core of these paradigms are very different conceptualizations of human nature.  Thomas Sowell has captured this dichotomy in his book A Conflict of Visions where he delineates those visions as being either constrained or unconstrained.  Pinker adapted these labels to be more descriptive and thus refers to them respectively as Tragic (a term Sowell later adopted) and Utopian.  These visions refer to the “perfectibility of man” whereas the Tragic Vision holds that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue” and that as a result “all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits.”   This  pessimistic view of human nature, is steeped in biological determinism and the acknowledgment of self interested motives. The liberal or Utopian View contends that “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements.”  It is believed that economic deprivation elicits social depravity and that social engineering can eradicate the ills of society.

 

Sowell and Pinker suggest that these very visions of human nature shape the belief mechanisms or morals that result in divergent social policies.  For example, people who hold the Tragic Vision are more likely to support a strong military because of an inherent human selfishness and the inclination to compete for resources.  They are more likely to value religion, tough criminal sentences, strong policing, and judicial restraint because people need to be constrained in order to maintain an orderly and cohesive society.  Likewise, because of this pessimistic view of human nature, people inclined to hold such a view are likely to be censorious, meritocratic, pragmatic, and pro business.

 

People holding the Utopian View are likely to be idealistic, egalitarian, pacifistic, secularist, and more likely to tolerate homosexuality, to be in favor of the rehabilitation of criminals, judicial activism, generous social welfare programs, and affirmative action.  They are also more likely to be environmentalists. Pinker’s contention is that all these values, more or less, are heritable and that as a result, people are likely to hold them as self defining.  Subsequently, these beliefs are typically not amenable or susceptible to change because they are often held without a rationally based understanding of them.  Such deeply held (intuitive) and heritable attitudes quickly spark emotional responses when challenged and people do not move away from such notions even when reason compels them to do so.

 

So it seems, at the core of the contentious political divide there are discrepant realities pertaining to the very essence of what it is to be a human being.  And that essence is evolving regardless of the ideologies that shape the political climate.  Perhaps we can escape the gridlock by acknowledging the disconnect between ideology and reality and embrace a truer essence of humanity.  That reality, it seems, is a blend of the Tragic and Utopian Visions where human behavior is guided by both social and biological determinants.  Reality, as it turns out, is often queerer than one can suppose.

 

Breaking the chains of ideology necessarily involves abandoning and overpowering intuition, which is itself, a formidable task. But social morays have evolved over time as we have gained deeper insight into humankind. Lets hope for continued evolution!

 

References:

 

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046

 

Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

 

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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My wife and I recently spent some time in New York City and one of our traditions is to take in a Broadway show. This time we stepped a bit off-Broadway to see the bawdy but Tony Award Winning Avenue Q. On the surface, this show seems silly, but it actually addresses some important issues. Essentially it is about the “coming of age” of young adults stepping out into the real world. The way the show is played out is interesting in that it employs a mixture of human actors, human puppets, and monster puppets – with all puppeteers fully visible on stage. As is often the case in theater, It necessitated suspension of reality and letting go of conventional thinking.

 

The play itself satirized the longstanding PBS children’s show Sesame Street both in format and message. Make no mistake however, this is not a show for children, or even for folks put-off by lewd language or sexual situations. Regardless, it delves headlong into issues that challenge the teachings of Sesame Street, laying bare the notion that everyone is “special.”

 

I couldn’t help but hearken back to a post I wrote entitled Self Esteem on a Silver Platter, that highlights the cost of telling children they are smart. I wonder if there are similar costs to telling children they are inherently special? Obviously, the writers of Ave. Q had the same question in mind.

 

As Princeton, the play’s protagonist, struggled with the reality of entering the world of work and his internalized notion of his own specialness, I thought about my college age children and my own experience when I left a small town to attend college. I have to believe that my experience was not unlike Princeton’s and I’m guessing, is very similar to my children’s experiences, as they make the transition from “Big fish in a small pond – to small fish in a big pond.” It’s a humbling transition.

 

Some of the other issues confronted by the cast and characters include racism and homophobia. Each of these prejudices are attitudes played out in a large part by our intuitive brains. That is not to say that we are powerless over them – we can change these deep seated attributes through concerted effort and appropriate exposure. But it begs the question: “Where do these prejudices come from?” I believe the consensus is clear, prejudices are learned from, and taught by those important people around us who model and mold us throughout childhood. It is also important to understand that there seems to be a natural inclination within us to be suspicious of those who are different from us. This tribal tendency to classify outsiders as threats may stem back to our ancestral roots when outsiders were indeed threats to our very survival: and this successful propensity has carried on due to natural selection. It seems that there is a human inclination to be prejudiced. Compound that inclination with other human brain failings (e.g., confirmation bias), and minimal exposure to diversity, as well as influential bigots, and you have a near certain prejudicial clone. To make matters worse, all you have to do is turn on the TV and watch the news to feed those prejudices. Racism in our culture is not very subtle. But I digress.

 

The point that I am trying to make is that we all have biases, and that they are intuitive to a degree. Next week I am going to explore the Implicit Associations Test and its implications that support the notion that stereotypes or prejudices are indeed deeply rooted in our intuition. If you have not taken the Implicit Associations Test, do so, particularly the Race Test. You may be surprised by the results. I know I was. This is in fact, one of the sub-plots in Ave. Q – we are all a bit racist, and perhaps a bit homophobic too; although, I will argue to my grave that I do not value people differently based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

 

Ave. Q also deals with schadenfreude, which is the pleasure we gain from other’s pain or struggles. This is a curious proclivity, one I hope to gain a better understanding of. As I think back to childhood, I can recall experiencing a strong compulsion to laugh when a friend was injured through our mutual play. I remember knowing that this was somehow wrong and inappropriate, regardless, there was this deep urge to chuckle. Looking back, I know that it was not a rational response – it was intuitive. The reality is that most of us are at least relieved by the misery of others and we often gain some appreciation that our lives are not so bad after all. The play’s treatment of this very issue normalizes the experience and perhaps explains our societal infatuation with gossip. In my profession, on a daily basis, I see real agony in the lives of the families I work with, and thus find gossip repulsive.

 

One of the major goals of art is to incite thought, and Ave. Q effectively pulled this off. I’d like to say that I have no prejudices, but Ave. Q and the results of my IAT suggest that this may not be absolutely true. In reference to the work of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book entitled The Invisible Gorilla, I wonder if perhaps there is an Illusion of an Open Mind? I shall not rest comfortably with this illusion, and I am fully committed to overcoming the failings of my naturally selected and intuitive tendencies. The first step is accepting this reality.

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There are many well intentioned folks out there who believe that childhood vaccinations cause Autism. Last week I covered the origins of this belief system as well as its subsequent debunking in Vaccines and Autism. Despite the conclusive data that clearly establishes no causal link between vaccines and Autism, the belief lives on. Why is this? Why do smart people fall prey to such illusions? Chabris and Simons contend in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, that we fall prey to such myths because of the Illusion of Cause. Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.

 

From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:

 

“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).

 

We all are inclined to detect patterns where there are none. Shermer refers to this tendency as patternicity. It is also called pareidolia. I’ve previously discussed this innate tendency noting that “Our brains do not tolerate vague or obscure stimuli very well. We have an innate tendency to perceive clear and distinct images within such extemporaneous stimuli.” It is precisely what leads us to see familiar and improbable shapes in puffy cumulus clouds or the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. Although this tendency can be fun, it can also lead to faulty and sometimes dangerous conclusions. And what is even worse is that when we hold a belief, we are even more prone to perceive patterns that are consistent with or confirm that belief. We are all prone to Confirmation Bias – an inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.

 

Patternicity and confirmation bias alone are not the only factors that contribute to the illusion of cause. There are at least two other equally salient intuitive inclinations that lead us astray. First, we tend to infer causation based on correlation. And second, the appeal of chronology, or the coincidence of timing, also leads us toward drawing such causal connections (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

A fundamental rule in science and statistics is that correlation does not infer causation. Just because two events occur in close temporal proximity, does not mean that one leads to the other. Chabris and Simons note that this rule is in place because our brains automatically – intuitively – draw causal associations, without any rational thought. We know that causation leads to correlation – but it is erroneous to assume that the opposite is true. Just because A and B occur together does not mean A causes B or vice-versa. There may be a third factor, C, that is responsible for both A and B. Chabris and Simons use ice cream consumption and drownings as an example. There is a sizable positive correlation between these two variables (as ice cream consumption goes up so do the incidences of drowning), but it would be silly to assume that ice cream consumption causes drowning, or that increases in the number of drownings causes increases in ice cream consumption. Obviously, a third factor, summer heat, leads to both more ice cream consumption and more swimming. With more swimming behavior there are more incidents of drowning.

 

Likewise, with vaccines and Autism, although there may be a correlation between the two (increases in the number of children vaccinated and increases in the number of Autism diagnoses), it is incidental, simply a coincidental relationship. But given our proclivity to draw inferences based on correlation, it is easy to see why people would be mislead by this relationship.

 

Add to this the chronology of the provision of the MMR vaccine (recommended between 12 and 18 months), and the typical time at which the most prevalent symptoms of Autism become evident (18-24 months), people are bound to infer causation. Given the fact that millions of children are vaccinated each year, there are bound to be examples of tight chronology.

 

So what is at work here are hyperactive agency detection (or overzealous patternicity), an inherent disposition to infer causality from correlation, and a propensity to “interpret events that happened earlier as the causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 184).  Additionally, you have a doctor like Andrew Wakefield misrepresenting data in such a way to solidify plausibility and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy using powerful anecdotes to convince others of the perceived link. And anecdotes are powerful indeed. “..[W]e naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not. And it makes sense that anecdotes are compelling to us. Our brains evolved under conditions in which the only evidence available to us was what we experienced ourselves and what we heard from trusted others. Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets, statistics, and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples…” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 177-178).  When an emotional mother (Jenny McCarthy) is given a very popular stage (The Oprah Winfrey Show) and tells a compelling story, people buy it – intuitively – regardless of the veracity of the story. And when we empathize with others, particularly those in pain, we tend to become even less critical of the message conveyed (Chabris & Simons, 2010). These authors add that “Even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and statistics culled from studies of hundreds of thousands of people, that one personalized case carries undue influence” (p.178).

 

Although the efficacy of science is unquestionable, in terms of answering questions like the veracity of the relationship between vaccines and Autism, it appears that many people are incapable of accepting the reality of scientific inquiry (Chabris & Simons, 2010). Acceptance necessitates the arduous application of reason and the rejection of the influences rendered by the intuitive portion of our brain. This is harder than one might think. Again, it comes down to evolution. Although the ability to infer cause is a relatively recent development, we hominids are actually pretty good at it. And perhaps, in cases such as this one, we are too proficient for our own good (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

References

 

Center for Disease Control. (2009). Recommended Immunization Schedule for Persons Aged 0 Through 6 Years. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/child/2009/09_0-6yrs_schedule_pr.pdf

 

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.

 

Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1762

 

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman / Henry Holt and Company: New York.

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I find myself in an untenable situation. I have plenty to write about but I am finding that the choices I am making right now, in the splendor of summer, give me limited time and energy to write. I’ve decided to take a short hiatus.

 

Over the last seven months my writing has been spurred on by relentless curiosity about belief systems that are held despite mountains of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This cognitive conservatism absolutely befuddles me. And I am further driven to understand why ideology carries such overwhelming power over people and how it drives people to attack evidence or science in general. In a similar vain, I struggle with politics. The efforts made by the United States on the world’s stage to me seem to be a desperate attempt to slay the Hydra by means of decapitation. People close to me, that I love and have deep respect for, look at this war and even the environment in vastly different ways than I do.

 

Looking back, I have learned a great deal about the thinking processes that drive these different world views. Essentially we have what Michael Shermer calls a Belief Engine for a brain. We are hard wired to believe and make copious errors that incline us to believe – even silly things – regardless of evidence. We have successfully evolved in a world for hundreds of thousands of years devoid of statistics and analysis all the while thriving on snap judgments. Evolution itself, as a process, has inhibited our ability to accept its veracity. Stepping away from the belief engine demands a level of analysis that is foreign and often unpalatable. It is hard to be a skeptic yet oh so easy to go with our hard wired intuitive thinking. If you are new to my blog look back at entries that explore erroneous thinking, rational thought, the adaptive unconscious, memory, morality and even religion.

 

Looking forward I plan on delving further into our enigmatic Belief Engine. I want to further explore the errors of intuition, specifically the illusion of cause, implicit associations, as well as Jonathon Haidt’s work on political affiliation. Later I hope to switch gears and delve into the unique attributes of our planet that makes it hospitable for complex life.

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