The Onion “reports” on this grandfather’s terrible advice.
This resonated with me. How often do you hear someone claiming that, “Of course I know what I’m doing. I’ve been doing it for 45 years.” Really? You should be deemed proficient because you’ve been hacking away at it for a long time? It’s certainly true that a lot of people who are excellent at an activity have been doing it for a long time. This is not the same thing as claiming that one is excellent because they’ve been doing it for a long time.
This sort of claim violates basic rules of logic. Just because this is true: “If it rains on me, I’ll get wet”, it does not follow that “If I’m getting wet, it is raining on me.” You could be in the shower or at a swimming pool.
Comedy Central’s Indecision presents some rather unsurprising statistics that need to be read by every member of Congress. What is an American’s likelihood of dying from a terrorist attack?
According to government statistics, roughly as many Americans are killed annually by unstable furniture and falling televisions as are killed in terrorist attacks.
What else is more dangerous than a terrorist attack?
16 oz. sodas, inconvenience of going through TSA security at an airport (which discourages many people from flying, causing them to die on the highways), use of your bathroom, texting, autoerotic asphyxia, alcohol and tobacco, weather, suicide, hospital infections and doctor errors and stress.
One more thing: What is the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack? Ronald Bailey of Reason suggests a very liberal estimate (an estimate assuming death to be more likely) would be 1 in 1.7 million, and he offers these additional statistics:
Taking these figures into account, a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.
This same article indicates that the U.S. spends $400 million dollars per life saved in antiterrorism security measures (cost$1 Trillion since 2001), but this number doesn’t include military expenses by the United States. It’s also important to keep in mind that the U.S. spends more on maintaining a military than the rest of the world combined.
Perhaps if Americans weren’t so afflicted with innumeracy, we could accept the true (miniscule) risk of dying from a terrorist act, and focus on preventing much more likely forms of death. Perhaps we could spend a significant chunk of that “anti-terrorism” money to combat innumeracy.
15 Miss USA contestants demonstrate that they don’t know enough to know that they don’t know enough. In other words, these beautiful contestants are beautifully demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger cognitive effect:
The proper answer from each of these contestants should have been “I can’t answer that question, because I don’t understand the scientific theory of evolution. Maybe I should go read a few good books, on evolution. Then I’ll let you know whether I am competent to answer that question.” To answer like this, though, is not the American way. When you are prepared with make-up and the cameras come on, you tend to wing it in such a way to please the majority of your audience. This is what beauty contestants and politicians have in common.
Civilpolitics.org has a mission to use rigorous science to help others, including politicians, to get along. The mission is “to help you find academic scholarship that illuminates the causes and consequences of political civility and incivility.”
And here’s more, from the “Moral Psychology” page:
At CivilPolitics, most (but not all) of us believe that direct appeals to people to behave civilly will have very limited effects. We take a more social-psychological approach to the problem of intergroup conflict. We are more interested in legal, systemic, and policy changes that will, for example, change the ways that the “teams” are drawn up (e.g., in elections), and supported (e.g., financially). We want to change the playing field and the rules of the game, in the hopes that players in the future (citizens as well as politicians) will be less likely to demonize each other, mischaracterize each others’ motives, and refuse (on moral grounds) to engage in negotiations, interactions, and cooperative enterprises that would serve the nation’s interests.
Check out the “Social Psychology” page, which contains this advice (with lots of explanatory links).
In his new book, Thinking: Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman notes that human beings constantly claim that they understood the past much better than they actually did at the time. Referring to Nissam Taleb’s concept of “narrative fallacy,” Kahneman details how we employ flawed stories from the past to shape our current views of the world. This is not a good thing (though it often feels good while we engage in over-confident reasoning, as pointed out by Robert Burton); the narrative fallacy is a pernicious problem often a dangerous one.
Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories of people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on countless events that failed to happen. Any recent civilian event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative. Taleb suggests that we humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing that they are true.
[Page 199]. Human beings strive to create and embrace simple stories that give simple causal accounts based upon general propensities and personality traits. The “halo effect” contributes to this coherence–we tend to assign a generalized valence to other humans, and to assume that those people always act in accordance with our generalized positive or negative characterization of them. In this world, handsome people are also smart, moral and athletic. The halo effect keeps our narratives simple and it leaves little room for true statements such as the following shocker: “Hitler loved dogs and little children.” Our simplistic stories don’t leave room for outlier qualities. We resist the fact that obtuse people are sometimes correct and that the people we admire sometimes act foolishly.
I had posted on this Psyblog list before: “Why We do Dumb or Irrational Things: 10 Brilliant Social Psychology Studies.” I re-read it this morning. It would seem to be a good article for all people to read before voting. It’s important for each of us to know how our brains work before assuming that we are voting with “free will.” We often act on the basis of invisible social pressures. It’s not a good idea to simply declare that we are “rational” without examining these (and many other) vulnerabilities and biases. Here are the studies summarized in the Psyblog article:
- The Halo Effect: When Your Own Mind is a Mystery
- How and Why We Lie to Ourselves: Cognitive Dissonance
- War, Peace and the Role of Power in Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment
- Our Dark Hearts: The Stanford Prison Experiment
- Just Following Orders? Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment
- Why We All Stink as Intuitive Psychologists: The False Consensus Bias
- Why Groups and Prejudices Form So Easily: Social Identity Theory
- How to Avoid a Bad Bargain: Don’t Threaten
- Why We Don’t Help Others: Bystander Apathy
- I Can’t Believe My Eyes: Conforming to the Norm
From Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers discusses our contentious culture with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
Here is my summary of the excellent conversation, in which Haidt offers a roadmap for those of us weary from years of unproductive cultural clashes:
Groupish tribalism is generally good because it ramps up cooperation among those in the ingroup while animosity toward outsiders is usually minimal. But tribalism evolved for purposes of “war,” so that when a certain intensity is reached, “a switch is flipped, the other side is evil. They are not just our opponents. They are evil. And once you think they are evil, the ends justify the means and you can break laws and you can do anything because it is in service of fighting evil.” (min 4:30). Haidt argues that though “morality” often makes us do things we think of as good, it also makes us do things we think of as bad. In the end, we are all born to be hypocrites. Our minds didn’t evolve simply to allow to know the truth. In social settings, our minds are not designed to really let us know who did what to whom. “They are finely tuned navigational machines to work through a complicated social network in which you’ve got to maintain your alliances and reputation. And as Machiavelli told us long ago, it matters far more what people think of you than what the reality is. And we are experts at manipulating our self-presentation; we are so good at it that we believe the nonsense we say to other people.”
I wonder sometimes how a modern conservative maintains.
Romney has won the New Hampshire primary. All the buzz now is how he’s going to have a much tougher fight in South Carolina, primarily because of the religious and social conservatives who will see him as “not conservative enough.” There is a consortium of social conservatives meeting this week in Texas to discuss ways to stop him, to elevate someone more to their liking to the nomination. And right there I have to wonder at what it means anymore to be a conservative.
I grew up, probably as many people my age did, thinking of conservatism as essentially penurious and a bit militaristic. Stodgy, stuffy, proper. But mainly pennypinching. A tendency to not do something rather than go forward with something that might not be a sure thing.
I suppose some of the social aspect was there, too, but in politics that didn’t seem important. I came of age with an idea of fiscal conservatism as the primary trait.
That doesn’t square with the recent past. The current GOP—say since Ronny Reagan came to power—has been anything but fiscally conservative, although what they have spent money on has lent them an aura of responsible, hardnosed governance. Mainly the military, but also subsidies for businesses. But something has distorted them since 1981 and has turned them into bigger government spenders than the Democrats ever were. (This is not open to dispute, at least not when broken down by administrations. Republican presidents have overseen massive increases in the deficit as opposed to Democratic administrations that have as often overseen sizable decreases in the deficit, even to the point of balancing the federal budget. You may interpret or spin this any way you like, but voting trends seem to support that the choices Republican presidents have made in this regard have been supported by Republican congressmen even after said presidents have left office.)
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Chris Mooney has presented “seven recent scientific studies showing that liberals and conservatives differ in ways that go far beyond their philosophies or views on politics. We’re talking about things like physiological responses when shown different kinds of words or images, and performance in neuroscience tests.”
I applaud these efforts. I hope we will see many more studies to come, and that they will shed substantial additional light on why liberals and conservatives see the world so differently. Mooney aptly sums up the promise of this scientific effort:
[T]he next time a Republican denies global warming, liberals ought to be better able to check the impulse to say “what an idiot!” and instead say something like, “I can understand why they have that kind of a response.”
Amen to that, based on the long sad track record of what happens when one group of people barks that out group members are “idiots.” We’ve been intensely doing that for at least the past decade, and that strategy only gets us increasingly pissed off at each other. It doesn’t lead to any fruitful understanding. It doesn’t allow us to work with each other to achieve the many common goals we can agree on.
Here is an earlier post I had written on this topic of applying science to understand differences between conservatives and liberals, concerning a study by Jay Dixit, Frank Sulloway et al.