23 March, 2015

Dealing with our flaws in thinking

This is a follow-up on a post about the limited human rationality. In that post I described some facts - just a few - that perhaps left you a little more in doubt about your cognitive abilities. Or at least more aware of the limitations our human condition comes with!

Consequences

Unfortunately, the mentioned and the many other flaws in our thinking have consequences for decision making in our society, especially when there's money to be made. The lobby of weapon manufacturing is rather stronger than that of companies creating anti-slip mats in showers and car manufacturers, well, security is merely a factor increasing the costs of cars so there's little incentive for them to hammer on that issue either. The combination of our innate inability to judge the likelihood of these and other things to harm us and the financial pressure on politicians results in massive over-spending on what is in essence irrelevant or even dangerous and harming our society. The NSA, for one, stupidity around net neutrality is another and the war on drugs is third rather prominent example. And now Ebola, of course - a disease so unlikely to kill you, you're probably more likely to be killed by a falling piano.

I think it is pretty clear, as I mentioned above, that politics and business happily abuse our lack of rationality. But probably more often, 'the system' causes issues by itself, as the insanely huge political divide in the US shows. It pays of for the media to put extreme people in front of their audience - and today, we have a country where you can't discuss politics at the office because people see the world so vastly different that only conflict can come out of a conversation. Think of the biases I discussed earlier: these world views aren't likely to get fixed easily, either.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
I don't think anybody set out to create this divide - but it is with us now.

Now indeed, the media are part of a system working against us. They get rewarded for creating an impression of problems; and they are often uninformed and biased themselves. As John Oliver pointed out, we don't put a believer in regular human abductions by aliens in front of a camera to debate a scientist, attempting to give both sides of the debate an equal chance! We pity the few who still don't get that this, and many other issues, are settled.


Yet this is what often happens in areas where science has long come to a conclusion. Not just the moon landing but also vaccinations, global warming, evolution and a great many more things. Take the recent "Snowden wants to come home" media frenzy!

I don't think any of that is intentional. It's the system rewarding the wrong things. We are part of that 'system': we prefer news that supports our view point; and we prefer new and exciting things - a balanced point of view is boring.

Quality decision making gets harder and harder.

Dealing

One way of dealing with disagreement has been to essentially declare all facts 'up for discussion'. It all depends on your point of view, proponents of this idea say. But reality isn't as malleable as relativists make it out to be. You can choose to leave your house through the front window on the 3rd floor, but gravity's a bitch. It's nice that some want to value everybody's opinion, but the universe imposes limits to that.

We have to realize that the world is real. People can be right or wrong about it and the choices we make matter!


As a society, we need to find new ways to make decisions in a healthy way. We've done good things - we eliminated polio and smallpox, diseases that were around for many thousands of years and nobody has had them in a long, long time. River blindness is hopefully next, and others will follow. We also drove half the worlds' animals near extinction and are abusing this planet to the point where it just will become a much more hostile place in a century or two unless we change something. You can guess I'm not much into libertarianism - it is clear that we can and do impact the world and going it all alone does not solve the tragedy of the commons style issues we have. There's a problem - and the inherent complexity of the world is certainly part of it, as is our lack of rationality.

How do we deal? I used to be an optimist - when I discovered the Internet, I thought it would democratize knowledge (it has) and news (not so much). Social media, sites like Digg where people vote on what the 'best news' is, it seemed a new and improved reality. No more single points of failure. No journalists who can be bought or oppressed. And then there were open source communities, with their flat structure of decision making, ideals of equality and meritocracy. Democracy would thrive!

Reality was harsh. The Internet has allowed us to hide in our corners with like minded people. It has lots of good stuff (if you're not into economy or net neutrality, this is a good read on both) but the Internet didn't kill conspiracy theories, it fuelled them. And open source works for some, but has its own issues of inequality (and that is just one problem).

Perhaps technology can help - Google has apparently found ways to find out what's true and what isn't. I'm not so sure. I wonder what it would do to sites like this proving that even with mere facts you can create conspiracy nonsense.

Methods to the rescue

I think the solution has to be found in a system or a process in the way the scientific method works. Wikipedia describes it as follows:
The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.
I prefer to call it a process, rather than a 'body of techniques'. The key is that if left to common sense, humanity decides that life emerges from lifeless matter until more than 2000 years later Louis Pasteur shows it really, really doesn't (except for this). The scientific method thus aims to take human decision making out of the equation, or at least, rigorously deal with the biases that cloud our judgment. Lots of books have been written on the subject of philosophy of science - I got my portion by way of Chalmers, worth reading.

However it works, key is that while science relies on people and thus makes mistakes, it has a process for dealing with these mistakes, correcting them over time. Confidence is gained over long periods and the result is that we have been largely refining our knowledge gained since the scientific method became widely used, rather than rewriting the world as we know it over and over again. Yes, Newton's theories on physics still stand - quantum mechanics and Einsteinian physics merely refines it, providing better results in areas Newton can't reach. Uncertainty exists in science, but only at the 'edges', where new knowledge is created. While many facts of evolution are debated, since evolutionary synthesis, we've settled on a core which is as solid as Newton's ideas about gravity; climate models might be imperfect today but much of what we discovered does not have to be debated over again and again.

Method for decision making

We have methods, systems, processes for decision making, too. Democracy is one, the trias politica part of it. But it has flaws and needs some refinement, ideally in the opposite direction of Citizens United. I don't think we can make a Philosopher King system work, so whatever we come up with has to be a bureaucracy, evolved from today's system. I think decentralization is part of the solution (majors should rule the world?), but we live together on this planet so there have to be over-arching structures, too.

I know there is research being done on the topic. And we've already come up with some strategies like the advocate for the devil.

What exactly the solution should look like - don't ask me. I'm a psychologist, I can merely tell you not to trust people and their gut instincts. If this feels like an anti-climax, well, it should. We will have to come up with solutions together - not one blogger alone!

Soon?

But we should hurry.

I believe, with self-described plutocrat Nick Hanauer, that the pitchforks are coming. Perhaps the militarization of police and governments (the NSA in particular) disrupting online security are attempts of governments to prepare for social unrest.

Maybe.

What I'm certain about is that humanity can't continue the way it is functioning now. If social inequality doesn't put a stop it, the depletion of natural resources or religious fundamentalists will. The Dutch would say: the wall will turn the ship.

Let's see how hard we'll hit it.