Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Virgins, Psychics, Carnivores, and Conspiracies

Virgins, Psychics, Carnivores, and Conspiracies: confirmation bias and you
“It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.” -Francis Bacon
You and I share something with one another, with President Obama, with Rush Limbaugh, with the Dalai Lama, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Sarah Palin, with Angela Merkel, and with every musician, movie star, plumber, prostitute, stamp collector, sergeant-at-arms, and unemployed underwater basket weaver in the world.

We all able to ascertain patterns, draw conclusions, and make predictions.

This pattern-finding ability is one of the distinguishing marks of humanity. Homo sapiens is man the thinker; perhaps we are, more accurately, Homo exemplum cupitor, man the pattern-seeker. (I am assuming that my decades-unused high school Latin skills are at least slightly accurate. If not, corrections are welcome.)

Pattern-seeking is one of the behaviors that makes humans, as a species, so successful, and it leads to the victories and the quirks that we, as individuals, manifest. It leads to the soaring success of some cultures and the unfortunate decline of others.

In this piece, I will be examining something called confirmation bias, which has given us protection from predators (and the corollary ability to be good ones), virgin sacrifices, psychics and spiritualists, conspiracy theories, and much more.

Carnivores
Our ability to evade and escape predators, as well as our ability to be successful predators ourselves, each of which was more important to our ancestors than to us, can be attributed to a number of factors. The most notable include our adaptability (being able to run, jump, climb, swim, and hide in varying terrain) and our ability to out-think predators (and prey) by sorting out patterns very quickly.

We can quickly and unconsciously process a tremendous amount of information, which our mind communicates to our body as thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Hunches, intuition, and strong emotional responses are your mind’s way of translating significant amounts of data in real time and communicating, via chemical and electrical responses, that information to you in messages that are not verbal or thought-ish but whose meaning you can understand, even if you can’t articulate that understanding all that well.

In other words, an individual can see a flash of orange and, if she’s lived in India long enough and if it’s the right sort of orange flash, recognize a tiger just in time to hide. Similarly, if the darting brown shape in the corner of one’s eye triggers the thought, “Deer,” then he can move swiftly to shoot the deer and feed his family.

The cost of not recognizing a predator is very high (up to and including death), and the cost of recognizing a predator that isn’t there is quite low (wasting a bit of energy and perhaps looking foolish). The same holds true of recognizing food that is not there (wasting ammunition) versus not seeing food that is (going hungry). Generally, a false positive (seeing something that is not there) is much less costly than a false negative (not seeing something that is there), so we are naturally biased toward false positives.

The human race has not changed substantially since its beginnings. What this means for us today is that we are programmed by our genes to have a much higher false positive rate than we do a false negative rate, even though we don’t have to deal with predators and prey with any regularity. I am not prepared, in this essay, to go into the merits and demerits of Darwinian evolution versus Intelligent Design and other forms of creationism. What is germane is that this cognitive toolbox works with either theory of the origin of species (So do its pitfalls).

This natural false-positive rate is the source of confirmation bias, which (roughly defined) is a way of thinking marked by discovering facts that corroborate beliefs and discounting others that contradict them. In other words, we tend to notice things that reinforce existing notions, ignore things that provide contradictory evidence, and discover patterns based on how we process information, rather than how things objectively exist. Often, these patterns are based on real structures, situations, and systems; but the patterns are also often based on imagined ones.

Since confirmation bias is a natural product of the survival tools that make us human; it is a natural part of who we are and permeates all human endeavors, to varying degrees. It is unavoidable unless we remain conscious of it; knowing that it exists and paying attention when we notice it can help to mitigate its effects,.

Virgins
In virtually every primitive society, humans were sacrificed by their fellows in order to mollify, please, or otherwise manipulate their gods (or, much more rarely, their god). One of the most infamous examples is the Aztec civilization, which sacrificed millions of individual men, women, and children. Estimates vary considerably, from 20,000 humans sacrificed per year to 250,000 per year. They boasted that at one of their consecration ceremonies (in the fifteenth century), they sacrificed 80,400 prisoners in four days (This number was probably inflated to make them seem fearsome).

Quite frequently, the cult of a particular tradition sacrificed virgins, and it’s not hard to imagine why, considering how powerful virginity is, intuitively.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you’re exactly as you are today, from the perspective of how your brain and body work, but you don’t know algebra, how to turn on a light bulb, or how to read edifying articles like this (Congratulations on your good taste, by the way).

You are, in effect, a modern man without modernity, the sort of individual that we might call a savage (whether or not we’d say that particular word out loud in recent years). It is important to note that our species has not changed for thousands of generations (or hundreds, if you’re a young earth creationist). Only the accumulated, shared experiences passed down through traditions and written records have changed. But the man and woman you see on the street in a tie and pantsuit are no different from Adam and Eve (or Fred and Wilma, if you prefer), except for what they have learned.

Now, your thought-experiment savage self is exactly like you are, modern self, an intelligent person who is pretty good at planning his day and getting all of the calories he needs to go about his business. You wear a string of leaves around your waist because it is unseemly to be seen without one. You memorize endless facts about your favorite stone-chucker (in the PaleOlympics), because you would appear an unmanly fool in hunting parties without the appropriate level of sports knowledge.

As you imagine yourself, be creative. Perhaps you think that the heavens are pleased with you, particularly if you flap your arms in a certain way, which you were taught as a child until it became a muscle memory. You have a dozen wives, which reflects your high social status.

What savage-you doesn’t know is that set of things that modern-you was taught, such as how humidity rises, accumulates in clouds, becomes more concentrated, mixes with a bit of dust, and falls back to earth as rain. Primitive-you has learned from mom and dad that Mardek the Munificent, a bird-headed lion god, sends rain based on his pleasure with the tree people of Totunga (That’s you and your kin), and y’all keep him pleased by offering up a virginal daughter once a month (chosen by the drawing of lots among families owning less than seventeen shiny stones). The priests are humane individuals and give her a drink that takes away the pain before placing her onto the burning pyre.

This month, maybe the day after the virgin is sacrificed, rain comes. Last month, it was a week later. One time last year, no rain came after the sacrifice. A thorough investigation in that case led to the conclusion that the sacrificed young woman had spent a little too much time with that boy who’s nothing but trouble and is destined, someday, to be a drunkard, a tribal chieftain, or both. After an extra-hearty three-virgin sacrifice the next month, rain returned plentifully (eventually).

The virgin-sacrifice ritual arose twenty generations ago, when a pioneering man called Enkidooright had a vision, after a particularly long drought, of how to please the rain god Mardek, and that was by giving him the greatest gift one can--a beloved child (preferably someone else’s, which explains the seventeen-shiny-stone exception).

Since then, rain has come after successful sacrifices, and when it has not come, individuals have figured out that it was because the sacrifice wasn’t done properly, the virgin had been deflowered, Mardek was so mad about something else that he ignored the sacrifice, etc. When the ritual was successful, this was marked down (on bark, using dried feces) as a confirmation of the virgin-sacrifice-brings-rain postulate, and when it was unsuccessful, it was ignored or explained away, but it was not seen as a disconfirmation of the virginocentric theory of rain production.

Psychics
Have you ever seen a video of a medium? They can be a bit unsettling if you get into them. The psychic (or spiritualist, medium, etc) often situates himself in front of an audience, makes contact with someone, and begins offering vague messages to the audience. (Example “I’m getting George, or Georgina. Something very like George”.) If you want to see it in action, go to youtube and search for psychic medium.

An audience member then identifies himself with the part of the “message” that sounds familiar. (Examples: “My father’s name was George”, “My mom had a cat named Georgina”, and “My cousin drownded in Georgia.”) The psychic hones in and then throws out another vague message, using the fresh information that the dupe audience member provides. It goes back and forth, with the psychic feeding information back to the mark until the whole story has been unwound. Now, pass the collection plate or buy the DVD.

This is called cold reading (Many self-proclaimed faith healers use a similar technique). It’s pretty amazing to watch, especially if the psychic is well-practiced and good at reading people.

The reason that it works is that audience members believe that it will. Their self-selection (belief in the supernatural, communication with spirits, whatever) is what brings them there in the first place. This leads them to enter into a dialogue with the cold reader (psychic), believing that he is delivering messages. The “messages” (interpreted as such by audience members who want them to be true) reinforce the individuals’ supernatural beliefs, which make it easier to believe subsequent messages, which lead the audience members to provide more details to the psychic, who uses these details to hone messages, etc.

It’s basically a confirmation bias feedback loop, and I have nothing but pity for those who are taken in by its predatory practitioners.

Conspiracies
Barack Obama is not (NOT, by heaven!)a natural American citizen; he is a rage-riddled, African Marxist who has managed to worm his way into the White House so that he could destroy America from within. He has been aided and abetted by innumerable shadowy figures who share his red-hot hatred of America, of colonialism, of capitalism, of Britain, of petroleum, and of Oscar the Grouch. George Soros has had it in for America for decades, and he finally has his chance to take it all apart and create a socialist atheocracy on American shores.

It is all a plot, and it such an obvious plot that he, Obama, hasn’t even hidden the facts all that well. (They’re right out in the open for those with the courage to find them!) It’s like he’s laughing at America, which just goes to show how much he hates us. How. Much. He. Hates. Us.

There are some things that I don’t relish writing. Rubbish like the pair of preceding paragraphs is a great example.

Where do such beliefs come from? Why do seemingly intelligent individuals believe them? Why do they seem so odd to outsiders? And why do some people seem prone to conspiracy theories, goldbuggery, and other heterodox ideas? (I’m thinking here of birchers, birthers, and other bellicose believers.)

The answer lies, as you’ve probably guessed, in confirmation bias. The word seemingly is unnecessary, in fact, as a modifier for intelligent. Perfectly intelligent people believe all sorts of weird things, from homeopathy to UFOs to Scientology to birtherism. Ancient Greeks, by and large, weren’t fools; they believed in the pantheon of gods because the traditions that they were taught took root in their minds, and the arguments and evidence for the gods outweighed those against them. The intelligence of an individual has nothing to do with the logical defensibility of his beliefs, to say nothing of their accuracy.

Instead, intelligent people believe things and then buttress their beliefs with evidence, including those items that confirm the theory while excluding those that disconfirm it. In some ways, intelligence probably makes people more resistant to having weird beliefs dismantled, because they are so good at building up defenses.

In his landmark book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell examines how a constrained view of human nature tends to correlate with values and political positions that we consider “conservative” in America, while an unconstrained view of human nature tends to correlate with “liberal” ideologies. In a similar fashion, I suspect that most people have a false positive rate for pattern matching that is relatively high (compared to perfect objective knowledge), but that it is bounded within a certain range. Unbelievable ideas just seem, well, unbelievable because (for whatever reason), they just don’t make sense, even if their proponents have plenty of evidence to back them up.

Likewise, I suspect that people who are prone to a higher-than-average pattern-matching false positive rate tend to gravitate toward conspiracy theories, anti-fluoridation campaigns, goldbuggery, Ron Paul support, and the like.

Note that I am not talking about psychosis or mental illness; that’s a completely different subject, and although I often call Paulestinians, birthers, etc crazy, it really is an unfair characterization (N.B. This will not stop me from saying it though). For the most part, they are sane. Their beliefs are often incorrect and seem laughable (especially to snarks like me), but they are internally consistent and supported by evidence and argumentation, even though the logic holding things together is specious.

Is There a Solution?
I don’t think so. I think that the best we can do is to be humble about being right, while recognizing that much of we believe is based on emotions and presuppositions.

The best we can do, as far as I can tell, is to use a baloney detection kit when examining beliefs. Carl Sagan proposed one, and Michael Shermer promotes one that is similar but a little easier to understand: here and here.

Using critical thinking techniques, we should re-evaluate beliefs (particularly related to politics) in the light of new evidence, and to change them when facts no longer support them or our ideology.

Care should be taken to make gradual changes to our beliefs, and while blindly going along with a group can lead to groupthink, it is always a good practice to compare one’s ideas with those attached to a larger movement (preferably, in political terms, one associated with a major party). This allows for sniff-testing, and if something is far outside the mainstream (for example, the idea that Social Security numbers are Satanic), then it should be pretty obvious.

This is not easy, but it is important.

When it is clear that “facts” promoted by individuals who identify with a particular philosophy are counterfactual (particularly if they are racist, antithetical to American ideals, or immoral in another way), then those pushing non-facts, conspiracy theories, and the like should be drummed out of the movement associated with the philosophy. The best example that I can think of is William F. Buckley denouncing and marginalizing the John Birch Society.

Addendum: I almost forgot to mention this.
Most conspiracies are bunk, but let me be clear: black helicopters are real, and they’re doing something neFARious, and McDonald’s is their many-tentacled corporate sponsor. I took this picture myself. The helicopter was hovering over the Kodak Theater during the Oscars three nights ago. Ground zero. It has something to do with Hollywood. I blame the Jews. Scary. U lovin’ it?


Recommended Reading and Viewing:
For more information about these subjects, I recommend the following books:
On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not by Robert Burton
Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

Here’s a great conversation about psychics between the illusionist Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins. While Dawkins is a controversial figure due to his (often obnoxious and poorly informed) atheism, it’s the best explanation of cold reading that I could find.


Here’s an amusing video that demonstrates how suggestible people are. It contains hymns with the wrong lyrics on-screen.


Finally, here is a very entertaining presentation by pop science writer and professional skeptic Michael Shermer. The entire video is worth watching. Led Zeppelin fans can skip to the nine minute mark.

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