Monday, October 07, 2013

trees and forests

I started writing this intending to make a particular point but then the post got long and I can’t be bothered to edit it back down to size, so maybe I’ll write a follow up.

Sometimes we get so worked up about specific facts that we lose sight of more general truths. We should want the big picture and the low level detail to be part of the same, coherent story but this is really difficult, especially when we want to argue for a particular conclusion.

Take bad calls in sport. Our reactions are wildly inconsistent if they go for or against us. When they go against us we’ll go into detail about why this particular case is particularly inexcusable. When a bad call goes our way (and there is no possibility of arguing that the call was actually fine) we are more likely to get philosophical, “Well, that’s the nature of the game. These things balance out in the end.” Unless the ref is actually fixing the match, the second reaction is actually sensible and the first reaction is just plain wrong. We all know that refs make mistakes all the time and we simply don’t care when the mistakes are not important, but these mistakes are no less blameworthy than the important ones. It’d would be a sign of a genuine problem if the mistake rates were different in big situations (even if they were lower!), but I’ve never seen this argued for.

The conceptual framework you use should take the available information into consideration. If you know that refs makes mistakes then your general beliefs about refs should reflect this. Another example is free speech. Most people I know think the principle of free speech is a good thing. This is not undermined by the cases where people use the right to say or write ridiculous, immoral things. But I quite often see people saying things like, “the right to free speech doesn’t include the right to be offensive.” Not only does it include that right, that is almost the very definition of free speech. Since it would be the government that enforced any prohibition on offensive speech, a definition of “Free speech = speech the government decides is not offensive” is hardly reassuring. Now perhaps free speech is actually a very bad thing because of all the offence flying about, but then you need to argue against the principle of free speech, not try to stop individual assholes spouting hateful crap.

How about terrorism, or shark attacks? Individual instances of both have such a powerful grip on our imaginations that actual policy responses to them are *ridiculous*. I’ve read articles suggesting that in the US many people would choose to drive instead of fly if they could so the extra number of deaths from car accidents may be higher than the number of deaths from the 9/11 attacks. If the goal is not to die, we are mistaken to drive when we would otherwise fly.  

We are not always wrong to let individual facts influence our general beliefs about something or someone. It doesn’t matter if a person doesn’t murder people as a general rule; one murder is enough to justify a generally negative opinion of him. And of course we are not justified in dismissing particularly salient events if it turns out that they are norm. This is the whole point of the saying, “the plural of data is not anecdote” (*It definitely isn't! What is the plural of data?) . There is a reason why we collect proper data instead of just telling compelling stories.

There are plenty of cases where the visceral, detailed events seem to directly contradict what the data tells us. In these cases we need to actively resist the emotional force of particular events and let more impersonal, abstract truths guide our beliefs. Failure to do this has bad consequences, like massive overreaction to terror attacks.

But if you agree with all this, in what other areas do you think we tend to make the same mistake?


Trevor Black said...

Is being rational our aim in sport? Should we really use your suggested framework when thinking about sport? I know you take a dull the pain approach to supporting Federer and I tend to take a lean into the pain approach. I would suggest that perhaps we need to follow your framework where rational decision making is necessary to avoid harm or where the emotional content or response doesn't add value.

Being completely rational in love would likely lead to us leaving people as soon as our goal has been met. For some financial security. For some procreation.

I agree with the idiocy of the car vs. plane scenario when we have scarce resources to allocate and when more lives are lost because of the action. Perhaps we will be more willing to accept those truths when there are driverless cars and driving is much safer. Perhaps we don't think about car accidents because we come in to such regular contact with cars, we can't afford the emotional cost of stressing about it. That has some value in that it allows us to car on driving despite how ridiculously dangerous it can be.

I do agree with your point and will think of some examples, but Jonathan Haidt's 'The Righteous Mind' got me thinking about whether we overvalue rationality and sometimes don't spend enough time thinking about the importance of emotional responses - both as a barrier to understanding as actually as the source of our understanding.

Tracy B said...

I think our emotional intuition is a vital part of us finding the right direction. It is the passion and drive stemming from our general world view that fuels us to mould and shape our culture into what we believe to be so. As science has progressed and data made more available we are able to leverage facts that can contribute to a more accurate / well-rounded world view. In this case an informed and knowledgeable individual might be more correct in an argument when arguing against an expert in a particular field who has access to facts. Facts can be limited, myopic and siloed, whereas an intelligent creative human being has the potential of trumping a pure facts argument by drawing on his vast connections and associations.

On the other hand, facts can offer a level playing field in an emotionally fuelled argument, bringing people to a more rational resolution. Facts can also serve as groundwork to progress to higher constructs, Elon Musk often ascribes his success to starting from a point of seeing things from first principles.

Unfortunately the world in which we operate is not a balanced and tame system in which we can have a level headed argument about issues. There are various pundits vying for our attention on various matters, some important some frivolous. With all this information coming from parties both powerful and small and undoubtably mixed in with a lot of misinformation, it is hard to work out the fact from the fiction. Even facts can be dubious, coming from biased institutions or academics on the payrolls of large corporates.

Ultimately I think it is important for the individual to be as knowledgeable and informed as possible in issues where he/she holds an opinion and be open to forming new opinions as more knowledge is acquired or debated. Facts can be useful and sometimes fundamental but also potentially hazardous and misleading.

Freestyle chess shows us how teams of semi-skilled human chess players + machines are more likely to beat pure machine players. This concept of augmented intelligence is believed to surpass any pure human or pure machine intelligence. Could we extrapolate by saying that machines possess an assimilation of facts and that humans augmented with an assimilation of facts will far surpass pure facts alone. Therefore, always be informed and be guided by your intuition before blindly follow the facts in a particular subject.

It was the philosophers who were the precursors to the scientists and their scientific method of derived facts. With their non-factual reasoning and intuition they got us quite far down the road of reason before the scientists took over.

Stuart said...

Long, cool comments! Whee!


How we “consume” sport is one thing, but the reactions to ref mistakes doesn’t seem to be about this. The recent game in New Zealand *lots* of english soccer games. Tim Noakes has openly accused the ref of fixing the SA v Aus world cup game, which is a crime right (the fixing, not the accusation)? The outrage is super serious and it drives me crazier than a dodgy call.

The familiarity of risk does dull us to its dangers, but this is my point. When we make non-routine decisions, like by driving when a month before we would have flown, we should try not to act like idiots.

I was actually thinking bout his book when I wrote this. His rider/elephant is his metaphor for dual process theory, which forms a major part of my masters. I’m not at all trying to downplay the positive role it plays, but the elephant can be trained. We often need better elephants.


I absolutely agree that emotional intuition is an essential to making progress or achieving real insight into an issue. Mathematicians will often say that they will have worked with a concept for years, knowing their properties and how to work with them but never felt like they understood it. It is common they they will suddenly get it. They understand it on a deep intuitive level, and it’s when that happens that they make the most progress. Without honed intuition, our thinking is soooo slow. The thing is though that this is the product of pretty intense effort over a long period of time.

In maths, physics and I assume programming, the coherence between detail and theory can be shown. But in politics, ethics and even economics, this is much less clear. When people have strong emotional opinions about something then they can exert all their cleverness in identifying the facts that support their theory and ignoring or actively discounting inconvenient facts. But if we’re going the wrong way, progress is bad!

How to strike the right balance between abstract theory and visceral emotion is hard and I find I find super interesting.

Philosophers still appeal directly to intuitions in support of their arguments, even though people have found clever ways of messing with our intuitions which can generate different conclusions in the same situations.