Monday, 5 April 2010

Thoughts on "The Undercover Philosopher"

There are a number of books based on the recent work by psychologists and experimental philosophers which look at the way ordinary people argue and make inferences. It's not a pretty sight. Michael Philips' book is as good as any of them (I've read a few) and if you don't know about Confirmation Bias, Anchoring, the Familiarity Heuristic or just how low the standards for science journalists are, then it is well worth the read.

However, there's one thing Philips and the others miss. People don't hold silly beliefs because they can't think straight. No. They don't think straight so they can hold silly beliefs. And people hold silly beliefs because it helps them define themselves, blocks out unwelcome facts and justifies their choice of goals and ambitions. Christian. Accountant. LISP programmer. Liverpool supporter and Oakland Raiders fan. Such people believe certain things to be true and have devout hopes that other things will be. Having a personal and intellectual identity that is not based on a core set of beliefs is right up there with triple-lutzes and the ability to speak six languages as requiring years of study, practice and the right genes in the first place.

If that seems hard to believe, then think about what it's like at work. The fact-free management strategies; the products launched without the slightest testing; the endless spin from HR, IR and PR; the need to go along to get along; the group-think; the staggering hypocrisy of the "corporate values". The opposite of science, said Lewis Wolpert, isn't art, it's politics. Policies must be seen to be right until their sponsoring Minister is relieved of her post, when the outgoing Minister's fact-free policies are replaced by the incoming Minister's fact-free policies. Everyone knows it's nonsense, but since everyone's jobs depends on it, everyone has to behave as if it's all true. This is known as "denial" in the trade, and that everyone knows they are professing twaddle only makes the denial more vehement and the peer-pressure more intense.

The spin and nonsense that pours out of politicians, bureaucrats, PR firms and corporate PR is not caused by an inability to apply deductive logic. It is a way of jamming the lines of communication, so that nothing of any significance can be transmitted. While the newspapers, bloggers and pundits are discussing the latest distraction or blatant codswallop, they cannot be laying out the facts - which would be far more damaging.

As for the more technical fallacies of reasoning explained in these books, there is no way that a GP or Health Service bureaucrat is ever going to understand that if the false negative rate of a test is nine times the prevalence of the disease, the chance that a positive reading means that you actually have the disease is only ten per cent. Because if they did, they would realise that testing for low-prevalence diseases is going to be very expensive if accurate and stigmatise way more people than it would save if cheap.

And if that paragraph meant nothing to you, or you didn't understand the calculation, then read Philips' book. Carefully.

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