Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Smart People Are Stupid

I still lie awake at night trying to understand why intelligent people can't agree on more things.  In theory, all intelligent people should be equally able to recognize fallacious logic and unsupported conclusions.  So, while they may disagree on the really hard questions, they should be able to have a meeting of the minds about the clearly wrongheaded.  And yet, I have this fellow in my office -- he was, like, .0001 away from being class valedictorian at his posh high school, attended and graduated from Haverford College and Georgetown Law School, and clerked for a federal judge -- trying to convince me that global warming is a complete hoax.

I made sort of a feeble stab at this before in our blog.  See Why Your Political Opponents Are Crazy.  The post linked to an article by Notre Dame philosophy professor Gary Gutting that said that everyone starts with their own assumptions -- first premises -- about the world which are not particularly rational.  Gutting calls them pictures.  As he says, "Hardly anyone holds either of these rival pictures as the result of a compelling logical argument. Pictures come to have a hold on us from a complex mixture of family influences, schooling, personal experiences, discussions with friends, reading newspapers and blogs, and more."  The article goes on to argue that, while there will never be agreement about the big pictures, most people concede that there will always be exceptions.  It is in the details of those exceptions where we might reach agreement despite our political differences.

Now, I see an article in the New Yorker which presents a more dismal explanation for our lack of agreement:  even the brightest of us do not think logically.  See Why Smart People Are Stupid.   This piece by journalist Jonah Lehrer examines the work of Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton.  According to Kahneman's research, we take mental shortcuts which lead to foolish conclusions.   We have built in biases that, even when we are fully aware of them, we cannot overcome.

As the article points out, "[p]erhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the 'bias blind spot.'"  We can see the mental errors of others but can't spot the same errors in ourselves.  In other words,  we beholdest the mote that is in our brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in our own eye.

And here's the kicker, increased intelligence only increases the size of our bias blind spot.

Anyway, I've summarized just a few points.  Overall, the piece is an eye-opener, although it may lead you to conclude that trying to reach rational unbiased answers to any question is an utterly hopeless undertaking. 


James R said...

Daniel Kahneman seems like a reasonable man. I'm not sure whether winning the Nobel Prize is real evidence for that or heuristic bias, but I love his work and his psychological, brain teaser questions. I will be using the two in the article, however, I must find a way to ask them without a glint in my eye. Here are 10 others which you will find quite interesting.

James R said...

I'm not sure why I said "10 others"? Perhaps there is another rationality flaw somewhere in using the number 10.

I've been a fan of logic puzzles, brain teasers, and Martin Gardner for years. Kahneman offers a slightly different twist. Here is one of his, which was called the Linda Problem, but he transposes Linda to Genevieve:
At a dinner party this weekend, a friend introduces you to a woman named Genevieve. He tells you that Genevieve recently graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a B.A. in Philosophy, where she was active in the Occupy movement and edited a literary magazine. You’re interested in talking to Genevieve about Hegel, the subject of her senior thesis, but your friend jumps in and asks you to rank the following statements about Genevieve in order of their probability:
(1) Genevieve is a feminist.
(2) Genevieve is looking for a job as a sanitation worker.
(3) Genevieve is a feminist who is looking for a job as a sanitation worker.
Given what you know about Genevieve, rank the statements from most likely to least likely.

James R said...
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James R said...

Again, this time thanks to Myk, In Progress previews the world. Here are a couple of questions to answer from Error Morris which seem to be straight from Kahneman.

Big Myk said...

I actually saw the Morris piece and was going to blog on it separately. It shouldn't surprise anyone that my vote was for, yes, we live in an era of unprecedented safety. And I was very confident about that.

Here's what an old New Yorker article -- about happiness -- had to say about this:

A person in good health in a Western liberal democracy is, in terms of his objective circumstances, one of the most fortunate human beings ever to have walked the surface of the earth. [Our hunter gatherer ancestors] would have regarded our easy, long, riskless lives with incredulous envy. They would have regarded us as so lucky that questions about our state of mind wouldn’t be worth asking. It is a perverse consequence of our fortunate condition that the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on us.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/02/27/060227crbo_books#ixzz20Sg8Rzzg

James R said...

I, again to nobody's surprise (We have spent some interesting time discussing this area of thought.), also chose "we live in an era of unprecedented safety".

We have also discussed happiness, and Kahneman has an informative lecture on the subject of Happiness here. This lecture has not previously been referenced by the blog to my knowledge. But that is a slightly different topic.

I chose "slightly confident", mostly because of what we have learned of Daniel Kahneman-type questions, of which this appears to be one. My reasoning mostly deals with the person who made the test and how it is presented.

An episode about a relatively small astroid whose impact may not 'end the world' but could be a contributing factor, is presented first. Then we are told that this is the only time in history when we could prevent such a thing. The presumption is we are living in safe times. However, the chance of such an impact is 1 out of 250,000 years, so, in essence, the ability to stop an astroid doesn't make us any safer by any appreciable amount. I think that Morris may be counting on us to think that some evidence of a safer world has been presented when none has.

I know if we look at other data: war casualties, medicine, etc., this is supposed to be the safest of all possible times. It seems reasonable, but I'm not expert on those statistics. I'm confident, but only slightly. Who knows what will come tomorrow? Plus, I keep thinking a wise man knows his ignorance. I guess I am 'slightly confident' about practically everything I think I know.

Big Myk said...

I have little doubt that "slightly confident" is the better answer. How soon I have forgotten James Carse and what Nicholas of Cusa said about Learned Ignorance: "You have seen that the exactness of truth cannot be attained. The consequence is that every positive human assertion of the truth is a conjecture… ."

But my certainty was boosted by Steven Pinker's recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. See Violence Vanquished.
Of course I've read a fair amount of criticism of both this book and the soundness of Pinker's analysis.