Monthly Archives: November 2008

The most important post on this blog…ever

Shermer and confirmation bias

Michael Shermer in the LA Times:

Confirmation bias explains why so many rumors about candidates were eagerly embraced recently. On the left, commentators glommed onto false gossip about Sarah Palin’s ignorance (she doesn’t know that Africa is a continent) and bigotry (she tried to ban books from the public library) because liberals think that conservatives are dumb and dogmatic, and after eight years of George W. Bush’s malapropisms and Palin’s interview fumbles, such rumors merely confirmed what liberals already believed.

It’s been my experience that confirmation bias is one of the most powerful (powerful in the sense of most likely to lead us astray) faults of the human mind. Shermer’s op-ed piece is a nice overview of the pitfalls found within.

It’s a pretty difficult bias to counteract, as it requires you to consciously step back from everything you learn and think about why you agree or disagree with it.

Calibrating our sense of the future.

The below started out as a comment on The Speculist, but as the comment grew I thought it’d make a good blog post.

In a post there, Phil Bowermaster states:

what is it reasonable to expect will happen?

Anything and everything that can happen.

To which I replied:

I could walk outside and get struck by lightening. If I threw a deck of cards in the air they could land in suit order. I could win the lottery.

I don’t expect any of those things to happen.

His response:

Well, you’ve got me there. Of course, I didn’t say that it’s reasonable to expect that everything that can happen will happen to everyone — some people do get struck by lighning and others win the lottery, after all.

(See the comments on his post to see all of his response, but the above seems to summarize his position.)

His original statement didn’t specifically say it, but his statement automatically means what he says he didnt say.  If you say that it’s reasonable to expect that anything that can happen, will happen, you are automatically including something like lightening striking everyone!  There is no natural law preventing lightening from striking everyone.  It’s just lower on the spectrum of probabilities.

In order of probability:

  1. Lightening striking someone.
  2. Lightening striking someone within 100 miles of me.
  3. Lightening striking me.
  4. Lightening striking me and 5 people I know.
  5. Lightening striking me and everyone in my town.
  6. Ad infinitum…

Personally, I would put the Reasonable-To-Expect line between 1 and 2, maybe 2 and 3.

The crux of my point is this:  It seems like Phil is drawing an arbitrary line in the spectrum of probabilities and saying anything above this line will happen.  The problem with that is that it does not actually help us predict anything.  Anything that doesn’t happen you can just say, “Well, I didn’t mean anything with that low of a probability.”

This leads me to guess at what Phil is actually trying to say.  My guess is that his actual point is that there are many things that, while possible, some (many?) people don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them with no solid reason for thinking that.  If this is indeed his point, I agree.  However, I don’t think his statements lead to this conclusion.  After all, the Reasonable-To-Expect is a minuscule subset of the Possible.  Because of this, merely stating that something is possible says little about it’s probability of happening.

Phil goes on to state:

“What is it reasonable to expect will happen?An astoundingly large subset of anything and everything that can happen.

Astoundingly large in what sense? As mentioned above, and demonstrated by the above series, the Reasonable-To-Expect is an infinitesimal subset of the Possible.  After all, as far as we know the universe has a limited life span.

Don’t get my point wrong. I am totally a fan of the idea that what people think is reasonable to expect has no bearing on what actually is reasonable to expect.  This is why so many people are incredulous when you talk to them about most of the transhumanist ideas.

I’m just pointing out that misstating the case or being imprecise is not likely to win any converts.  I’m not trying to bash you, Phil, I just found the subject matter to be interesting!

Automatic Baby Walker

I just had to share this video here so one day when I have a kid, I can find it again.

Picasa 3, people’s names, and “Why doesn’t this work right, Google?”


Image via Wikipedia

So, I’ve been using Picasa 3 to organize photos. Great software, except for one big let-down.

One of the cool features I read about before downloading version 3, was the new face recognition engine. Unfortunately, it turns out that this is web-only. Meaning, all the work you do labeling the faces doesn’t get synced back to the local client which seems to limit it’s usefulness for no reason.

Evernote and AutoIt

The AutoIt SciTE editor.

Image via Wikipedia

I’m obsessive about using Evernote to keep track of everything I may ever want to remember. Recently, I’ve been writing some AutoIt code to help me automate the workflow I use to scan paper documents into Evernote. For anyone else who is interested in doing such a thing, I’ve released my _CreateNote AutoIt function here.

No, the economic downturn doesn’t prove you right

In a post entitled “The Relevance of the Great Depression“, David Friedman states:

One can imagine a future in which President Obama, supported by Democratic majorities in both houses, engages in massive interventions in the economy following the massive interventions already under way and the result is a serious economic downturn prolonged for years, perhaps for two terms. If that happens many people–most obviously, the same people who insist that the collapse of Fannie Mae and the associated difficulties are the fault of laissez-faire and deregulation–will conclude that only massive intervention preserved us from a still worse outcome.

He is absolutely correct and beat me to a blog post about it. As soon as I heard people blaming the free market, it rung as a false claim to me. Or, perhaps not false, but a conclusion not justified by the evidence at hand.

Whether or not free markets are “bad”, the current crisis says little about them. Economic markets are already heavily regulated, but whether or not we need more, different, or less regulations is by no means clear.

Income redistribution is ok because it’s already done?

» I Voted for Barack Obama on Blueprint for Financial Prosperity

As for the big focus on “wealth redistribution?” We’ve been doing it for years, it’s called the progressive tax system. While it seems like you’re punishing success and being a bit socialist, the alternative is far worse. Imagine a nation where there is an upper class and a very large lower class with few economic opportunities, filled with anger, desperation, and despair, and with very few options. Not pretty huh? America is still the land of opportunity, even if success is taxed a little more.

The above quote is taken from a blog about personal finance that I enjoy following. Can you see the logical fallacy contained within? I’ll give you a minute…


Ok, time is up.

Apparently, the author is attempting to say “Don’t worry about income redistribution because it’s already being done.” This is a mashing up of several logical fallacies.

Let’s say that you are of the opinion that income redistribution of the type we already have (progressive tax system), is a good thing. It doesn’t automatically follow that another type, or more, or less is also a good thing.