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bias | Contriving

Tag Archives: bias

Science with a capital S is better than you.

So, yesterday I shared this post on Google+:

This boulder on the moon was set a-rollin’ by whatever process. The interesting thing to me is that you can see some craters overlapping the track it created as it rolled.

From this, scientists estimate this track was created 50-100 million years ago.

Notice the impact craters overlapping the track created by the rolling boulder.

This got me to thinking about how they determined the age.  While I haven’t talked to the scientists who came up with this age figure, I imagine it went something like this:

  1. Have a model for frequency of asteroid impacts over time per unit of area of Moon surface.
  2. Determine area of tracks.
  3. Count impact craters overlapping tracks.
  4. Using impact frequency model determine how much time would have to pass before you would see the number of overlapping impact craters.

The interesting thing here is that, going by a layperson’s definition of “wrong”, the number you come up with in this scenario could be completely wrong.  I think a lot of reporting on science, and even the statements scientists make to the public, are “wrong” in the same manner.

You see, the 50-100 million year figure doesn’t make a lot of sense in isolation.  It should have probabilities assigned to it.  The real answer isn’t “50-100 million years”, it’s a, for example, (rough and dirty) graph like this:

Impact Probabilities

You see, it’s possible that the asteroid impacts all happened yesterday.  It’s unlikely, but it’s possible.

So anyway, this is usually acknowledged when actually doing Science-with-a-capital-S, it’s just that this is often lost when communicating with the public.  The thing I find interesting about this, is that, this view of things having probabilities attached to them is the way the word actually works and yet the general attitude people have doesn’t acknowledge this.

GTFO Naked Girl. I'm doing science!

Most people operate as if things either happened or not.  Of being real or not real.  Even things that you would say you’re 100% sure of…like the color of the sky…have a probability assigned to them.  You may be 100% sure, but that 100% is a measure of your over-confidence, not of reality.  For example, there’s a non-zero chance you may be living in a dream or hallucination.

What about your values, your religion, your politics?  Are your values self-consistent?  Is there a God?  Do your political leanings actually lead to the type of world you want?  There’s probabilities assigned to all of ’em, and that probability is a lot lower than the previous example about the color of the sky.

Contrary actions to the Twelve Virtues – Relinquishment

Again, Yudkowsky writes:

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.

I like that P.C. Hodgell quote:  “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”  Your beliefs should hang upon the truth, truth doesn’t care about your beliefs.  Of course, this isn’t the way the human brain works.  When we’re comfortable with an idea, or if something we believe engenders positive emotions, we’re more likely to avoid facts that contradict our beliefs.

If you want to have an accurate view of the world around you, you’ve got to cultivate a willingness to give up things you believe, no matter how painful.

I know many who will find this idea foreign.  Others will play lip service to the idea.  Few will understand just how deep a change we have to make to implement the idea of being willing to relinquish our beliefs.  It’s not comfortable.  It hurts.  Relinquishing cherished beliefs is anathema to the soul if you haven’t made it into something you enjoy.  The default human position is to cherish beliefs, not to cherish truth.  It require effort to reverse that.

One of the worst methods of practicing non-relinquishment is cherry-picking of facts to support a belief.  It’s easy to “prove” anything you desire if you only accept facts in support of your belief.  An important thing to remember in this circumstance is that most of the time, when cherry-picking of the facts is going on, the picker doesn’t think they’re doing it.  It’s so easy for your brain to utterly dismiss things that don’t fit in to your worldview, that it doesn’t even seem like you’re making a mistake.

Unfortunately, you are.

What is your brain lying to you about?

There are ways for your brain to lie to you, which pretty much guarantee you’ll never know it. Even if someone points out the exact way in which you’re being lied to, you probably won’t accept it. Even if a being that is proven to be smarter and more right than any human being who has ever lived tells you, the chances are good you won’t believe it.

As Yudkowsky says:

I find it disturbing that the brain has such a simple macro for absolute denial that it can be invoked as a side effect of paralysis. That a single whack on the brain can both disable a left-side motor function, and disable our ability to recognize or accept the disability. Other forms of brain damage also seem to both cause insanity and disallow recognition of that insanity – for example, when people insist that their friends have been replaced by exact duplicates after damage to face-recognizing areas.

The very idea is frightening.

You’re not in control.

And by “you’re”, I mean your conscious mind.  Robin Hanson points to the latest Nature:

Our conscious minds control less than we think.  From the latest Nature:

A person’s responses can often be explained by non-linguistic behaviours of other people and simple instincts for social display and response, without any recourse to conscious cognition. This `second channel’ of human communication acts in parallel with that based on rational thinking and verbal communication, and it is much more important in human affairs than most people like to think. …

Every day I see more evidence that points towards a simple conclusion: It requires rigorous self-examination to determine our own motives and the correct, rational response to any given problem. This rigorous self-examination is beyond what the vast majority of people are either capable of or are willing to do.

I’ll take 300 cents, please. Or, people’s brains are broken.

The New York Times points to research demonstrating the effect of big numbers on people’s ability to reason.

You would probably never sell out your friend for $5. But 500 cents? Now you’re talking!

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.

Coupon user = cheapskate. (Or so people think)

I’m always fascinated by the biases that people have. I’m not talking about things like racism specifically, but the root cognitive malfunctions that cause people to draw the wrong conclusions from the evidence they have. Consumerist points to a study that highlights another example…

If you use coupons in a store, your fellow shoppers are probably negatively judging you as being cheap, according to a new study.