Easier Said Than Done – Reflections on the LA Times Festival of Books

I went to a number of panels featuring scientists at last week-end’s outstanding Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and a major theme was clear throughout.  It was stated most directly by Timothy Ferris:  “I recommend a scientific approach to social issues.”  As a consequence, he expressly rejects the idea of beginning with ideology and recommends following the evidence wherever it leads.  Sean Carroll added a corollary – he is “an unrelenting empiricist.” This approach (to pretty much everything) was implicitly endorsed in remarks by other luminaries such as David Baltimore, Holly Tucker, Jennifer Ouellette, Cara Santa Maria and Leonard Mlodinow. Given that they are scientists, others whose remarks did not touch on this theme (such as Daniel Kahneman) would almost surely agree too.  As I have written many times (examples are here and here), I am sympathetic to – indeed, I am fully supportive of – such an approach to most things and to the investment world in particular.

That said, I am concerned about the implications of the arguments expressed, even though I hasten to add that I am not a scientist and that I may be seeing and hearing implications that were not intended or that simply do not exist.

My first concern relates to Hume’s recognition that no ethical or even evaluative conclusion may be validly inferred from a set of purely factual premises.  Accordingly, even though a given fact may preclude the accuracy of a given interpretation, no fact or set of facts can conclusively establish the truthfulness of a given interpretation.  Any interpretive scheme requires some presumed sentiment(s) or value(s) about which one must be persuaded.  

The scientists I saw over the week-end seemed to think that a scientific approach – which should lead to a much better understanding of the facts – would make crossing the is/ought divide easy. Some may even embrace scientism.  I remain skeptical.

Most fundamentally, scientism – the idea that science can answer every question – rejects dialogue.  It is the simple (simplistic) view that science provides all the answers and every other area and mode of inquiry needs to shut up and take instruction. I hasten to emphasize that well-supported messages from science are far too often foolishly ignored, especially here in the USA, where many seem to take a perverse pride in claiming to reject science in various guises all the while inconsistently accepting without quibble its many benefits (for example, those who reject evolution while giving nary a thought to taking prescription drugs, the creation and effectiveness of which are wholly dependent upon evolution).

Yet even those scientists who do not embrace scientism have their issues too. Fewer factual errors and erroneous claims will surely help any proposed analytical framework, perhaps a lot and across-the-board. But many scientists seem to assume that agreement on the facts will result in interpretive agreement as well.  Note this telling comment from David Baltimore concerning an interpretive conclusion about religion:  “Because I am myself unable to accept a religious explanation of anything, I wonder why others so readily do so.”  He seemingly cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with his conclusion. That sounds far more human than scientific to me.

Scientists also express far too much faith in their ability to analyze the evidence fairly and to make decisions rationally.  As Seneca famously expressed it, the belly will not listen to advice. Or, as I have noted before, information is cheap while meaning is expensive

We all like to think that we carefully gather and evaluate facts and data before coming to our conclusions and telling our stories.  But we don’t. 

Instead, we tend to suffer from confirmation bias and thus reach a conclusion first.  Only thereafter do we gather facts, but even so we tend to do so to support our pre-conceived conclusions.  We then take our selected “facts” (or thereafter examine any alleged new facts) and cram them into our desired narratives, because narratives are so crucial to how we make sense of reality. 

Keeping one’s analysis and interpretation of the facts reasonably objective – since, again, analysis and interpretation are required for data to be actionable – is really, really hard even in the best of circumstances – even for scientists and especially in areas that don’t allow for ready testing and analysis.  Indeed, the recent scandal of retractions in scientific journals due to fraud and just plain error suggest that even testable scientific endeavors are more prone to error than was previously thought.  Everybody has an ax to grind

Ironically, none of these behavioral biases would surprise Daniel Kahneman in the least, as his Festival presentation emphasized.  Moreover, as Margaret Wertheim pointed out, also at the Festival, we have an ongoing problem on account of the hubris of scientists (indeed – of just about everyone). As Tadas Viskanta points out in his fine new book, Abnormal Returns, investing is really hard and we are wildly overconfident about our ability to tame (or even understand) the markets.

I saw the general rubric favored by scientists acted out during the two panels on politics I attended.  Partisan blindness was evident on all sides as was lots of emotional heat.  To pick one easy example among many, Nancy Cohen claimed – without a shade of doubt or qualification – that the Tea Party movement was primarily about the standard goals of social conservatism despite being pointed toward good evidence showing that support for the Tea Party is not synonymous with support for the so-called “religious right” and that Tea Party support for smaller government far exceeded Tea Party support for conservative social policy.

The scientific method works via induction.  Thus scientific truth can rarely be demonstrated in a definitive fashion.  It must be inferred and remains constantly subject to revision and falsification.  But that is a principle that seems far too often to be honored only in the breach, even by scientists.  All of us (including scientists) can and should be passionate advocates for what we believe to be right, true and best even as we retain the humility to recognize that we just might be wrong. Stating confidence in expected outcomes via the scientific process is easy.  But I suspect that actually getting a good result is much tougher to accomplish.

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One thought on “Easier Said Than Done – Reflections on the LA Times Festival of Books

  1. Pingback: Live from the LA Times Festival of Books | Above the Market

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