Getting Busy on the Proof

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Source: Tom Gauld

On our best days, when wearing the right sort of spectacles, squinting and tilting our heads just so, we can be observant, efficient, loyal, focused, assertive truth-tellers. However, on many days, all too much of the time, we’re delusional, lazy, short-sighted, partisan, arrogant, easily distracted confabulators. It’s an unfortunate reality, but reality nonetheless.

And a remarkable number of us are downright crazy.

Behind the Curve, now available on Netflix, is a recent documentary about the surprisingly large community of people throughout the world who believe that the Earth is flat.*

As shown in the film, a true believer named Jeran Campanella devised a simple experiment designed to prove that the Earth is flat.

Much to Campanella’s surprise, his experiment proved the opposite of what he expected. His reaction was not even to question his preconceived notion, much less repudiate it. “Interesting. Interesting. That’s interesting,” is the best he could manage.

Nobody thinks they have joined a cult, as both research and real-world experience demonstrate.

Once people reach a conclusion, they aren’t likely to change their minds, even when new information shows their initial belief is likely wrong and clinging to that belief costs real money. That’s especially true when the matter at issue is important to us. Cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason conducted a number of experiments involving what came to be known as Wason’s rule discovery task. These experiments demonstrated that people tend to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs and actively avoid disconfirmation.

During the 2004 presidential election cycle, 30 men – half who saw themselves as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats – were tasked as part of a research study with assessing statements by each candidate in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both found ways to justify their favored candidate’s statements.

Simon and Garfunkel got the concept by 1970, well before Tversky and Kahneman, when Simon wrote and they first sang The Boxer. The words echo still. “Still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

By this point, every investment professional and would-be professional has at least a passing knowledge of behavioral finance and its lead actor, confirmation bias, whereby we see what we want to see, accept these desires as truth, and act accordingly. Not very many of us look for proofs for that with which we disagree. When others act to correct our misperceptions, they can unintentionally reinforce them, via something called the “backfire effect.” That’s why, for example, the mainstream media’s skeptical-to-sneering view of Fox News and similar outlets endears Fox to President Trump and causes his core supporters to dig-in deeper.

Similarly, attempts to debunk believed myths that are false can also reinforce those myths because they keep repeating the untruth. If people feel attacked, especially about something they care deeply about, they tend to resist the facts even more, even though, as Nobel laureate Peter Medawar explained, “The intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not.” Sadly, people will generally resist abandoning a false belief unless and until they have a compelling alternative explanation – in other words, a better story. As Warren Buffett famously said, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

We often encounter facts and arguments that are contrary to our favored beliefs. We’d like to think that these automatically test the boundaries of what is believable to us. Unfortunately, most often, our brains collect such information in meticulous psychological fashion, eventually bullying us into sustaining and empowering our prior beliefs. Favored or popular feelings about what ought to be frequently override facts that reflect the way things are.

We are neuro-chemically confirmation bias addicts. As such, we tend to reach our conclusions first. Only thereafter do we gather purported facts and, even then, see those facts in such a way as to support our existing commitments. When they fit with our preferred narrative, so much the better. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has observed, disbelieving is very hard and difficult work.

As I have written many times, we like to think that we are like judges, that we carefully gather and evaluate all the relevant facts and data before coming to an objective and well-founded conclusion. Instead, we are much more like lawyers, grasping for any scrap of purported evidence we can exploit to support our preconceived notions and allegiances while preemptively attacking and dismissing anything that might contradict them. Perhaps worse, the more educated and intelligent we are, the more likely we are to reject relevant but opposing facts, because we are smart and sophisticated enough to come up with seemingly plausible counter-arguments to what those facts suggest or even to the idea that they are facts.

Campanella’s was one of two experiments shown in Behind the Curve that were devised by Flat-Earthers to demonstrate the truth of their convictions, but which didn’t turn out as expected.** The other came when Bob Knodel, Campanella’s co-host on a popular Flat Earth YouTube channel (to which I will not link), performed an experiment involving a laser gyroscope. As the Earth rotated, the gyroscope appeared to lean off-axis, staying in its original position as the Earth’s curvature changed in relation to it.

“What we found is, is when we turned on that gyroscope we found that we were picking up a drift. A 15 degree per hour drift,” Knodel said, acknowledging that the experiment showed precisely what one should expect from a gyroscope on a rotating globe.

“Now, obviously we were taken aback by that. Wow, that’s kind of a problem,” Knodel said. “We obviously were not willing to accept that, and so we started looking for ways to disprove it was actually registering the motion of the Earth.”

Because of our confirmation bias, when we see information that confirms what we already think or believe, we ask ourselves if the information might be true. But if the information is disconfirming, as with Knodel, we consider whether it must be true, a wholly different and much more difficult standard.

Knodel’s reaction is a perfect recitation of John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous dictum, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” The experiments performed by Campanella and Knodel don’t seem to have diminished their commitment to the cause of Flat-Earthism. They have since produced a video, nearly four hours long, to try to rebut the “misrepresentation” of their views and experiments in Behind the Curve. According to Stanford’s John Ousterhout, “it’s easier to create a new organism than to change an existing one. Most organisms are highly resistant to change.” And as Oxford’s Teppo Felin points out, “what people are looking for– rather than what people are merely looking at– determines what is obvious.”

Back in 1989, a Salomon Brothers investment banker was raped and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. The woman had been abused so brutally that when she was finally discovered, stripped and covered with mud, she had lost three-quarters of her blood and had already turned cold to the touch. Her beating was so severe that she remembered none of it. Then-Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century.” Five schoolboys were eventually tried in the case; the “Central Park Five” were all black or Hispanic.

It turns out, however, that the rape of the Central Park jogger had been committed by a career criminal, serial rapist, and murderer named Matias Reyes. Despite the certainty of so many, the widely accepted narrative about a gang of marauding boys who raped the young woman was false. The wildly inconsistent confessions coerced out of the boys under the pressure of hours of police interrogations without being able to speak to their parents were false. And the inevitable convictions of the Central Park Five were also false.

For those who were convinced of a certain sort of narrative about street crime and black teenagers in the city (like Donald Trump), the Central Park jogger case checked every box. They “knew” what happened…even though it did not. To be clear, as reported by The New York Times, on April 19, 1989 a mob of “teenagers invaded Central Park to assault, rob and harass joggers, bikers and others in a night that came to symbolize an era of rampant crime and racial tensions in the city.” The Central Park Five almost surely were among them and, as reported by a NYPD-appointed Armstrong Commission, may well have contributed to the attack. However, as the Commission conceded, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the Five were guilty of the crimes with which they were charged.

On the other hand, if you are feeling a bit smug and self-satisfied about your progressive bona fides or about not being a Trumpkin, you should not think you are somehow immune to this very type of problem. We are all flat-earthers of some sort. The evidence does not support your hubris either.

For people who believed a certain type of narrative about white privilege and preppy rich-kid high-handedness and misadventures at elite universities, the Duke lacrosse scandal was too good not to be true, facts be damned. It checked every box. Three wealthy Duke student-athletes, all of them white, part of a team known for its hard-partying aggressive jocks, were charged with raping a poor black stripper during spring break at an off-campus rental that regularly served as the team’s party house.

Even after the comprehensive dismantling of the accuser’s claims and after the prosecutor was disbarred for multiple acts of blatant misconduct, the underlying narrative remains largely intact because the false accusation “was a virus that landed in the most hospitable petri dish imaginable, a culture rife with unresolved racial, sexual and class tensions and grievances.” Besides, these were not very nice kids and they were taking advantage of a poor black woman. For example, “the players’ behavior at that party was apparently despicable. Among other things, they yelled racial epithets at the two strippers, both of whom were African-American. They acted like spoiled, arrogant rich kids” (more here). The facts may not have proved out, but they felt true and still do for many. As Jon Stewart said at the time, “those three Duke kids who spent the last year presumed guilty of assaulting a black women because the issue had huge symbolic resonance with the media – turns out they didn’t do anything.”

Thus, for a different set of true believers, the people for whom Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons was written, the players were bad guys despite their exoneration (and the prosecutor was merely overzealous for a good cause). Civil libertarians and activists who typically oppose government overreach in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion bent over backwards to support a corrupt public official committed to withholding and hiding evidence and to railroading innocent defendants. Meanwhile, “law and order” conservatives were eager to denounce a system they had so often supported in the face of dreadful disconfirming evidence in the past when the conflicting narratives on offer demanded an either/or conclusion. But you did not see them taking up the struggle of others who may have been wrongly convicted by a corrupt prosecutor but who don’t have the money and the platform to fight back the way the Duke defendants did.

We tend to equate or at least connect intelligence and rational thinking. However, that does not appear to be the case in actual assessments of intelligence and cognitive bias. Intelligent people can and do believe crazy things. It is highly likely that you and I believe crazy things. Indeed, roughly half of Americans endorse at least one bizarre conspiracy theory, such as a flat earth or that 9.11 was an inside job.

That’s largely because we don’t really choose the things we believe, most especially those things that are central to our worldview. In that sense, what we believe is just part of who we are. In this important way, our core beliefs and selves are indivisible and not really chosen. Accordingly, we should be careful before deciding that we aren’t susceptible to anything like flat-earth craziness. There is plenty of evidence that confirmation bias is common and routine – a default based upon our priors.

You. Me. All of us all too often.

__________

* Kyrie has since recanted, under pressure. Still, there are even myths about flat earth myths. Contrary to common belief, propagated first by Washington Irving and predominately to argue that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion, Columbus didn’t fear falling off the edge of the world. Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle had already written: “Again, our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the Earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size. For quite a small change of position to south or north causes a manifest alteration of the horizon.”Eratosthenes went so far as to measure the Earth’s circumference. He discovered that at noon in one Egyptian city, the Sun was directly overhead, whereas in a different city the Sun did not rise so high. Eratosthenes knew the distance between the two cities, measured how high in the sky the Sun rose in each at the same time, and then did some trigonometry. His method was crude, but his answer was in the right ballpark. Christian scholars agreed.

** The seminal book in this area is When Prophecy Fails, a brilliant 1956 study of a UFO cult that predicted a specific end of the world and how they responded when the prophecy failed.

9 thoughts on “Getting Busy on the Proof

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    • He, like many others (if much more publicly) continues to deny clear evidence that the CPF were not guilty as charged. Many of his political opponents made the very same sorts of judgments about the Duke lax players. It is a problem to which we are all subject.

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