Trumping Truth with Stories

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One of the few consistencies of a wild 2016 presidential campaign thus far is that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is willing to spin, obfuscate, exaggerate, misdirect, deflect, lie outright and double-down when called out for having done so. And, so far at least, it’s working. Truth – literal factual accuracy – just doesn’t seem to matter to him or to his supporters (who recently shouted “Sieg Heil” and “Light him on fire” at a black protestor in Las Vegas). If it feels right to them and fits into their favored narratives, from their perspective it is deemed true. What actually happened could not be less relevant.

This post-truth worldview isn’t a new-found tactic now that the Donald has entered the political world. For him, it has been a consistent way of life designed to benefit the Trump “brand.” He has thus routinely inflated his supposed net worth, often by billions of dollars, to make himself appear far more financially successful than he actually is. And he keeps claiming that his campaign is self-funded (because he’s really rich, donchaknow) when it demonstrably isn’t. But his Pinocchio-like behavior hasn’t been limited to things that, if believed, offer an obvious benefit to the Donald. Continue reading

“It just feels better and safer to me”

FeelingsThe Sunday edition of The Los Angeles Times included a story about Bob Sears, an Orange County pediatrician who provides comfort to parents who doubt the efficacy of vaccinations for their children. Although he claims not to be an anti-vaxxer himself, about half of his patients forgo them entirely and he offers his own alternative and selective vaccination schedules to the others, which delay or eliminate a variety of immunizations that science strongly supports.

“We eliminated endemic measles in the U.S. in 2000. It’s now 2014 and we’re at 400 cases. Why?” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview in June (the number of cases has risen by another 50 percent since). “Because people listen to Bob Sears. And, frankly, I blame him far more than I do the Jenny McCarthys of this world. Because he’s a doctor. And he should know more.” As the Times reports, Sears and his ilk are having an impact. “California parents are choosing to forgo vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago, a fact public health experts said is contributing to the re-emergence of measles and could lead to outbreaks of other diseases.”

I was struck by the article’s concluding line, which was a quote from a mother anxious about vaccinations for her young children and apparently desperate for someone to tell her that delaying or avoiding them is okay. “It’s not really research-based,” she said. “It just feels better and safer to me.”

In life generally and in the investing world, avoiding the findings of careful research on account of “a feeling” is extremely dangerous business. We all tend to like to follow feelings, ideologies, herds and stories instead of good data. Doing so is in our nature. But if we want to maximize the likelihood of positive outcomes, we need to be data-driven at every level and all the time.

Neurath’s Boat

Neurath's BoatIn his important (to philosophers anyway) Word and Object, Quine made Neurath’s boat analogy famous. It compares the holistic nature of language and consequently scientific verification with the construction of a boat which is already at sea.

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”

A philosophy professor I had in college would ask whether this wholly reconstructed boat was the same boat as it had been before.  He’d then go on to ask if — since all the molecules in our bodies turnover within a number of years — our “wholly reconstructed” selves are continuous entities. 

But I think this analogy more powerfully applies to how we live our lives generally (as opposed to how “we” live “our” lives) and to many specific endeavors, such as investing. Continue reading

The Narrative Opportunity

Regular readers of this site know that I reference and write about what Nassim Taleb calls the narrative fallacy often.  It is our tendency to look backward and create a pattern to fit events and to construct a story that explains what happened along with what caused it to happen.  We all like to think that our decision-making is a rationally based process — that we examine the evidence and only after careful evaluation come to a reasoned conclusion as to what the evidence suggests or shows.

But we don’t. Continue reading