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« Could we solve two problems at once? | Main | Should we return to a growth economy? »

August 24, 2010


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Re: continuous vs. discrete...

Sounds like wave vs. particle.


"...collectively in an endeavor like science we can mitigate the effects of those biases and learn to understand better models of how the world works than would be possible through individual learning."

Hmm. What about the branch of science called 'economics'? To my primitive brain, it looks as though collective learning can reinforce, and give resonance to, completely bogus ideas.


David: the fault lies in allowing the collective teachings from your past to influence you so that you call 'economics' a 'science.'


George or anyone: are there any books out there that talk about how to work through or combat cognitive biases? I've seen books that describe cognitive biases, and the wikipedia page on them seems somewhat expansive...

But I have yet to see a book on how to recognize them in yourself, break them down, work through them, and then learn to break them down in others.

For instance, when I mentioned peak oil to my boss, he relayed how a graduate professor 20 years ago had gotten the class all worked up about the world running out of energy, but since no crash ever occured, my boss isn't worried about it anymore.

I can recognize that it's normalcy bias, but I don't know how to respond to work through that. I can't just say to my boss: "You're exhibiting normalcy bias, which is the failure to plan for an event simply because it has never occurred in the past."

Somehow I don't seet that conversation going so well.



How do you define something as scientific? Is it, perhaps, something to do with following the scientific method? Well as far as I am aware, there are economists who pay lip service to the scientific method, and a subject called Economic Science is certainly taught in many places. You and I may dismiss it as rubbish (and believe me I do), but really we are not qualified to do so. After all, we don't have doctorates in the subject or make our livings researching it. What is it that allows us to state with certainty that a researcher into climate, say, *is* a scientist, but an economist isn't? If economics is too beyond the pale, where do you draw the line on, say, psychology, sociology, epidemiology, demography?


It's been a couple of days since I read the post, so apologies if the following isn't particularly on topic. It's just some ramblings about science versus intuition that have been swirling around my brain.

Here in the UK we have an annual event in August when the school 'A' level results come out, i.e. the examinations taken by 18 year olds which determine their progress to university - or not. Every year, without fail, the results are better than the previous year - this is the 28th consecutive year where average grades and pass rates have risen. Every year a cry goes up from the old folks that the exams are getting easier. Every year this is denied by the government and teaching unions. Education officials demonstrate the rigorous processes and procedures they follow to ensure that the 'gold standard' of school exams is not being debased. Universities complain that so many students are getting top grades that it is difficult for them to select between the best students, and there also stories that the universities sometimes provide remedial maths and english classes for students when they start their degree courses, which never used to happen.

So are the exams getting easier? No one knows! However you look at it, you cannot establish with any certainty that teaching hasn't improved over the years thereby justifying the better results, or that better diet and the removal of lead in petrol, for example, hasn't improved children's abilities. Experiments where children are tested with exams from 50 years ago are meaningless because they studied a different curriculum. The recent exams may look easier to someone as old as me, but that's not scientific either. There are many pieces of research into the subject, all claimed to be carried out with scientific rigour, but together or individually they don't mean anything at all. It's a completely sterile debate, in fact. There is no scientific answer.

But approaching the question from intuition and experience is far more fruitful. We can take note of the anecdotes of universities exasperated by the semi- literacy and numeracy they encounter in their new undergraduates. We can ask whether it is at least possible that the exams have gotten easier. The answer has got to be yes. Are there any rigorous checks that might have prevented it? Well... officially yes. But no, because we all know that the academics and officials who run this sort of thing are nothing special. They're a bit like us in fact. We know that 'educational science' is just waffle, like 'economic science'. We know that many of these people began in this field because it was a darn sight easier and more comfortable than the harsh world of industry or 'hard' science where you can, and have to, test your hypotheses. They have nothing to gain by causing trouble, even if they wanted to, which they don't.

And we've all met weak people in positions of power and responsibility. We know that top people have often been promoted for political reasons, or nepotism. Sometimes they get there by playing fast and loose with the rules, or lying, or bullying. We know that their subordinates go along for an easy life, or from a lack of confidence, or fear for their salary and pension. Whatever the 'rules' say, we *know* it. We've met them. We know that far more people stand to benefit from 'grade inflation' than 'deflation'. Some vague unspecified future problems might stem from it, but not one single person in the Department of Education can, or will, be held accountable for it. Who could it be? And what would be the charge? We just know it won't happen. Improving grades means the Department is an official success, and will get more of the tax payer's funding as a result. It's a win win situation. Out of all the thousands of people employed in education in the UK there is virtually no one who raises their voice to 'spill the beans' because for each individual there are no beans to spill. If there is grade inflation, it is not as a result of some 'conspiracy', but just as a result of a shared benefit to thousands of people who may even believe they are following rules and processes rigorously, but who can't help but move in concert for their mutual benefit.

So no, I can't prove that the exams are getting easier, but without having to read a single book, pamphlet or paper I am almost certain they are. I have similar views on some other 'soft' scientific topics where rigorous adherence to rules is claimed, but where there is a clear benefit for all involved to tell the same story.

Barry Ritholtz

Great piece -- very thought provoking.

I work primarily with investor biases, cognitive errors, and heuristics. This is very similar tot he findings we get when it comes to why people are such lousy traders/investors.

They just ain't built for it . . .

George Mobus


I have not seen any books or articles in that vein, other than some typical self-help books on overcoming prejudices, etc. My own suspicion is that it is nearly impossible to do so because the brain is hard wired to have these kinds of biases and only rewiring (say with overriding circuits from the prefrontal cortex) would be able to overcome them. Such wiring would have to be largely genetically determined since we are talking about innervation from the prefrontal to the limbic systems.

George Mobus

David and T0wnp1ann3r,

How do you define something as scientific? Is it, perhaps, something to do with following the scientific method?

FWIW: my take on this issue is that it isn't the scientific method (which in any case is under serious revision these days). It is the process of scienc, or in other words, the long term process by which the sciences tend toward greater veracity if they, in fact, deal with issues of reality. In a sense, alchemy was a science in that it focused on study and query in its search for the philosopher's stone. Yet it was guided by ideology or a belief that such a stone had to exist. It gave rise to a more veridical science, chemistry, by virtue of having made many observations that formed the basis of investigation in the latter. But it is no longer with us.

To me neoclassical economics is the alchemy of our time. It is based on much belief and assumed premises which are starting to crack under careful scrutiny, often by its own practitioners who are 'qualified'. Nevertheless it has also been the source of much observation and a few principles that seem valid enough when approaching them from, say, a biophysical economics approach.

George Mobus


Interesting thoughts re: exams getting easier. Of course if what was tested was not content knowledge but judgment and attributes higher in Bloom's taxonomy we might be able to draw some meaningful and sound inferences from the test results. Only that is too hard to do!


Thanks for joining us.


Fossil Man

It shows an inability to understand that new technologies are just new ways to deal with shrinking old energy resources.

It still reflects an inability to understand that all value is a thing of the Past. What would be best is to have robotic perpetuators of human and natural history, perhaps into space, as the current valueless humanity and natural world dies off completely.

Emotionless robotic perpetuators of the only thing valuable on earth today, History… Will be faithful custodians of the human and natural patrimony, in the cold, dark, oxygen free vastness of space, (the best preservatives) where it will survive until the end of the universe. What happens to contemporary earthly things is of no account. Being completely degraded. The sooner it dies off completely the better...

John Moore

I agree that we are more clever than smart as a species, but your premise that our biases and prejudices are innate is probably wrong. It is how we are trained as we grow up that is the problem. In other words, the problem is nurture over nature. People are not taught statistics usually until college, and the scientific method is taught only at a rudimentary level in most high schools to those select few that take science courses. An individual's behavior and cognition patterns including beliefs and biases are likely ingrained by parents, peers, and society before they are teenagers most likely. Education can only mitigate that training somewhat and most teachers select for cognitive conformity over individual initiative, creativity, and original thinking.

Applying the scientific method to Western religions is taboo in spite of the work of Thomas Jefferson in applying textual analysis to the New Testament to produce what is now known as the Jeffersonian Bible. However, Zen Buddhists and Buddhists in general are taught a version of the scientific method or at least given a framework whereby they are taught to question their own ideas, beliefs, and assumptions. We know that enlightenment is an emergent trait of the human brain since we have evidence throughout the last 2500 years of people who have attained it either spontaneously (Yeshua ben Joseph) or through a process like Zen Buddhism (Buddha and various Zen masters).

Physiologically, enlightenment may be a synthesis or joining of both hemispheres of the brain where before likely one hemisphere dominated, likely the left hemisphere. Or, it may be that the right hemisphere comes to dominate since that is where the spiritual centers are located ( But the practical effect of this state is that biases and prejudices are left behind for the most part and true intelligence emerges.

While the scientific method can be a useful framework for discovering truth/reality and evaluating methods that work more effectively, we know that scientists are affected by social conformity issues and collective biases. Max Planck and Carl Woese were either disbelieved or ignored by their peers even though their evidence was overwhelming that their model of reality was more accurate. Planck recognized Einstein and his work and helped Einstein gain the recognition he deserved allowing Einstein to escape the problems that Planck had. Even worse were the German doctors and scientists who helped determine Jewish ancestry via blood tests that almost all knew were shams which was documented by Benno Muller-Hill in a book and an essay ( and

Social conformity has a pernicious and powerful influence on individuals and how their ideas and thoughts are perceived and whether they are rewarded or punished. You are either with us or against us. While one should not shoot the messenger and should weigh the message on its merits alone, there are countless examples throughout history of people being put to death for their ideas (Socrates, Yeshua, Tyndale, and many more).

George Mobus

John M.,

...but your premise that our biases and prejudices are innate is probably wrong.

I explicitly stated that prejudices are learned but that biases are built into the wetware. That latter fact has been studied extensively and is now the subject of a great deal of experimental support in fields like behavioral economics.

That someone might be able to become aware of the effects of their own biases and learn to take steps to combat them is yet another issue. The evidence is sketchy on this issue.

Your final point would seem to lend weight to the idea that judgment biases are strongly innate since we don't seem to have learned to be better people given all those examples.


סידור בתים

They are the main obstacles to the acquisition of knowledge and because they are very operational in most humans, a major presenting evidence as to why the wisdom of Homo sapiens.

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