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Dishonesty For the Greater Good

2010.11.13   prev     next

FROM Jonah Lehrer’s “Beware Our Blind Seers” (The Wall Street Journal):

[Pundits] sound as if they know what they’re talking about.

But do they? Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent 25 years trying to find out. ...

By the end of the study, Mr. Tetlock had quantified 82,361 predictions.

How did the experts do? When it came to predicting the likelihood of an outcome, the vast majority performed worse than random chance.

How could pundits be worse than random guessing? Lehrer’s article cites “overconfidence,” “confirmation bias,” and “preconceptions” as the explanation.

That seems a little too vague to me. Actually, now that I think about it some more, it seems impossible. How can overconfidence make you worse than random guessing? It can’t. Same with confirmation bias, or preconceptions. Any flaw in your ability to predict the future could make your predictions, on average, worse than if you didn’t have that flaw. But not worse than random guessing. The accuracy of random guessing is the absolute bottom, below which you cannot go, no matter how bad your predictive flaws may be.

So how did Tetlock get these results? Here’s my theory:

Pundits, like everyone else, have preferences of what they would like to see happen. When pundits sense that there’s a good chance that their preferred outcome will not be realized, they feel a more urgent need to persuade others that it will be. This is especially true if the outcome is determined by some sort of popular consensus, like voting in an election, or buying or selling stock in a company, or choosing which company’s products to buy — then the pundits feel they must use their influence to push the outcome in the direction they want it to fall.

Of course, few, if any, pundits have enough influence to actually prevent the outcome from falling in their non-preferred direction, so that’s what it does. And then you can chalk up another incorrect prediction.

When an outcome seems likely to go the way pundits want it to, they feel little need to push it in that direction, and so are less likely to speak out on that subject.

Pundits are actually better than chance at knowing what’s likely to happen. They appear to be worse than chance because they aren’t trying to achieve accuracy in predicting trends — instead they’re trying to use their public predictions to push against trends they can see coming, and don’t like. Overconfidence, confirmation bias, preconceptions, and all other flaws in pundits’ ability to predict the future, can only drive them down to the accuracy of random guessing. To go below that, it takes real predictive ability plus intentional dishonesty.


Capitalism makes a nation stronger. It makes a nation that is more easily able to fend off attacks from other nations, and that is more able to take over other nations, should it decide that it’s in its best interest to do so.

But that’s all capitalism does. Capitalism does not make people’s lives better. There are lots of people whose lives are miserable under capitalism, and the capitalists have a funny answer to that. Capitalists almost never argue in favor of capitalism on the basis of national strength or longevity or power over other nations. They almost always argue in favor of capitalism on the basis that it makes our lives better. But then when you start talking about how so many people in capitalism are extremely miserable, unhappy with their situation, with what they’re able to get under capitalism, then the capitalists have a very funny answer, and that answer is that those people aren’t supposed to be unhappy. That they’re getting exactly what they deserve, exactly what they legitimately should, as per the rules of capitalism. And that they have no right to be unhappy about that. And if they are unhappy about that, then it’s their own fault, and they deserve that unhappiness until they decide to stop feeling that way. The capitalists don’t come out and say it that bluntly, but that’s what they mean.

And this is very strange because, of course, on the one hand the capitalists are trying to say that capitalism achieves a better result, but on the other hand they dismiss any flaws in that result by simply saying that those flaws are not flaws. That when people are unhappy under capitalism, it’s a legitimate unhappiness, it’s an unhappiness they’re supposed to feel. Until they decide not to feel that way.

But what about the Soviet Union, and how much worse living conditions were there than in the USA? Doesn’t that prove capitalism makes our lives better? Wouldn’t someone who was transported from the USSR to the USA be overjoyed at their better quality of life, or traumatized if transported in the opposite direction?

Not exactly. What percentage of the USSR’s population was transported to the USA as described above? Nearly 0%. How many in the opposite direction? Nearly 0%. It’s a fantasy scenario that virtually never happened. How would a person from five hundred years ago feel about their material possessions and opportunities if transported to the present? Overjoyed, perhaps. How would a present-day person feel about their possessions and opportunities if transported to five hundred years ago? Horrified, most likely.

So were people profoundly more miserable and dissatisfied five hundred years ago than they are today? Not as far as we can tell, no. Are we all satisfied and happy with our lives because we have more possessions and opportunities than people did five hundred years ago? Hardly.

Hmmm — the USSR crumbled, didn’t it? Doesn’t that count for something? It sure does. National strength and power.

There isn’t any non-circular way to justify capitalism except on national strength; the ability to fend off and/or take over other nations.

Now, capitalists generally don’t defend it that way. Why not? Well, for one, they might be repulsed by that reality. They want to believe that capitalism yields something better. But then there’s an even more important reason, and that is that they’re trying to encourage people to vote capitalist. And you can’t encourage people to vote capitalist by talking about national strength or the ability to fend off attacks, or anything like that. You have to make people think that their lives are going to be personally better.

If people don’t think their lives are going to be better, then they’re not going to vote that way. And so unless our country is under imminent threat of attack by some very powerful aggressor nation — which, ever since the fall of the USSR, it isn’t; even 9/11 was a drop in the bucket compared to World War II — then you have to ask, how do you convince people to vote for capitalism? Not by telling them they’re going to be miserable but safe. No, you convince them to vote for capitalism by telling them that they will be happier under capitalism. And by telling them that those who say they’re unhappy under capitalism are just malicious. That they shouldn’t feel that way, or that they’re lying, or that they’re telling the truth but their misery is self-created, because they ought to be happy with what they have.

Capitalists have to come up with an argument that has a decent chance of persuading people to vote capitalist, and that’s what they’re trying to do. They’re not really trying to tell the truth about capitalism — I’m telling you the truth about capitalism right here. Capitalists want capitalism. They don’t want to tell the truth that might or might not cause people to vote capitalist.

Religion and Darwinism

It’s kind-of the same thing with religion. If you believe people’s lives will be better with religion, you have to choose a specific religion and promote it exclusively. You can’t go around saying, “Join one of the major religions; your life will be better!” because that’s saying, in effect, that religions are myths; falsehoods.

And Darwinists too: There are so many people — intelligent and educated — who, when asked, “Do you believe that random mutation and natural selection produced life’s adaptive complexity that we see on Earth today?” think that they’re really being asked, “Do you believe in freedom, democracy, technology, and scientific progress?” (As opposed to theocracy, dictatorship, 1984, etc.) And so they answer accordingly.

And it’s even worse than that. If they’re asked the question in a more specific way, like, “Do you really believe that there’s strong evidence that random mutation and natural selection can do this? You’re not just saying they can because you want to promote freedom, democracy, etc.?” then they think even more that they’re being asked if they believe in freedom, democracy, etc., and so they answer even more vociferously that yes, yes, random mutation and natural selection definitely can do this, and that’s really why I’m saying they can; because they can, and did.

It’s a situation where the belief that we’re going to achieve a certain goal in society totally overwhelms the ability to speak honestly about a subject, or even the desire to.


Update 2011.04.01 — added “Actually, now ... these results?” and “Overconfidence, confirmation ... below that.”


See also:
iPhone Party-Poopers Redux
Silly iPad Spoilsports


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