Saturday, October 22, 2011

the pattern behind self-deception

Video - Michael Shermer explains the pattern behind self-deception.

TED | So since I was here last in '06, we discovered that global climate change is turning out to be a pretty serious issue, so we covered that fairly extensively in Skeptic magazine. We investigate all kinds of scientific and quasi-scientific controversies, but it turns out we don't have to worry about any of this because the world's going to end in 2012.

Another update: You will recall I introduced you guys to the Quadro Tracker. It's like a water dowsing device. It's just a hollow piece of plastic with an antenna that swivels around. And you walk around, and it points to things. Like if you're looking for marijuana in students' lockers, it'll point right to somebody. Oh, sorry. (Laughter) This particular one that was given to me finds golf balls, especially if you're at a golf course and you check under enough bushes. Well, under the category of "What's the harm of silly stuff like this?" this device, the ADE 651, was sold to the Iraqi government for 40,000 dollars apiece. It's just like this one, completely worthless, in which it allegedly worked by "electrostatic magnetic ion attraction," which translates to "pseudoscientific baloney" -- would be the nice word -- in which you string together a bunch of words that sound good, but it does absolutely nothing. In this case, at trespass points, allowing people to go through because your little tracker device said they were okay, actually cost lives. So there is a danger to pseudoscience, in believing in this sort of thing.

So what I want to talk about today is belief. I want to believe, and you do too. And in fact, I think my thesis here is that belief is the natural state of things. It is the default option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural; disbelief, skepticism, science, is not natural. It's more difficult. It's uncomfortable to not believe things. So like Fox Mulder on "X-Files," who wants to believe in UFOs? Well, we all do, and the reason for that is because we have a belief engine in our brains. Essentially, we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots: A is connected to B; B is connected to C. And sometimes A really is connected to B, and that's called association learning.

We find patterns, we make those connections, whether it's Pavlov's dog here associating the sound of the bell with the food, and then he salivates to the sound of the bell, or whether it's a Skinnerian rat, in which he's having an association between his behavior and a reward for it, and therefore he repeats the behavior. In fact, what Skinner discovered is that, if you put a pigeon in a box like this, and he has to press one of these two keys, and he tries to figure out what the pattern is, and you give him a little reward in the hopper box there -- if you just randomly assign rewards such that there is no pattern, they will figure out any kind of pattern. And whatever they were doing just before they got the reward, they repeat that particular pattern. Sometimes it was even spinning around twice counterclockwise, once clockwise and peck the key twice. And that's called superstition, and that, I'm afraid, we will always have with us.

I call this process "patternicity" -- that is, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. When we do this process, we make two types of errors. A Type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it's not. Our second type of error is a false negative. A Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is. So let's do a thought experiment. You are a hominid three million years ago walking on the plains of Africa. Your name is Lucy, okay? And you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator, or is it just the wind? Your next decision could be the most important one of your life. Well, if you think that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out it's just the wind, you've made an error in cognition, made a Type I error, false positive. But no harm. You just move away. You're more cautious. You're more vigilant. On the other hand, if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind, and it turns out it's a dangerous predator, you're lunch. You've just won a Darwin award. You've been taken out of the gene pool. Fist tap Arnach.


nanakwame said...

is nothing in the dark that isn't there when the lights are on.

Tom said...

Interesting, in the self-deception talk the audience is either not getting the jokes or not finding them real amusing.  

CNu said... there are no exceptions to the rule..., one who can laugh at oneself when seen in this bright light possesses worthy discrimination, one who cannot, should probably be ruthlessly exploited, you know, to this day, I'm not entirely sure if they are weak, or I am an asshole. Man's game, bitch.
Life is hard.
DD done dropped what's likely to become one of my all-time favorite expressions...,