Be careful with the ‘obvious’

I often find myself in conversations, gleefully sharing something I’ve just read or discovered, only to be shot down. “That’s obvious”, they say.

I find this problematic not only because what you find obvious is pretty specific to your education, experiences and context. But also cause things that are “obvious” so often prove false.

Common sense just isn’t a great indicator of reality, especially when it comes to abstract subjects. The world, and especially what we should do about it, is often counterfactual. Something feeling right really isn’t indicative of a larger truth.

For the past couple of months I’ve been running a script that sends me five random articles every day from the bottom of my pocket queue.

Lately I’ve gotten a lot from the 2016 US presidential election. “Donald Trump may not have a second act” said one New Yorker headline. “How Donald Trump Loses” said another from the New York Times.

I don’t mean to call these out specifically. At the time, I read these and similar articles vociferously (hence why they are over-represented in my pocket). I made much the same arguments. But the under current through all of this is that Trump obviously can’t win. That’s simply not how the world works.

Again, this may seem obvious. We’ve all had a reckoning since Trump (and Brexit etc. etc.). But when you’re reading articles from two years ago, day after day, you realise the tone hasn’t actually changed that much. We still talk like this. Stories are still often framed or dismissed from the same hubristic certainty – that’s not how the world works!

Tab dump

Research, articles, podcasts and videos in no particular order.

The spectacular bias

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting-because it is exceptional. If all those individuals who had no Boswell had found their numerically proportionate place in the pages of historians we should have a duller but juster view of the past and of man.

This is from The Lessons of History, a short book that is deeply problematic in some parts and refreshingly frank in others.

This is somewhat understandable given it is more than fifty years old. But the exhortations to not strip history from both historians and ourselves, and so the context within which it has been understood and transmitted, are timeless.

To begin with, do we really know what the past was, what actually happened, or is history ” a fable” not quite “agreed upon”? Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice”.

I’d argue the same is true for the present. Our view of the world is inevitably shaped by what we find noticeable, what others do, and the context within which this happens.

This could be dictated by the medium – stories related visually are inherently biased by the availability and power of the images. It could also be impacted by time, technology, ideology, culture and many other factors.

But the spectacular reigns supreme. No one sets out to tell a boring anecdote in a bar. The world, the story, reality, as in history, is probably far more mundane.

Poisoning the well

Certainty is everywhere, fundamentalism is in full bloom. Legions of authorities cloaked in total conviction tell us why we should invade country X, ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in schools, or eat stewed tomatoes; how much brain damage is necessary to justify a plea of diminished capacity; the precise moment when a sperm and an egg must be treated as a human being; and why the stock market will eventually revert to historical returns. A public change of mind is national news.

This is the first paragraph from On Being Certain by Robert A. Burton. I am just a couple of pages in, but this has stopped me short.

The book is ostensibly about the biological origins of the feeling of knowing. How it is separate from “reason” and logic. But this paragraph perfectly encapsulates how the way society frames issues ignores and even rewards unwarranted certainty.

Modern media has an endemic sense of certainty. Journalistic convention is based on an underlying assumption of causation, of the world in front of us as the direct result of something that can be tracked down and explained. Something happened so there must be someone to talk to, or a bang that preceded it.

There’s no way it’s unknowable, or the result of complex interactions we can only tease out with time and after making many assumptions. Dogged by problems of measurement and perception. As a result you get a lot of declarative statements, black and white.

When a professional athlete is doing well, for instance, we are furnished with stories of their extensive workouts. When they do poorly we hear about their troubled childhood and off-court issues. Or maybe they just suck now. There’s little room for underlying randomness, problematic measurements, statistical noise and mean reversion. A cause must be found and responsibility taken.

The issue here is the need for a narrative. As a journalist, narrative is an important tool for grabbing someone’s attention, keeping it, and guiding them through a larger point. Or to highlight something specific and make it memorable.

But what does a narrative need? In this context it almost always entails simplistic cause and effect.

At the end of many news bulletins we get a financial update. We hear how this currency rose, a stockmarket over there fell, after hours trading is stagnant etc. All fair enough, except that they’re often immediately tied to a news hook.

The Yen went down cause a Yeti was spotted in Turkey. The Nasdaq rose cause Dutch tulips were especially vibrant this year. Sunspots.

Narrative is useful for audiences to connect with this kind of abstraction. But there’s no way causation for activities this complex were nailed down in the time between the signal and the news piece, if they ever can be.

These triggers often are big enough to have some association, but how much? How that was figured out is honestly an even better story.

That last line from Burton, about a change of mind being national news is also deserving of unpicking.

It is fair enough that leaders changing their minds about something is news. But the problem is in how it is approached. How often is the story about the change itself rather than what underlay the previous “belief” and how that changed? How good is the information, or, if that hasn’t changed, the mental model that reinterpreted it?

Beliefs often aren’t a binary proposition, especially when it comes to policy. Rather, they are about juggling trade offs, dogged by information asymmetries and stretched resources (mental and otherwise).

But here I am also falling into the trap of beliefs as the function of logic and reason. As I’ve documented here, beliefs have many potential fathers. Perhaps biology is one.


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