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.