September 3, 2013

Flawed Reasoning and Failures in Cognition, part 1

 – Part 1 of 3

The most powerful computer of which we are aware is our own human brain. The ratio may have recently changed with the introduction in Japan of the K computer, but previously it was determined that our brains have the capability of 1016 processes per second. Powerful our brains may be, but humans are handicapped by a variety of quirks, bugs and self-imposed limitations.

The five-buck calculator sold alongside candy treats and novelties at the discount store checkout has the ability to process math to an exponentially higher degree than the average human brain, and we suffer from a deeply flawed operating system that mishandles memory and is highly susceptible to malware. Our mental data filters and filing systems are screwed up more so than even Microsoft’s “Bob”. We are prone to cognitive biases that frequently produce grossly erroneous assumptions and result in truly questionable decisions. Worst of all is our seeming inability to self-diagnose and correct these errors.

So why is that dime store calculator perhaps superior to our brain, at least in functionality? Unlike the processors in our mechanical counterparts, the human brain is lazy. This laziness is hurting us, resulting in deep political and social divisions. Mental biases make conclusion jumping and stereotyping the norm rather than the exception. As a collective we often engage in highly self-destructive behavior that we justify by repeatedly leaping to false assumptions. Our mental behavior fails the rationality test. We should work on that.

Perhaps a starting point for any correction would be to better understand the areas of the human psyche where aberrant traits reside, followed by subjecting our faulty circuits to critical examination. While most of us lack the education and training to make hardwired changes, we can at least look at the behavior and try to avoid the pitfalls.

We could start by defining and demonstrating the difference between cognitive bias and logical fallacy. Both are easy pitfalls that result in a misunderstanding of the world, but these two are very different from each other. Logical fallacy may be defined as errors in logical argumentation. Although some argumentative fallacy is premeditated, most logical errors result from cognitive laziness. The logical fallacies are well described in textbooks and taught in debate class starting in our high school years. Anyone with even a basic secondary school education is aware of the trap, but for some reason the ability to avoid them appears mostly beyond the capacity of modern man.

Social media is quite revealing when it comes to the demonstration of failures in human logic. Perhaps the most common transgression is the use of ad hominem. Simply put this is when we attack the person rather than the philosophy; the messenger rather than the message. Although certainly not exclusive to political discussion, that element of human endeavor is rife with personal attacks.

There is no better evidence of this than the opposition to President Obama. A rather significant segment of the opposition behaves as if anything this president manages to accomplish takes a back seat to the “fact” that he is a foreigner, or a communist, a Muslim, or socialist… or any number of faux scandals.  The amount of energy, time and money expended on fruitless efforts to prove that Mr. Obama wasn’t born a U.S. citizen has been tremendous and extremely wasteful, both in terms of dollars and in the deep social divisions. The opposition appears not to care about the price and continues to recycle disproven memes on a regular basis.

This line of political attack incorporates both logical fallacy and cognitive bias, with one feeding off of the other. The political right wing is predisposed to dislike the Democratic Party because of deep rooted bias, and vice versa for the left. Directed at the current administration there are all those fear-inducing boogyman words mentioned above; socialist, communist, Muslim and foreigner, but perhaps the real culprit is the cognitive bias. For the demographic that does not like the President, no amount of contrary evidence will alter that bias.

Contrasting logical fallacy with cognitive bias we find something that is more innate and subconscious. The cognitive bias is a genuine deficiency or limitation in our thinking… a flaw in judgment born of errors in memory, social attribution, and mental calculation. Psychologists and social researchers have described our cognitive biases as helping us process information more efficiently, especially in potentially dangerous situations. Perhaps, but they can also lead us into making disastrous mistakes.

While we may be prone to these errors in judgment, we at least can make ourselves aware of the flaw. As you read the following definitions try to relate them to areas of your personal, political and social life. I’ll take a little time to describe my understanding of some of the more general biases and relate them to personal experience.

Confirmation Bias
Behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner coined the term “cognitive dissonance”, which is to unconsciously or subconsciously access our mental filing system… selectively searching only for perspectives that feed preexisting views while at the same time ignoring or dismissing any bit of information, regardless of validity, which fails to agree with those views. It is this dissonance that is at the root of the bias.

Confirmation bias promotes an attraction to people who agree with us while allowing us to justify the “un-friending” of those who disagree. It makes us lean toward reading, watching and listening to news and visiting websites with content confirming what we already believe. That this favored source may be omitting contrary data or even fabricating false data is something we will acknowledge only when cornered. Until then we will defend the source and employ the “evidence” in our attacks.

Confirmation bias pushes us to be selective in choosing friends, tending to associate mostly with people who hold similar views and tastes. We find individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views to be off-putting.

Taken to the extreme these individuals will refuse to listen to a contrary opinion even when graphically demonstrated, but will make positive yet baseless statements based upon incorrect information absorbed from the agreeable sources. An excellent example would be recent objections voiced against the CSCOPE curriculum tools used in many Texas public schools… both public and private. Texas Senator Dan Patrick (R) (who is running for lieutenant governor in the 2014 elections) has made it his mission to ban the curriculum. Sen. Patrick heard from some of his supporters, religious right-wing activists, that the CSCOPE lesson plans are “Marxist, anti-American and pro-Islamic.” That information is distorted and untruthful as can be seen by accessing the lesson plans (they are in the public domain), but this made no difference, as Sen. Patrick.

Sen. Patrick has his mind made and is not interested in veracity. His only interest is supporting his bias. The proof of this has finally surfaces. After months of stating with authority that the CSCOPE lesson plans are evil and “of the devil”, Sen. Patrick now admits he has never read the lesson plans. This has not changed his mind and Sen. Patrick remains single-mindedly focused on his misguided mission.

The problem with such dramatic bias is that we limit our ability to locate and process new information, often to our own detriment. Humans suffering from this disability are prone to believing that their worldview is correct and tend to accuse others of failure to understand the real truth. Religious apologists and anti-vaccine activists are also representative of this bias.
 There are many subdivisions of confirmation bias. I’ll detail a few of those over the next few days:


Ed Price said...

"The amount of energy, time and money expended on fruitless efforts to prove that Mr. Obama wasn’t born a U.S. citizen has been tremendous and extremely wasteful, both in terms of dollars and in the deep social divisions."

It should not be assumed that questioning the President's credentials (in light of our Constitutional requirements for the position) is equivalent to opposing him. Perhaps you could apply your powers and explain to me why the President allowed such a protracted struggle (almost two years of wrangling) to take place at all. I mean, how long would it take for you to get a certified copy of your birth certificate (and you aren't even running for President)? What public good was served by forcing such a protracted struggle? What public good was served by releasing a Certificate of Natural Birth? (I never heard of one of those, and the few times I needed to produce my own BC, that document wouldn't have worked for me. I would think a Harvard lawyer would know that too.) So, after nearly two years, we get to see standard proof that our President really was 35 years of age and a natural born citizen. So what I really want to know is why Mr. Obama, and the Democrat National Committee, allowed such a divisive issue to fester and create such deep animosity among Americans? And another question to examine would be why those who simply questioned were met with such a storm of ad hominem abuse (birthers, wing-nuts, etc).

Mule Breath said...

Mr. Price, you had proof of Mr. Obama's citizenship long before the release of the "long form" certificate. That doubters elected not to accept the evidence is not the fault of the president or the DNC.

In Hawaii if you make a request to the Bureau of Vital Statistics for a replacement birth certificate, you will be provided a document very similar to the one released by the Obama Administration on June 12, 2008 by posting an image to the Obama for America website. The image is a scan of a laser printed document obtained from and certified by the Hawaii Department of Health on June 6, 2007. It was the "Certification of Live Birth" (short form birth certificate). Hawaiian Department of Health ceased issuing the long form in 2001 when birth records were digitized for electronic archiving, and therefore Hawaii does not normally long-form certificate.All of this is public record and was explained multiple times by Hawaiian officials, including the current and two former Governors.

As described in this Washington Post article of April 27, 2011, obtaining the long form required a special dispensation by Hawaii’s Governor and is likely not something you or I could have accomplished, and in 2008 candidate Obama would likely have met resistance as well.

That the situation was perpetuated was not the desire of the president or the DNC. The certificate of live birth release in 2008 should have been sufficient evidence. If not, then the 70+ court cases brought and lost by the “birthers” should have put the nail into the coffin, but then along comes Donald Trump.

It wasn’t the president or the DNC that let this fester and divide… it was those who refused legitimate evidence.

The term wing-nut has been used to describe denizens of the various political “wings” at least since Clinton was in office. Birther is very Obama specific, referring to conspiracy theorists. Ad hominem is not the sole domain of one faction or another. The birther conspiracy theorists heaped so much of it on the president and his allies I suspect the response was reactionary.

Ed Price said...

"in 2008 candidate Obama would likely have met resistance as well."

A Senator, leader of his party and a candidate for the Presidency would have met resistance?! Yeah, sure!

Sorry, just judging the man's credentials by what I have been required to produce, and what other Hawaiian citizens have posted. Many of the suits you obliquely reference have been dismissed for "lack of standing", a legal shuffle that I find difficult to fathom. Who could have more standing than a citizen who wonders if a candidate meets minimum qualifications? But then, I'm not a Harvard lawyer. You seem to have unusual insight into the minds of the President and the DNC. Pretty good for merely the breath of the beast. Lastly, ad hominem is not owned by the Democrats, it was simply their preferred tool in deflecting the inquiry. No need to apologize, as we both know Democrats aren't liberals anymore.

Ed Price said...

OK, an exercise.
Hey honey, where did I put my Birth Certificate? What, oh right, it's in the filing cabinet under "B". So I went over there, and sure enough, there's a few extra Certified copies of my BC (I got a few extras last time I had to produce one, maybe for some insurance or my passport, I don't recall). Impressive, since the current President needed all of the kings horses and all of the kings men, and fought two years of legal actions before he could equal my two minutes of work. Maybe I ought to run! At least I can prove I'm qualified.

Mule Breath said...

Yes, I believe that the Junior Senator from Illinois and long shot presidential candidate would have had more difficulty at that time than two years later when the long shot was residing in the White House and the cancer of this birther movement had eaten holes in our social fabric.

Alan Keyes et al v. Barack H. Obama et al 2009 was not dismissed for lack of standing but on unnamed technical grounds. This was the first lawsuit filed by Orly Taitz. Not easily discouraged Taitz next filed what she called a "First Amended Complaint" titled Captain Pamela Barnett v. Barack Hussein Obama 2009. Even though Capt. Barnett was the named petitioner, the action was filed on behalf of Alan Keyes and several other politicians. Two of the plaintiffs grew weary of Taitz and her behavior. When they tried to fire her she refused to sign the documents and instead filed to dismiss them as plaintiffs. The judge in the case refused to allow that, and instead granted the plaintiffs wishes by firing Taitz for them. The judge later dismissed the case, and yes it was for lack of standing.

Taitz went on to file 18 more actions in 16 different states… all of which were dismissed. In one of the dismissals the judge warned Taitz that she would be sanctioned if she filed any further “frivolous” actions. It is this kind of behavior that earned such “crusaders” as wing-nut and birther.

But Taitz was not the first birther wing-nut. That honor goes to one of Hillary Clinton’s big supporters… a woman from Texas known as Linda Starr, the Democratic precinct captain in Medina County. Young Ms. Starr fancied herself an amateur opposition researcher… and she was quite good at it. She is the one who dug all the dirt on Republicans Dan Burton and Bob Livingston during the 1990’s Clinton impeachment hearings, and she was cited as a “key source” for the CBS investigation into W's National Guard records.

Ms. Starr was bitterly disappointed when Hillary conceded. She turned her mighty dirt digging talent in a quixotic effort to roll back the clock, get Mr. Obama kicked out and Hillary recognized as the rightful nominee. She found something she thought would do it.

Ms. Starr contacted another Hillary supporter, Philadelphia attorney Philip Berg, the guy who filed the 9-11 “truther” lawsuit against the Bush administration. On August 21, 2008, Berg filed the first birther lawsuit in an effort to stop the Democratic Convention with allegations that Obama was born in Kenya. With Ms. Starr’s assistance he started the website The lawsuit went nowhere but the website is still there.

Overall, in my opinion, there have been sufficient tears shed over something that was settled in the minds of reasonable people… Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike… that this false trope should be put to rest.

As I said earlier, it isn’t the president or the DNC that let this fester and divide… it is those who refuse legitimate evidence. I regret, Mr. Price, that you seem to be one of these. What was that old cliché? Something about leading a horse to water?

If you have something with substance to discuss we can continue, but if all you wish to do is rehash settled cases, good luck with your quest. It is neither my desire nor my intention to continue debates with the convinced.