Jani Kaaro is a scientific journalist, a researcher and encyclopedist, and he has some of the most insightful columns that I have read, time after time. I'm going to translate a few of his articles, if you have time and interest, check it out.
Jiminy Cricket from Hell
The first thing any scientific journalist learns is how little one can rely on their own knowledge. That's why it never ceases to amaze me how greatly a lot of others around here trust their own knowledge. Every day the media is full of omniscient takes on statements: What'll happen if we won't assist Greece? What'll happen if we do assist Greece? What'll happen if we won't change our immigration policy? What happens if we will?
Maybe everyone should just cool off for a second, stare into infinite space and think how little or much we actually know?
American sociologist Philip Tetlock has shown in his research project, which has taken on gargantuan proportions, how finite even the best knowledge actually is. He recruited hundreds of political and economic experts to his study, and they commented on current topics. For 20 years he asked them countless questions, such as "Will George W. Bush be re-elected", "Will the Apartheid end in South Africa" and "Will Quebec resign from the rest of Canada?"
If we take into hand how dependent we are on experts, the results of Tetlock's research were horrifying to many. All in all the experts - from many schools of thought and politic views - were only right 33% of the time. They might as well have thrown a dart blindfolded for their answers.
After the study was released, it's hard to look at the talking heads on television as anything else than good entertainment. But what about us ordinary people; us Internet discussers, us do-gooders from the local watering hole and other feuders - are we any better?
According to a Nigerian proverb, the goat doesn't know that it smells. And we people are the same. We aren't rational discussers who weigh facts and really try to understand what our opponent is actually saying. On the contrary, we get heated and jump into conclusions. We get blast and fill out the blanks. We shout and pick up the most suitable facts. We huff and puff and our opinion is ready. And after all this we still think ourselves as more rational discussers than others.
It's not that we're stupid, but as the discussion gains momentum our considerate side checks off and gives way to our internal lawyer. Like lawyers in real life, this one isn't interested in the truth or the big picture, only winning its case. The lawyer isn't lying per se, but it may leave out a few facts here and there or tries to cock up a believable explanation that pulls on the heartstrings of the jury.
I'll try to keep this short, so I'll only use one real life example. If you have a spouse or a partner, make a list of all the chores, separately estimate how large of a percentage of these chores you take care of and add the results together. Studies have shown that calculated like this, people seem to do 120% of all chores. That's how our internal lawyer works. It exaggerates our own contribution and underestimates the other's.
Even though this example may sound harmless, in reality the lawyer is probably the most important source of social and societal conflict. It is responsible for seeing the faults in others, but no dirt in our own reflection. And we do something morally wrong, it whispers in our ear like Jiminy Cricket from Hell that we did the right thing.
Dan Batson psychological test from 1999 offers a good example of the latter. In the test, test subjects were told that they could choose from two assignments: a pleasant one, that rewarded you with a lottery ticket, and an obnoxious one without any reward. After this, they were taken to separate rooms, where they could personally choose which assignment they wanted and which assignment the other person had to do. They could choose right away or flip a coin.
In the pre-test interview all subjects agreed that flipping a coin was a good moral solution. So the people who let the coin choose, highlighted solidarity and caring for their close ones.
Batson was very amazed when out of those vouching for the coin flip previously, a whopping 90% chose the pleasant assignment for themselves. Some of them did flip the coin, end up with the repulsive assignment, but refused to do it and gave it to the other subject. Still, when the were interviewed, they didn't see any conflict in their statements and actions and believed they had done the morally right thing. That is because their internal lawyers made it all seem A-OK.
When I look at the certainty of how people in politics or Internet forums "know" about things, I can only combine Tetlock's study with our internal storytellers. We believe that we have some unique knowledge about ourselves that others don't have, and how it somehow makes our judgement better. We think that the world is exactly how we see it, and that feeling is so powerful, that when someone thinks differently, the conflict is ready. The less we have real knowledge, the more our lawyer has room to fill in the blanks for our own good. For societal discussion our internal bards "knowing" something is the biggest problem.
If everybody "knows", no one discusses - everyone just keeps shouting.
We are not completely at the mercy of our internal friend. We can catch it redhanded and become more vigilant about its existence. Batson tried many different methods to alter the results of his study and to make the coinflippers realize their moral conflict. Only one thing helped.
He installed a mirror into the rooms.
Does Crichton smoke? Does a bear shit in the woods? -Rex
"What's the point in being an outlaw if you've got responsibilities?"
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