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Another type of mistake

I talked at tedious length earlier about confirmation bias. Then I read what I had written and was sorry I wasted so many words and didn’t make any real clear points. But anyway, never one to learn from my mistakes, here is a link to Ed Brayton’s Badass Quote of the Day from C.S. Lewis explaining why it is a mistake to start working out why someone is wrong before you figure out if they are wrong – something a lot of us in the blogs could be accused of at least on a semi-regular basis. And, it talks about discounting sources because they are “biased”, which is often a lazy man’s substitute for considering the content closely.

I think Lewis & Brayton do a reasonable job of summing this up, so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll just add a couple of my own thoughts and leave it at that.

Heuristics is a terribly tangled subject. In a world too big to comprehend, we need heuristics for finding fertile ground. I can go to a library and start randomly pulling magazines and books off the shelf and evaluating their content. I could spend my whole life doing this carefully and properly and at the end discover that I had recovered precious few nuggets of worthwhile knowledge or ideation. So, when the village idiot gets in the newspaper or on the teevee or radio, it may not pay you to give him any attention – if you have already established that he’s the village idiot. Even if he’s right about something, chances are you can find out the thing he is right about from a source that pays better dividends.

That said, if I’m walking down the street and Glenn Beck yells for me to get out of the road because there is a car coming – I’ll likely pay some heed to his words. I likely will jump aside before even confirming his report. Heuristics again. Perhaps he’s an idiot, but surely he knows what a car is. Perhaps he’s a populist and rightist, but that sort of mentality has little to do with traffic conditions. I do not have to spend much effort to examine or even act on a claim about on-coming traffic. So, in such a case it is certainly an advantage for me to pay heed.

The flip side to this is that well-trained noisemakers employ strategies based on common heuristics systems to get attention. Markos Moulitsas can’t very well yell at me to jump out of the road, but he can title a post “how Monsanto isl killing your children with lead paint in the vegetables”. That’s sure to grab one’s attention. And crafted well, he can give the impression that he does have some inside information, that he’s maybe not an idiot on this subject, and he isn’t – at least at the moment – advancing a partisan agenda. Unfortunately all too often this is smoke and mirrors. And it makes heuristics difficult. The subject is one that maybe I would have real difficulty discovering through a more reliable source… who knows whether the New York Times has caught wind of it, and if they would publish it and risk pissing off an advertiser if they did? It’s something that – if true – does need my attention and action, right? Well… that’s the difficulty of it. There are approximately nine billion Markos Moulitsas’s & Glenn Becks out there, with approximately nine billion methods of making it past my heuristic filters. At some point, I’ve just got to play the odds, the best I can figure them. That’s probably more art than science. But it helps to have some understanding of how these guys – be they politicos or Madison Avenue marketing guys – are trying to get in your head. And it helps to understand the weaknesses of one’s own methods of figuring out what to listen to. And that’s up to each of us to do.

All this said, Lewis and Brayton are right. If you have decided that a subject is worth examination, you cannot draw conclusions about it based on who is talking about it. You cannot assume that “bias” in your source makes it unreliable. You have to do the math yourself.

One other thing: opinions are meant to be biased. Not all opinions are worth listening to, but to exclude them from your consideration because you think they are “biased” is like excluding tires from your car because they are round. Add to this: if you only consider opinions that are biased “your” way, then there won’t be much room for maturation.

5 comments to Another type of mistake

  • If somebody says “consider the source” should I still consider the source?

    I think Paul Simon summed it up pretty succinctly

    All lies and jests
    Still a man hears what he wants to hear
    And he disregards the rest.

    It’s human nature and as Alan Greenspan once said, “you cannot change human nature”

  • “All lies and jests” – My earbug always said “all lies in jest”, which makes more sense to me… So, I guess I learned something today. I doubt my earbug will learn, though. It still rocks the cash bar.

  • That is funny. I have always heard “all lies in jest” but before I posted it I looked up the lyrics and that is what I found. I guess I would have to ask Paul what he originally wrote.

    Reminds me of an inebriated friend of mine who was attempting to sing The Rolling Stones “Beast of Burden” and was slurring, “I’ll never be your pizza burning”

    He was really on a Rolling Stones tear that night and he tried to sing “Satisfaction” and instead of singing “I can’t get no girl reaction” he was singing “I can’t get no curly action”

    Kind of the same thing I guess. It depends on your interpretation.

  • And then there is always anything by Bruce Springsteen. I have resisted the urge to look up the real lyrics to Blinded by the Light so that I can continue to let the various possibilities swirl around in my head.

    And then there’s my all-time favorite, which is also a damn fine song.

  • Damn fine song indeed. And the youtube is hilarious. I had never seen that. One of the things I like most about that song is that you can make it up as you go along and change it every time.

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