Cognitive Science Reading & Discussion Group Message Board › Robert Burton, ON BEING CERTAIN: Believing you are right even when you're not
Here are some of my comments on the book. Mostly cranky.
Chapter 9, "The Pleasure of Your Thoughts":
P.98: "I often wonder if an insistence upon being right might have physiological similarities to other addictions, including possible genetic predispositions. We all know others (never ourselves) who go out of their way to prove a point, seem to derive more pleasure from final answers than ongoing questions, and want definitive one-stop-shopping resolutions to complex social problems and unambiguous endings to movies and novels."
In other words, the author is saying that we should try to be like the opposite type, like the people we all know who derive pleasure from "ongoing questions" and mystery and aren't interested in lifting a finger to look for data even when it is readily available.
I don't like the anti-intellectualism he's showing here. There is a big difference between dogmatists who merely assert that they are right, and people who actually "go out of their way to prove a point".
Chapter 10, "Genes and Thought"
Pp.102-103: "they persist in the belief that everyone should draw the same conclusion if given the same information, as though reason operated according to an obligatory physics, like the optics of an eye. These book club members aren't alone. We are raised believing that reasonable discourse can establish the superiority of one line of thought over another. The underlying assumption is that each of us has an innate faculty of reason that can overcome perceptual differences and see a problem from the 'optimal perspective.' One goal of this book is to dispel this misconception."
Well then, I must have been gravely mistaken back when I was teaching math. Logic certainly does operate according to some obligatory principles upon which there has been basic agreement for thousands of years. I would agree with what the author says about the difficulty of an "optimal perspective". But he's going beyond that, and seems to be suggesting here that since a lot of people can't tell the difference between objectively valid and invalid arguments (which is what reason is supposed to do), we should conclude that there is no such distinction.
Pp.103-104: "Let me begin by making an extraordinary and seemingly ridiculous proposition: Genes can affect our degree of interest in religion and spirituality. At first glance, such a suggestion feels preposterous; we see the lifetime pursuit of religion as a deliberate and intentional choice."
I don't understand what seems "preposterous" about this. I don't find it surprising that genes can affect our degree of interest in things, and hence also the deliberate and intentional choices we make.
To be more positive, though, I do like the example on pp.110-111 of the risk-averse husband who goes along with his wife's suggestion to leave for the airport at the last possible moment, not because he's become more accepting of risk but because he's afraid of how his wife might react if he says he wants to leave earlier. But I think the lesson of this example is lost in the discussion on p.118 of taking a political stand for or against drilling for oil in Alaska. I'm sure that some of those chanting "drill, baby, drill" were also driven by risk aversion -- in this case, the risk of personal social consequences, rather than of environmental ones.
On p.122, the author bemoans "America's declining literacy rates despite greater educational opportunities". What is his source for this claim? His footnote refers us to a New York Times article, "Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds" And the headline refers to this fact:
"When the test was last administered, in 1992, 40 percent of the nation's college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. But on the 2003 test, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills."
But might this not have something to do with the fact that the fraction of U.S. residents over 25 years of age with bachelor's degrees -- the population that was tested here -- has risen from 21.4% in 1992 to 27.2% in 2003? It is not reasonable to cite this study as evidence for "America's declining literacy rates" overall.
Edited by Peter on Feb 13, 2010 3:20 PM
Chapter 11, "The Twin Pillars of Certainty: Reason and Objectivity"
On p.152, Dr. Burton puts a lot of weight on a study by Dijksterhuis, "On making the right choice: The deliberation-without-attention effect". I'm not sure that Dijksterhuis's interpretation is correct that "if their conscious mind was fully occupied on solving puzzles, their unconscious could freely consider all the information". This may be a matter of overthinking in the case where they were given time to think about the information without distraction. Dijksterhuis has some other studies in which there are three possibilities: subjects may be asked to make an immediate decision, or be given time to concentrate, or be distracted with puzzles. I would suggest that an experiment with more variation in the amount of time given to subjects may provide additional fruitful insights.
On p.158, there is a discussion about "a study on fMRI and unconscious bias" by political partisans. The book doesn't give a reference to the actual research paper, but I found it here.
P.174: "A 99.999 percent guarantee is not just 1/100,000 less certain than a 100 percent guarantee. It is not 'almost certain' or 'nearly the same as certain.' It is the difference between no possible adverse consequences and the possibility, albeit remote, of personal and financial ruin. The broker has the obligation to explain the difference".
I think he's taking things a bit far here. If you invest in treasury bills, can you be 100% certain that you'll get your money back? No, because there is a chance -- which I'd estimate is at least 1/100,000 -- that the U.S. government will default.
Then the author goes on about how "This moral obligation also extends to those opinions in which certainty is implicit, though not specifically stated. A prime example is the prediction." He quotes Berkeley's own Rich Muller:
"There will be ten billion people on Earth by 2100 -- and all of them can live comfortably if advances in energy-saving technology continue."
What's morally questionable about making a claim like that? Burton writes that
"there's a huge difference between highly likely and without a doubt. If the professor's calculations are wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic."
But I would say that Muller's use of the word "if" is an acceptable enough hedge. It's a real stretch to say, as Burton does, that Muller should have added the disclaimer that "there is a slight chance that I am wrong and that my calculations could lead to serious mistakes in population planning." Burton needs to come up with better examples of overconfidence than this.
Chapter 12, "Faith"
On p.181, the author hops on the anti-Dawkins bandwagon. He quotes Richard Dawkins:
"I feel privileged to be allowed to understand why the world exists, and why I exist, and I want to share it with other people."
Burton says Dawkins "believes ... that he is mentally capable of understanding why the world and we exist -- the myth of the autonomous rational mind." Burton responds that:
"Why we exist is a matter of personal opinion and speculation, not a question for scientific inquiry."
But Burton is misunderstanding Dawkins's use of the word "why", or maybe even equivocating on it, because then he writes:
"Dawkins assumes that understanding why we are here is either synonymous with purpose or at least will trigger a sense of purpose and meaning."
I think it's clear from the context that Dawkins is referring to why the world and we exist in the sense of why (for example) comets or platypuses exist. Now probably that's not what most people think of when they ask why we exist or why the world exists. But Burton discredits himself when he quotes someone -- especially someone who is controversial -- and writes as if that person means something different than what he means.
I think this whole chapter on Faith underestimates, or even omits, the role of group loyalty in holding opinions that we call Faith. It's not just about the content of the beliefs.
Edited by Peter on Feb 13, 2010 3:22 PM