Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Thinking About the Future

This is (serendipitously) a good post to follow George's one on perspectives. In the September-October 2006 issue of The Futurist is a short article about a book called Don't Believe Everything You Think, by Thomas Kida. It begins: "Our understanding of the world is largely based on what we believe, and we tend to believe what we have experienced first hand or what we have heard from parents, peers, professors, prophets, and pundits."

This is borne out in the data in our Perceptions survey. One question we asked participants was "How do you judge if electronic information is trustworthy?" 86% of all respondents answered: "based on personal knowledge/common sense." This is hilariously awful....because we can all dig up stories about the number of people who think Venezuala is the leading importer of oil to the US, or that China is the biggest trading partner of the US, or that certain kinds of weapons were found in Iran, or that young adults can't locate Indonesia on a map. Or closer to home, how many times have I been told by librarians that there are many people in their communities with no access to the Internet...? Lots. And when I ask what data support that, I've yet to be shown any.

According to The Futurist article, Kida identifies six reasons for mistakes in our "personal knowledge/common sense."
  • we prefer stories to statistics
  • we seek to confirm, not question, our ideas
  • we rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events
  • we sometimes misperceive the world around us
  • we tend to oversimplify our thinking
  • our memories are often inaccurate

There's an interview with Kida about this book here.

"The only reason some people get lost in thought is because it's unfamiliar territory." Paul Fix


walt crawford said...

That first reason is a killer, all the more so because it's non-trivial to turn a statistic into a story. Particularly if you're a stickler for the meaning of the statistic. It's so much easier to point to the figures--until you realize (as I did years ago) that most people really don't see any significance in what you're pointing to.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of really bad statistics-based story-telling...

Andy Havens said...

Like many other things, there is something of a natural selection and/or anthropological reason for this behavior, too, that isn't on the list as given. When confronted with uncertainty, in almost always better, from a "basic, natural survival" standpoint, to think or believe "something" than to stand around in a state of accurate, yet complete ignorance.

If you're out in the wild, and hear a strange noise you don't grok, yet don't have enough information to make any kind of informed, rational judgement as to what it is, you have three basic choices:

1. Ignore it (do nothing) until you get more information. Because, really, without statistics and empirical data as to what created the noise, any action on your part will be premature, right?

2. Investigate in order to gather more information yourself. Go find out what made that noise. Poke at it with a stick. Shake the bush. Go ahead...

3. Make assumptions based on even a tiny, tiny little subset of information about what you know or have heard about what makes noises in bushes... and run like heck.

Across the span of time that accounts for the survival of species, guess which group behavior will be selected? Yep. #3.

We are hard wired by our nature to make assumptions based on that which has NOT killed us yet; i.e., every tiny bit of little teeny info we have from our own senses and any other critter in our family/friend clan that has not been killed. The more at a distance from us the information is, the more suspect it becomes, because we cannot ascertain (in a "noise in bush" sort of way) if that information "smells like it killed the guy after all."

I know that Uncle Bud is 79. And he's right there. He just brought me chicken wangs and a Gennee Cream Ale. And I know that he says Venezuella is the leading exporter of oil to the US. What do I care what that shiny-faced kid on the TV has to say...

As anyone who has ever sold information services or taught a class knows, it is very, very hard to push past assumptions that were learned or brought in from the nest. The reasons the author of this article gives are excellent, but we shouldn't forget that the search for knowledge is, inherently, often dangerous. It used to be that way on a purely physical level. Now it's "only" dangerous to our egos, but linked chemically to those same neurons that kept us from poking at the barking bush. Still a major consideration to keep in mind, imho.

Anonymous said...

That was a GREAT interview with Kida and from the looks of it, there are a number of other great guests they have had. The show is called Point of Inquiry and its at html:// . Warning: some of them are kinda controversial :P

Larry said...

Hmm. How do you judge if the data is trustworthy? Would you believe anything that purports to be "data"is trustworthy? Would you believe anyone who claims it's trustworthy? Would you believe an "authority" who claims it's trustworthy? (Really? You don't think "authorities" have agendas? You don't think experts can have radically divergent opinions?)

I think a critical intelligence would question both data and authority, but on the basis of what? It's hard to avoid using the bulk of your own experience and knowledge as a context within which to evaluate new claims, and using your own reasoning ability as a tool -- which really isn't so far from from "personal knowledge/common sense" as to make the latter "hilariously awful".