CONTRARY BRIN: Shall we give up on reason?

Will we genetic-cavemen ever become the logical beings we flatter ourselves into believing we are? Or that Science Fiction says we might become?  Recent research suggests that we have a long slog ahead of us… and yes, even the smartest best-educated folks allow their pre-set beliefs and passions to interfere with basic mental processes, if their close-held biases might be under threat. Indeed we have all seen this tenacity in online arguments, in which cogent – even devastating and fact-rich — rebuttals don’t sway the other guy even an iota. See: Scientists’ depressing new discovery about the brain.
We already knew this. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. Clearly this is what goes on as know-nothings rage against scientists and other professionals. –David Brin



If the Dunning–Kruger effect describes the delusional superiority of unskilled know-nothings, what should we call the brilliant self-delusions hatched by our best and brightest minds? The cognitively biased genius may be a greater threat to the fate of civilization than the self-deluded dumb-ass.


Notice that Russell says wiser people are full of doubts–not smarter people or better-educated people.  Is there a consistent correlation between intelligence and wisdom? If my personal experience is any guide, there often seems to be an inverse relation between the two at the high end of the intelligence scale. There never seems to be any shortage of highly-intelligent and well-educated fools. It reminds me of the correlation between income (or wealth) and happiness. Up to a point increasing wealth is positively correlated with increasing happiness and decreasing stress. But at some point there is a diminishing return, and then eventually the relationship becomes inversely proportional. So too with intelligence and wisdom. So too with knowledge and certainty.


Jane Austen

“I have no talent for certainty.”

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

The Dangers of Scientism?

tiny scientist, big mushroom

tiny scientist, big mushroom (Photo credit: hmmlargeart)

This is a response to the blog post The Dangers of Scientism and the Fear of the Unknowable by Dave Pollard and to conversations I’ve recently had about various flaws, fallacies, or evils supposedly inherent in “science.”

There’s a lot of complex feedback between fashions in science and society but I find little in the philosophy of science (in its better versions) to alarm me. What alarms me is the predictable irrationality of the human brain, concentration of power, and corruption. Whatever is wrong with any part of science or society can probably be traced back to these. If we want to address any of these root problems, some version of science is probably our best tool, but it goes without saying that science must continuously improve and engage in continuous quality control –physician, heal thyself.

Pollard’s article reviews The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers by Curtis White and also briefly mentions Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld.

Of the Science Delusion says:

One of our most brilliant social critics—and the author of the bestselling The Middle Mind—presents a scathing critique of the “delusions” of science alongside a rousing defense of the role of art and philosophy in our culture The so-called new atheists, most famously Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, made a splash in the new millen­nium. They told the evangelical and the liberal believer that they must give up religion and submit to science. More recently, neuroscientists and their fans in the media have delivered a variation on this message: the mapping of the human brain will soon be completed, and we will know what we are and how we should act. Their faith is that the scientific method provides the best understanding not only of the physical world but also of art, culture, economics, and anything left over. The message is nearly the same as that of the new atheists: submit to science.

IMO both books are exercises in demagoguery or pop-propaganda, feeding on the public’s misconceptions and love-hate relationship with perceived aristocracies.

These books liberally combine truths and tautologies with exaggeration and bias in support of a preconceived conclusion with a predictable market among those who feel most threatened by science in general. I think they also appeal to those creatives uncertain of where to place the blame for our modern perils and woes.

Scientism, where it is actually found (there is plenty of it but not usually in the places the public imagines), is typically the product of some common weaknesses in human nature–things like corruption, authoritarianism, risk-aversion, etc.

However most emotionally mature scholars and scientists are well aware that, as Pollard says, “Science is, after all, nothing more than the creation of approximate, limited and ever-changing models and metaphors of some aspects of reality, that are often interesting and sometimes (enormously) useful.” In fact, on the whole, scientists are better enlightened in this respect than most of those who use them for target practice.

Endless anecdotes of life-saving or environment-friendly innovations suppressed by vested academic, professional, or political interests notwithstanding, if you follow the money the original source of science against the public interest is higher up the food chain than the working scientist. The degree of scientism and corruption in science varies widely by industry with more conflict of interest in things like military R&D, big pharma, biotech, and energy than in things like climate science or the social sciences.

Unparsimonious positivism or absolutism is something that most humans, including scientists, fall into with varying degree and frequency (especially when it comes with a paycheck); but which is considerably less prevalent (to say the least) among reputable scientists than most other demographics.

The groups who are most deserving of our outrage, our torches, and our pitchforks are the sociopathic authoritarians who capture the institutions of science, learning, polity, and culture for their own ends and those who are their stooges, collaborators, and sycophants. That some percentage of scientists fall in and out of those ranks is no indictment of science nor the philosophy of science but only of human frailty–that same frailty that also turns religion into chauvinism and murder.

Poor Richard

COGNITIVE BIAS #122: Attentional Bias


Cognitive Bias of the Week

Above is a nice bit of blogging borrowed from CopyLogic: The Blog to help me populate my Cognitive Bias of The Week category.  I had neglected this category far too long and as a consequence had accumulated such a logjam of biases that it was simply too dangerous to delay any longer.

“While my Attention was taken up in guarding against one Fault, I was often surpris’d by another. Habit took the Advantage of Inattention.” –Benjamin Franklin

As we know, cognitive biases come and go with the changing configurations of the heavenly bodies. I leave it to my learned reader to select the appropriate astrological sign to indicate that corresponding part of the physiology in which  this week’s biased humor doth reside.


[The image above right is from “The Anatomy of Man’s Body as Govern’d by the Twelve Constellations”, Poor Richard Improved, Being an Almanack and Ephemeris for the Year of Our Lord 1758.”  Click on the image to enlarge]

Externalizing Reality

In economic theory, an externality is any cost or benefit not accounted for in a calculation of profit or loss. Classic examples are the cost of pollution not included in the price of a manufactured product, the death of coal miners not included in the price of electricity, and the cost of mass murder or the little matter of global warming not included in the price of oil and gasoline.

Economic externalities are only a small subset of a more general category I call cognitive externalities–anything that is filtered out of our mental picture of the world around us.

We all externalize parts of reality, not because they are unknowable, but because they are unpleasant or inconvenient. That is the principal basis of all our corruption, all our dis-enlightenment. We all do it. Its in our DNA. But the costs or consequences of externalities in economic models or in any other domain of reality, are disproportionately borne by the poor and powerless. One of the worst examples of externalized reality is this: despite some remnants of local color from country to country, the new world order is a global East India Company with helicopter gunships. A Martian anthropologist studying the last five thousand years or so of human history would have to conclude that the primary industry of our species is conducting mass murder for profit and that the masses, even in the dominant cultures, have all devolved into cargo cults.

If cargo cults are mentioned in anyone’s personal library of mental narratives they probably take the form of a story about the peculiar behavior of small numbers of black natives somewhere on the coast of Africa in some prior century. Am I the only person with a story in her head about how that same behavior shows through in all of us under the euphemistic label of “consumerism”?

People live by stories. Each person’s head holds a library of short and long narratives and we pull one off the shelf that fits something about any particular situation or circumstance we meet from moment to moment. Too often these stories are on the level of children’s picture books, suggesting simple but wrong solutions to complex problems or situations. Most of us have stories about history that are wrong, stories about our families that are wrong, stories about nature that are wrong, and stories about ourselves that are wrong. And anything that doesn’t exist in the current active mental story, right or wrong, is externalized from a person’s reality in that moment.

Sometimes, reality is externalized on purpose. The principle weapon of special interests today is information asymmetry, a simple idea (better known to most of us as fraud, deception, marketing, public relations, spin, infotainment, etc.) that won a Nobel Prize for economics. This has resulted in a vast and thriving industry of disinformation and information pollution that corrupts and perverts every institution of society. But by far the most destructive lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

Our addiction to self delusion is encouraged and enabled by a liar’s code. If you don’t unmask me I won’t defrock you. Popes, presidents, senators, CEO’s, teachers, and parents set the example for one and all.

Of course there is such a thing as an ethical (justified) lie, a lesser evil than some dire alternative, but self deception dissolves sanity itself. Identity itself becomes externalized. Self awareness fails and then, as Yeats said, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” This is the truly unpardonable sin. But it won’t be avoided by force of will, strength of character, or high moral ideals. Our cognitive deformity, self-delusion, settled upon us by evolution, will be undone not by willpower, for which humanity is not noted, but mostly by wit, art and innovation–things we are good at.

The opposite of the unpardonable sin of self deception is liberation from self-imposed delusion–especially delusions about ourselves. The ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and look clearly at uncomfortable facts is the essence of authentic enlightenment. It was inscribed on the entrance of the ancient Greek Temple of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself.”

Externalizing inconvenient reality (sometimes called denial, self deception, willful ignorance, or preserving cognitive consonance) is a coping mechanism. I would never suggest that we discard a coping mechanism without replacing the truly protective parts of it with something new. In fact with many, many new things.

The Greeks knew what they didn’t know (self-knowledge) but their philosophical methods were empirically weak. Today we know how to come by that knowledge–by the scientific method. We must discover and invent new cognitive prophylactics and prosthetics not as Sir Thomas Moore invented Utopia or as Reagan-era bean counters invented “Trickle-Down Economics”, but as Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin: with all the real working parts. We need a science and technology of cognitive hygiene and end-to-end information quality control. Despite living in an “age of science,” we still mostly resort to authority and reputation to judge the quality of information. I guess there are many reasons that “fact checking” remains in the dark ages. Information Quality Management is fine for database administrators, but we human beings reserve the right to our own facts, just as we reserve the right to mate with the worst possible partner. Still, without surrendering such rights, it might be nice if the scientific/academic community devoted more effort to producing a science and technology of information quality assurance that we could consult or ignore at our own risk.

In addition to empirical knowledge, like that which we might gain from brain signals, functional MRI pictures, or implicit association tests, enlightenment grows from coaching and practice with the object of re-engineering faulty parts of the operating system of the brain. Unlike genetic engineering, it requires exercise and training much as any physical, athletic ability.

I’m not drumming up a utopia built on some cult of cognitive science. But we MUST discover alternative practical means to protect ourselves from that suffering which we seek to evade by externalizing reality. As we do, we may find that workable solutions to nearly every other problem and crisis are already on the table.

Poor Richard

“The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0”

“The Enlightenment 2.0″

“The Inner Hunchback”

“Is Spiritual the New Supernatural?”

Dissecting The Science Denier

Cognitive bias of the day:

Confirmation bias — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions independently of whether they are true.

Closely related to confirmation bias, denialism is a psycho-social syndrome often combining a number of other cognitive biases (such as selective attention/inattention, appeal to false experts, conspiracy seeking, etc.) common in individual psychology but also including social aspects such as in/out group  bias.  Examples are holocaust denial, AIDS denial, and the wildly popular climate change denial.

Several motivations for denial have been proposed, including religious beliefs and self-interest, or simply as a psychological defense mechanism against disturbing ideas.

Denial is perhaps most typically found as a defense against cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously.

The amateur anthropologist, philosopher of self-development, and social gadfly G.I. Gurdjieff (died 1949) used the intuitively satisfying term “buffers” (as in “buffer zone”) as a catch-all concept for any automatic (unconscious) psychological defense mechanism for reducing cognitive dissonance and other kinds of mental trauma or stress.


An alternative (though not mutually exclusive) hypothesis for denialism is that public deniers are psycho-sexually immature narcissists trying to attract undeserved adult attention.


I found the following material about anti-science bias at It has a lot of relevance to the increasing phenomena of “greenwashing” (green whitewashing) and “astroturfing” (fake grassroots organizing), which are fast-growing corporatist public relations practices.

Poor Richard


Reposted from a comment by John Mashey on

[Bracketed insertions for clarity, especially for abbreviations- PR]


Thanks to Barry & also Ruddiman PPP, Chapter 18.

The usual caveats apply, i.e., this is not about normal scientific skepticism and arguments, but where the science is denied/attacked for extra-science reasons.


Economics, ideology, politics, psychology

ECON -1, -2, -3 (professional) -4 (public)

IDEOL -1 (professional), -2 (public)

POL -1 (professional), -2 (public)

PSYCH -1 (professional), -2 (public), -3 & -4 (either), -5 (professional)


ECON-1 long-term major direct economic interest

Some fossil fuel [FF] companies and some family foundations whose wealth was derived from them.

Do not usually write/speak directly, but through ECON-2 and ECON-3. FF companies have mostly stopped direct public claims against [Anthropogenic Global Warming] AGW. FF companies vary widely, and should not all be tarred with the same brush.

This is a special case of companies that want to “privatize the benefits, socialize the costs”, starting with asbestos, cigarettes, some chemical companies, sometimes extractive industries (especially coal).

ECON-2 long-term, less direct economic interest, but get some funding from the some of the previous.

Thinktanks & front organizations.

Funding may be used to start an organization, or an existing organization may seek these funding sources. Some of these clearly compete for funding.]

ECON-3 personal, direct economic interest

Consulting, writing, speaking, lobbying.

This is for someone who has some relevant experience; money from ECON-1 or ECON-2.

ECON-4 fear (reasoned or unreasoned) of personal economic impacts from CO2 regulation

Many people in the public.

IDEOL-1 “Anti-regulation” professionals, i.e., sometimes get called free-market fundamentalists*

Some thinktanks, economists, some editors/writers, i.e. like WSJ [Wall Street Journal] OpEds, but not news, so far. May or may not get money from ECON-1. This should not be read as the business community in general, but emphasized by that subset described in ECON-1.

IDEOL-2 “Anti-regulation” public

Many people. As far as I know, nobody likes higher taxes or dealing with cumbersome regulation… the legitimate argument is about the appropriate levels, and reasonable people can disagree.

POL-1 “X says it,therefore it’s wrong”, professional

Some politicians & IDEOL-1, used as a wedge tactic, in their own self-interest, sometimes helps raise money.

Common are “Al Gore says it” or “job-killing left-wing greenie tree-huggers say it”. This is slightly different from IDEOL-1, in that it’s a negative tactic.

POL-2 “X says it, therefore it’s wrong”, public

Many people, in this case, some of whom may well be acting in ECON-1’s self-interest, but against their own.

PSYCH-1 “I like publicity, and being contrarian helps, especially if my career isn’t what I want it to be”, professional.

This is what Barry hypothesizes for BC, and akin to Bill Ruddiman’s descriptions in Chapter 18 of PPP. It might well fit Bjorn Lomborg, who didn’t really get much attention until TSE.

PSYCH-2 “I like being a contrarian”, professional or public

Many people, in extreme cases verging on conspiracy theories.

For public, it is ego-gratifying to believe you know more than supposed experts, even if you don’t get a lot of publicity for it.

For the professional, it may just be a personality trait, as opposed to a “get attention” trait, and of course, sometimes contrarians are right. [Thomas Gold, on some things.]

PSYCH-3 “High-bar, low bar”, professional & public

Serious work in science ~ pole vault in track.

One can be contrarian by stepping across a line on the pavement.

For a professional, this maybe related to PSYCH-1.

See my favorite Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In general, many people want to believe their expertise is higher than it is, and resent the idea that others’ expertise might be much higher.

As per how to learn… and following discussion, I said I was a 2 of 10 on my whimsical climate expertise scale. I’ve refined the scale a little, and I now think I’m a 3, although having had dinner with James Hansen this week, maybe not :-)]

PSYCH-4 ambiguity-intolerant personality

See ambiguity tolerance, which says:

“The converse, ambiguity intolerance…was defined in 1975 as a “tendency to perceive or interpret information marked by vague, incomplete, fragmented, multiple, probable, unstructured, uncertain, inconsistent, contrary, contradictory, or unclear meanings as actual or potential sources of psychological discomfort or threat.”

With appropriate reservations on personality theory, it is some people are are comfortable with fluid, ambiguous ideas, and quite often view propositions via probability distributions, error bars, etc.

Other people are very uncomfortable with this, needing “It’s A or B”, sometimes called all-or-none thinking. In really weird cases, people can flip between A or B without spending time in between!

PSYCH-5 Retired scientist off the rails. Professional.

Rarely, even brilliant scientists near/at retirement, start opining (but not in peer-reviewed journals) about some other domain, directly opposite the mainstream. This is sad, and seems to happen for any of a variety of other reasons. Fortunately, many top scientists remain quite sharp, and if they shift areas, go study first.


I’d suggest that a relatively small number of people [ECON-2, ECON-3, IDEOL-1, maybe POL-1] actually get paid for this,and actually, I (weakly) conjecture that more of the money for thinktanks comes from the family foundations, although it’s really hard to find out.

In some cases [PSYCH-1], I think the dominant motivation is that, although some may hope to also manage ECON-3.]

I conjecture that most people with anti-science websites, incessant anti-science posts, etc are in one or more of {ECON-4, IDEOL-2, POL-2}, not getting paid for it, and possibly with some of the PSYCH attributes. I’ve discussed this with psychologist friends, who mentioned the ambiguity-intolerance thing.

If you draw a graph: a) funders b) thinktanks/fronts c) individuals & some politicians d) public

$$ flows from a=>b=>c, and sometimes from d=>c) politicians

Mis/disinformation flows (b+c) => d, usually not publicly emitted by a).

Of course, lack of knowledge helps anti-science views, but clearly, even people who have knowledge can argue against science for such reasons.


There is a wide mix of reasons for anti-science positions, and very few people actually get paid for it. Most do it for free. Some pay to do it.


  • And before somebody says “Anti-free-market, leftwing, greenie, fellow-traveler dedicated to downfall of American capitalism” (don’t laugh, someone has said something like that :-)…

If that fit me, it would fit most of Silicon Valley, including a lot of business people and venture capitalists that I know / work for / invest with in the world center of high-tech capitalism 🙂

Posted by: John Mashey | December 19, 2008 8:57 PM

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