In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the future can be predicted through a new method known as psychohistory. It’s a concept that turns up quite a lot — not only in science-fiction but from every so-called analyst, expert, advisor, talking head, and pundit across the spectrum of armchair philosophers and industry insiders.
We’re not talking about psychics here, but good old fashioned datahounds. Surely this suggests a more effective compass to predicting trends, right? Isn’t there a science to extrapolation that is more effective than reading the pattern of coffee grinds at the bottom of your Turkish coffee? Economics and technology and politics are not like trying to divine how many angels can stand on pinheads, after all.
Michael Shermer has a fine and sobering article today in the Huffington Post on how economists and Nostradamus aren’t so different with their respective track records:
At Skeptic magazine we routinely publish articles about the failed predictions of soothsayers, astrologers, tarot-card readers, palm-readers, and psychics of all stripes. But frankly scientists are not much better, especially in the social sciences where we depend on predictions of psychologists, sociologists, and most notably economists.
Shermer highlights the stealthy, insidious logical fallacy that is confirmation bias, as the gremlin in our would-be psychohistorical acumen:
One of the smartest and most deeply read historians of the 20th century, Arnold Toynbee, was spectacularly wrong in his blockbuster A Study of History, in which he thought he had identified a challenge-and-response cyclical pattern that all civilizations follow: birth, growth, expansion, empire, and disintegration. Starting with Greece and Rome, Toynbee dug through the historical record to find confirmatory evidence for his theory (culminating in his call for America to rise to the challenge of its alleged mid-century moral decline). You would think he would have taken heed from his inspiration, the German historian Oswald Spengler, who erroneously predicted the “decline of the west” in the 1920s. But that’s not how the mind works.
Why did Toynbee believe his own theory in the teeth of contradictory evidence presented by other historians? Because of the confirmation bias, which our brains employ to reinforce what we already believe while ignoring disconfirming data.
It isn’t merely the flashy discredited utopias that earlier ages expected — like flying cars or airships or lunar bases by 1999. The world is an astonishingly complex place, while our brains are constantly trying to simplify it into a distinct and candy-coated set of variables that will result in a conclusion ready-to-fit on a poster or soundbyte.
Being deeply knowledgeable on one subject narrows one’s focus and increases confidence, but it also blurs dissenting views until they are no longer visible, thereby transforming data collection into bias confirmation and morphing self-deception into self-assurance.
Not bad advice for the new year.
There’s been a lot of crazy predictions about 2012 and all the disasters that are going to befall our poor little planet. There’s one prediction that somehow escaped my notice until recently…that the earth will be destroyed by a supernova!
The people who promulgate this silliness try to make reasonable arguments how this conspiracy could possilby stay a secret.
The usual reason is the same reason why evidence of UFOS is kept a secret by the governments of the world. There would obviously be a worldwide panic, cats and dogs living together…….total chaos.
Continue reading Supernova Silliness
We lost a great man recently in Christopher Hitchens. I know I’m a little late with posting about this but I just listened to SGU Episode 336 where the Rogues, George Hrab and Jamy Ian Swiss share their thoughts and memories of Christopher Hitchens.
The first time I heard of Hitchens was when I was running the SGU’s fansite and they interviewed him at TAM5. I didn’t think too much of it, he was just another interviewee to add to my online list at the time. It’s not until I downloaded SGU Uncut #2 and listened to the unedited interview that Hitchens caught my attention. It was awesome. Since then I think I’ve seen all of the debates he participated in that are available on YouTube. The man was a genius. I think the thing that impressed me the most about Hitchens was how well he used his words. This man was a master at the English language. He was a sniper with words. Everything he said I knew that that’s EXACTLY what he meant to say and how he meant to say it.
So yesterday I decided to look up any other Hitchens videos I might have missed and I came across this awesome playlist of (at the time of this posting) 71 videos of Hitchens giving the Hitchslap to various people, religions and ideas. I just needed to share it with our readers.
Just before I started this post I bought God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Missionary Position. I can’t wait to start reading them.
One of my televisions crapped out the other day. My diagnosis is that the power supply gave out, because it no longer powers up. (Damn, I’m clever!)
Being the relatively “disposable” items that these products have become (that is to say, they are very affordable and sometimes more cost effective to simply replace than the hassle and real costs involved of having them repaired) I decided a new unit was in order. Off to BestBuy!
Knowing exactly what I was shopping for (I used to be in the television production industry on the equipment end of things), I went in, spotted the exact set I wanted, and went to the register to complete the purchase.
The sales rep checked her computer, and informed me that an “open box” of another relatively similar make and model was available. We went over to the open box unit, and yes, the box was indeed open. She said “this TV has never been used, just the seal on the box was broken.” This unit was about 15% less expensive than its sealed-box equivalent, so I told them to ring me up!
I got the TV home, opened the box, removed the set and immediately I knew I was in trouble. The unit was not new, it had been previously unwrapped. Parts of the manual were missing, the cleaning cloth was no where to be found, but worst, the screws for the base of the unit were absent. There was no way to put the TV on its stand. The cables actually stunk of cigar smoke – this set was TOTALLY used!
So I pack everything back up, load it back in the car, and back to the store I go. I head right for the customer service desk to explain all the problems. They apologized and say to me they will take the unit back, and they are happy to sell me a brand new sealed unit, but sorry, it has to be at the new unit price.
What we have here is a variation of the old Bait n’ Switch! The Bait n’ Switch is a tactic in which a seller advertises a product with the intention of persuading customers to purchase a more expensive product. When a seller uses this tactic, they frequently tell the customer that the original product is sold out or no longer available (even if the product is indeed still available), and push hard for the customer to purchase the costlier product. We have talked about this on the SGU before, when retailers online tried to pull this hucklebuck on Steve with camera equipment.
My situation was not exactly the same as the classic version of this scam, but rather a variation on the tactic. However, I was not sure this was an intentional deceit. Its quite possible this was an oversight and a quality control issue (there is no way that unit should have been returned to the sales floor.) Regardless of intent, I had to set the record straight, if nothing else, to receive the customer service that I and any other consumer deserves.
After explaining all of this to the three representatives at the customer service desk, I was able to convince them of what was actually going on. They all seemed enlightened by my take on the matter, as if they had genuinely not realized the potential (albeit probably unintentional) “scam” that had unfolded.
They wheeled a brand new unit up to the desk and right out into the trunk of my car – honoring the “open box” price. Yet another example of practical, every-day application of skepticism, not only ultimately working in my favor, but there are now three more people in the world who understand the subtle tactic of the Bait n’ Switch.
Perhaps one day they will find themselves being better consumers, having benefited by this little sprinkle of skepticism.
Our friends over at The Young Australian Skeptics have published their first book: Skeptical Blog Anthology. I’m not sure I can offer a better description of the book than the YAS has already provided:
This book is a collection of reader-nominated blog posts, representing the best of a new wave of online skepticism. Collected over a year, it features a plethora of posts on topics ranging from the vaccination debate, paranormal claims, the ongoing creep of creationism into politics and education, conspiracy theories, homeopathy, outreach, all kinds of alternative medicine and even attempts to tackle the question “What is skepticism?”
They’ve done quite a fine job of assembling a smattering of blog posts from some of my favorite people involved the skeptical movement.
When they contacted me a while back to inform me they were considering using one of my blog posts in their book, I was pleasantly surprised. I am not a professional blogger. It is not my primary means of outreach. (“Damn it, Jim I’m a broadcaster, not a writer!”.) So I really felt it special to even be considered as part of a book, let alone making the final cut.
Having deemed my work book-worthy, the YAS elevated me to a level alongside established, talented, and entertaining bloggers whom I greatly admire. This is an honor, and I very much appreciate the acknowledgement.
I am a strong believer that Holocaust Denial deserves to remain near the front of our skeptical minds. It can easily get lost among the other major battlefronts against alternative medicine, paranormal beliefs, and creationism indoctrination. The efforts to refute the claims of Holocaust Deniers does not get the daily attention the other major topics receive, so the more people are reminded, the more effective we remain. It is encouraging to see that my posts about Holocaust Denial have gone recognized and publicized. (This is my first time being professionally published.)
I encourage all SGU listeners and Rogues Gallery readers to support the efforts of the YAS by purchasing a copy of Skeptical Blog Anthology. I ask you to, once again, relive and enjoy my slap to the face of Holocaust Deniers – but this time, enjoy it in YOUR choice of traditional book form , e-book, or PDF.