Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bombastic Blowhards and the Brain

“Whenever there is a simple error that most laymen fall for, there is always a slightly more sophisticated version of the same problem that experts fall for.”
~ Amos Tversky

It’s taking me forever to finish neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating book, How We Decide. His subject is the brain, specifically the anatomical parts, chemicals and communications gyrations that are triggered whenever our brains need to make a decision.

The book is not particularly long and is anything but boring. The problem is, I keep coming across information so interesting that I set the book down and begin mulling over how what I’ve just read compares to the decisions I see people (including myself) making in life.

Lehrer reminds us that although the rational mind has been glorified since the days of the ancient Greeks, all decisions require the participation of both reason and emotion. Generally speaking, the emotional brain reacts to the risks or rewards attached to a decision and the rational brain — the part seated in the prefrontal cortex — reviews and approves or disapproves. However, emotion and reason excel at different tasks and often disagree.

Yesterday, for example, I was reading the chapter titled “The Brain Is an Argument.” At one point it discusses an in-depth study of the predictions of political pundits by Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. Working with 284 people who make their living commenting on political or economic trends, he amassed a database of 82,000 predictions. The finding: the so-called experts were almost always wrong. Or, as Lehrer put it, “a dart-throwing chimp would have beaten the vast majority of professionals.” (You can read more about the study in Tetlock's 2006 book, Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?)

The flaw in the thinking of the so-called experts was their arrogant overconfidence. As Lehrer explains it, they were so sure they were correct, their thought processes “found ways to disregard the insights that contradicted their ideologies” and “ignored any brain areas that implied they might be wrong.”

Personally, I would like to rid the world of pundits. I stopped watching their weekly showcases, the Sunday morning news shows, years ago; in the last election, the only coverage I could tolerate was the comment-free variety. But it’s a losing battle. People are less and less inclined to do their own thinking and the rise of 24-hour news channels has made being a bombastic blowhard a growth industry.

But enough. I’ll leave you with the unexpected wisdom of actor Kevin Bacon…

“There are people who tell you to shut up because you're just a celebrity, but pundits, talking heads, they're every bit the celebrity and a lot of them aren't any more qualified than the average man on the street.”
~ Kevin Bacon

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