Cognitive bias

Cognitive bias

“The cognitive bias psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people intuitively estimate relative frequency using a shortcut called the availability heuristic: the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it is. People, for example, overestimate the likelihoods of the kinds of accidents that make headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings, and they underestimate those that pile up unremarked, like electrocutions, falls, and drownings.”

Steven Pinker “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes

There are any number if good news snippets in Steven Pinker’s book. He eloquently describes the continuous and ongoing improvement in the quality of human life through history.

Modern life is much, much better than you think.

No one would choose life at any time in history over modernity if it were judged by likely exposure to violent death or injury.

In short, we don’t know how lucky we are.

The availability heuristic is one of the reasons why we are not convinced that it is way safer to be alive and stay alive today than it was at any other time in our past. It seems that the human mind is very good at recalling what happens to us most recently or what we hear about most often. Not so much when it comes to distant memory or rare occurrences. And this makes good evolutionary sense.

The ability to remember recent dangers would be a handy advantage should those dangers still be around and hiding behind a bush, lions for example.

It also helps to remember where to find water or just how much novelty you can go for in the food you eat without risk of Delhi belly. Recalling the colour, size and taste of the berry that made you vomit is handy indeed.

When the availability heuristic evolved people lived in the immediate. They needed to identify and remember novelty to survive and prosper. Ease of recall for important things that their senses experienced really helped without the means to write anything down or to ‘hey Google’.

Back in the day when our senses sampled the world that was at our fingertips and ended at the horizon, we were the filter of novelty. Each human sampled events that were in front of them and individuals who were good at recognising and remembering novelty had an advantage in avoiding risk and recalling the good stuff.

This makes ‘headlines’ the keyword in the quote from Pinker. We are no longer the filter of novelty. Our handheld devices are. They present us with the majority of novelty and, surprise, surprise, they bombard us with things we remember… because the people sending the messages want to be noticed.

Falls and drowning do not make headlines because they are familiar enough to be outside the heuristic. It’s not called clickbait for nothing.

Interestingly though, the heuristic and cognitive bias might be changing.

Instead of remembering the novelty all that a click baiter needs is to draw our attention briefly. Just long enough to click. So we are bombarded with cute, funny or weird that taps the heuristic but with no advantage. Arguably the novelty avalanche is meaningless drivel with all real advantage going to the providers, not the consumers. And so it is.

Presumably though as the number of cute cat events increase in proportion toward one, the snippet of real news might become easier to recall for its novelty value alone.

That would be an irony, wouldn’t it?

Death and taxes

Death and taxes

Death and taxes are certainties. After more than 30 years of professional life, I have learned that there are a few more items on the definites list.

I know now that, in fact, the world is full of certainties beyond death and taxes. Our lives are fundamentally predictable. Business is business, people are people, trains are often crowded, and coffee is a requirement. Accident and novelty notwithstanding, I can be pretty sure what tomorrow will bring.

This is not to say that I readily accept this reality. I am much more inclined to fear the future as something entirely unpredictable and out of control. It seems that my biology requires risk, perhaps to keep me on my toes and on the lookout for lions and the snake in the grass.

My good fortune is that my chosen profession is founded on evidence, the raw material to understand, mitigate and avoid risk. I am trained to find as much certainty as is humanly possible and then to apply that certainty to first reduce risk and ultimately help alleviate fear.

A noble profession you would think.

At some level, I like to think so. Gathering evidence to inform decision making seems like a calming exercise that should benefit the many. Thinking, researching and evaluating my way through environmental problems should be a good thing to do in a world where resources are finite and demand voracious.

Science, the gathering and evaluation of evidence, surely is our best source of certainty. It bounds events through understanding and generates evidence that makes life predictable.

Imagine my shock when in an article from the Alliance for Useful Evidence I came across this quote from a senior UK policymaker…

One insider’s view of policymakers’ hierarchy of evidence
1. Expert evidence (including consultants and think tanks).
2. Opinion–based evidence (including lobbyists/pressure groups).
3. Ideological evidence (party think tanks, manifestos).
4. Media evidence.
5. Internet evidence.
6. Lay evidence (constituents’ or citizens’ experiences).
7. Street evidence (urban myths, conventional wisdom).
8. Cabbies’ evidence.
9. Research evidence.
Source: Phil Davies, former Deputy Chief Social Researcher, 2007.

Classic British cynicism this list may be. A caricature of reality it may be. Satire it must be. And it is probably all of the above. Only it is also alarmingly close to the truth.

For a decade or more I have worked with policymakers a lot and I would say that the list and the ranking of sources are accurate. It may not be what policymakers say they want. Many are keen to involve themselves in evidence-based policy but very few of them know where to get the evidence or how to evaluate it. They are easily swayed by ‘evidence’ sourced from within their everydayness, and that often includes the Uber driver.

They are not familiar with the peer-reviewed literature. They are not avid readers of systematic reviews and none of them knows how to estimate a likelihood.

The reality is that most of them do not have the tools to separate opinion from evidence.

It is a huge problem for me and, I suspect, for you too.

The policies that become the laws that determine what we can and cannot do, what society allows and tolerates and the big decisions on how we use or abuse the natural resources that we rely on for our wellbeing should be firmly grounded in evidence, not opinion.

The problem with Mr Davies’ list is that eight of the nine sources are contaminated by opinion. The ‘evidence’ may or may not be based on fact and could cease to be evidence altogether when all it is based on is the worldview of Joe citizen.

Opinion, a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

Arguably far too many of our laws are judgement calls that have little or no evidence to back them up. A law to protect the koala because it is going extinct when there is no evidence for this peril.

Here is another certainty to add to taxes, crowded trains and coffee. Policymakers will not use real evidence.

Why?

Because they are not trained in how to tell the difference between what they are exposed to and the truth. In their minds, the two are muddled and confused to the point of being indistinguishable.

Incredulous

Incredulous

Here is a recent headline from an ABC online article, a reputable publicly funded media source

Bush stone-curlews popping up in suburbs as bird once extinct in ACT makes a comeback

Nice you might think given that headlines containing good news are like threatened species themselves, rare and at risk of being lost forever.

Here is the problem.

The IUCN lists the conservation status of the Bush stone-curlew as “least concern”. In other words, its not under any immediate threat of extinction in the wild.

In fact, the species has a broad habitat preference throughout Australia pitching up in open forest, eucalyptus woodland, rainforest edges, grassy plains, arid scrubland and along inland watercourses across much of the vast continent. It is a common species in the cities of Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville and is abundant in the tropical and subtropical north. In other words, it’s not a rare species at all.

I’m told there are pubs up north where you can sup on a stubbie alongside a foraging stone-curlew.

To use the word extinction, the termination of a lineage, where the moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, is a lie.

This bird is not extinct.

Placing a geographic limit so as to use the term is disingenuous. Strippers are extinct in the Vatican is about as crazy a statement.

So is this fake news?

I think it is. The bird species is not actually extinct. It’s not even at risk unless you specify a discrete subset of its natural range. And when we learn that the Canberra specimens were almost certainly taking a wander from a nearby reserve artificially stocked with a few pairs to “reintroduce” them to the local scene, then the implicit hope in the story takes a huge dive.

I know that there are feeds to feed in this modern age of lightning fast news cycles. And I also know that there are good reasons for at least trying to be upbeat when, for the conservation minded, the world appears to be crashing down. But, like cricketers crossing the line, there are consequences for cheating on the truth. In the end people do not respect you, they dismiss everything you say even when you are actually being honest.

So my call to myself, and everyone who is in the business of information, let’s be as honest and as truthful as we possibly can and leave the spin alone when it comes to the facts.

This is easy to say and not at all easy to do but we all have to try.

Grubby

Grubby

I am not a Unionist, never have been. Perhaps, back in the day when labour was ruthlessly exploited by capital, I would have joined, but today it feels unnecessary. This, of course, is a delusion on my part.

My political nirvana, where left and right are conspicuously absent, would deliver progressive economics and social benefit through positive leadership without the need for exploitation. This centrism is also delusional.

So even as union membership declines along with their influence, I will concede that they are still needed. The balance between worker and employer will always be precarious.

Nevertheless, I have little time for the modern union movement, mostly because, to me, they epitomise a blinkered, dogmatic worldview that raises their issues ways above any other. My prejudice may not be a good thing, but it is what it is. Recently though, I found myself siding firmly with the unions as they rebutted claims of grubby slander on how they use their money.

Federal police raided the offices of the Australian Workers Union, the uniformed arrival to dig for dirt preceded by a media scrum who had obviously been tipped off. The union claims it has cooperated fully with the authorities on all outstanding matters. It is no coincidence that the leader of the opposition was once the leader of the AWU. On a hunch or a sniff of a lead, unleash the hounds on your suspect who just happens to have past connections to your main rival.

This is truly grubby politics designed to slander your opponent. The Americans call it a fake news, but fake or not, some of the mud will stick. The seed of doubt is watered in its cosy garden pot of compost. Keep the compost moist and the voters will do the rest.

But governments should not be able to manipulate police to achieve this end. When they do, it’s called fascism. And that has a very unpleasant history.

The AWU has my sympathy.

I will always be wary of unionist philosophy and especially of their tactics but when the government behaves in this way it makes unions look like saints. That should tell you enough.

The logic behind this kind of behaviour assumes we can be led by the nose.

It is imperative that everyone is vigilant enough to prove this assumption is always false.