“The cat, having sat upon a hot stove lid, will not sit upon a hot stove lid again. But he won’t sit upon a cold stove lid, either.” – Mark Twain
Of all the words he’s written on the subject, the most important quote is this one:
When information arrives, how many folks ask themselves: How was this information acquired? Is it complete? Is it accurate? Is it biased. Is it relevant? Is there enough detail? Do I accept it because it reinforces what I think I know, or do I reject it for the same reason? How can I verify it? How can I test it? If I can’t test and verify the information, do I accept it anyway? If so, why?
Those who fail to ask themselves such questions place themselves and those who depend on them, at a significant disadvantage – they will always be at the mercy of those who can observe the universe critically, adjust their worldview appropriately, decide and act.
I have an affinity for that type of inquiry because I am an accredited professional in information warfare – I hold an MBA with a subspecialty in marketing. Some segment of society wages information warfare on the individual practically every day of his or her life. And the individual wages it right back.
I’ve lately been noticing one facet of human thought that is probably closely related to, in fact may be one of (before you nitpick, please remember I said one of) the underlying causes of, true believer syndrome.
Permit me to take a bit of an excursion of ascientific fancy.
When we humans walked the savannahs, death stalked us with pointy teeth and twitching tails. While the human herds relied on each other to look out for danger, each person also double-checked his peers.
Along with that danger came a certain doggedness and trust in one’s own instincts. If a primitive human thought the face of a predator had shown momentarily between the branches of a certain bush, he or she might be inclined to skirt that area even when others in the group see no danger. And, if that human were correct, his or her descendants would be a little more prolific, and a little more cautious, and a little more apt to stick ideas that they knew, or even just suspected, to be true (rather than new ideas that might be more fruitful, but also might be false) than the rest of the herd. Nature is a bit more harsh in punishing false negatives than false positives. We humans are wired to avoid Type II error, because it might eat us.
Mind you, the kind of mind that took the whole scenario apart and figured out that the predator only used those hiding places for certain times of the year when it was migrating and realized that in the other times of the year that tree was a good place to hide to do the human’s own hunting is the kind of mind that would be most useful in a highly technical environment. Unfortunately, that’s also the kind of mind that takes risks and gets eaten more often.
Now, the scenario I just outlined was something I pulled out of…thin air, yeah, that’s it. But I suspect that something very similar actually went into the natural selection of human beings. This is probably also related to our propensity to see patterns where no pattern exists, as my friend Eric said:
We innately despise the idea the universe is random and uncontrollable and grotesquely unfair. It’s contrary to our natures. The same litters of brain cells that help a lemur make it to the next branch or a chimp spot the leopard in the brush just happen, I think, to make it all-to-easy to see order reigning in strings of unrelated and meaningless coincidence.
Human beings tend to believe things long after they’re disproven. The more the belief is tied to pattern recognition, per Eric’s point, the harder it is to shake. I do believe that this is related to the fact that to ancient humans, the face they thought they saw in the acacia tree might just be a lion, whether or not anyone else in the tribe saw it, too.
Once a piece of stupidity gets internalized, it takes a lot of repetition of fact to shake it out of the heads of the majority of people. As Terry Pratchett said: “A lie can run around the world before the truth gets its boots on”.
I would add as a corollary that an old truth is like a barnacle. You have to scrape it off when it’s no longer true, it doesn’t fall off by itself. Received wisdom that has shown itself to be valid, even if only once, is very, very hard to shake. This is true even when that piece of information is manifestly out of date. There might be a lion under that tree after all.
There is, in marketing, a concept called the “first mover advantage”. If the first product to market is given enough lead time, and fills a need well enough, it is often impossible to dislodge for decades, even generations. Think Frisbee. Think Kleenex. The classic example, the classic practitioner of this, is Procter and Gamble.
When P&G launched the first liquid dish detergent, it was billed as the Dawn of a new era. Thousands of housewives gratefully used what was a revolutionary product. Have you ever tried to wash dishes with homemade soap? I have. My grandparents were poor and frugal, and my grandmother made her own pumice and other soaps used for everything from scrubbing tractor parts to dishes to removing the dirt and top layers of skin from a kid’s hands. Using soap to wash dishes sucks. Dawn was and is a great product.
Dawn is still, years after its launch, the leader in its class. Kids use what their moms used. I did. Mom used Dawn, and that’s the brand I bought when I left for college. There are families whose forebears were richer than my grandmother and they are on the fourth generation of Dawn loyalists.
But Dawn is on the expensive side of the category, as it can afford to be, with that kind of loyalty. P&G is also famous for offering several different products to fit various segments of the market. And so, Joy was born. Now, the next time you go to the Wal-Mart, pick up a bottle of Joy and a bottle of Dawn at the same time. Did you realize that they were both P&G products, or did you think they were competing companies? Even if you realized that they were both P&G entities, did you ever look at the patent numbers on the bottles?
Now, I’m not privy to P&G trade secrets, and maybe Joy has a slightly different blend of the surfactants covered in those identical patents, but the smart money is on a common blend with different colorants and perfumes added at the end of the manufacturing process. Perhaps there’s a dilution factor, but I dilute the stuff before using it anyway. I now use Joy, and have ever since I took my first marketing class that used P&G as a case study.
If you pay more for Dawn than for Joy, I believe that you’ve lost a skirmish in the information war, you haven’t scraped the barnacle off of your hull, directly because of what I was talking about: old wisdom is hard to shake and seldom challenged in what we in marketing call a “low involvement purchase”. If there were two identical cars at two different prices, a lot more people would pick up on that because a consumer’s conscious involvement in a purchase is directly proportional to the amount of money at stake – although the Mercury brand always struck me as a little odd in this respect.
But a lot of people who might read the two paragraphs above will still use Dawn.
Conmen, tricksters, marketers and intelligence agents realize that once an idea gets into someone’s head, even if it is disproven in a way that the rational brain realizes is legitimate there is an emotional residue akin to an aftertaste that colors perceptions. Unless the new idea totally dominates the old one, the old one tends to stick. This is at the core of the marketing adage that “perception is reality.
I hold advanced degrees in both marketing and science, so I’ve always been at war with that perception = reality bromide. Perception defines the reaction to reality. The scientific marketer asks “at what point does reality overcome perception in a human’s response to his or her environment”. The “high-involvement” decisions I talked about above give one clue. Even in low involvement decisions, at some level of superiority humans forget the aftertaste and go for a new flavor. Once again, from the P&G archives comes an example that shows that the first mover advantage can be overcome: the story of Tide laundry detergent.
In the 1920s, Americans, even those with washing machines, used soap flakes as detergent. Gray clothes, rings around the collar, and undissolved soap were common, especially in hard water. In 1933, P&G introduced Dreft, the first liquid laundry detergent. It was considerably better than soap flakes in hard water, but only marginally better at heavy soiling. But it was the first mover, and did reasonably well. During WWII, a P&G scientist defying orders from management to drop the problem (which had been classed as insoluble) came up with the formula for what was to become Tide. The new was orders of magnitude better than Dreft at removing heavy soil. However, it sat on the shelf until wartime restrictions lifted. The delay was probably fortunate for P&G, because, after the war, sales of washing machines skyrocketed, allowing for a spectacular product launch of Tide. Dreft was left in the dust because Tide’s superiority was so great even loyalists had to agree that Tide was better.*
Moving from the realm of commerce, the more insidious form of this phenomenon I call “mental aftertaste” is that on many topics, there is no way for the layman to perform a test such as directly comparing the washing efficacy of Dreft and Tide – a test that would once and for all change their perceptions. In most arenas, once the tone has been set by the first mover, it is extremely, extremely difficult to shake a perception. The evidence has to be overwhelming. You can prove to people that a particular astrologer is a fraud and they will continue to believe in astrology in general. You can show them the studies that have debunked the connection between aspartame and brain tumors, and there is still the fuzzy feeling that aspartame is just not natural, and that there is something wrong with it. Never mind that they can’t articulate exactly what the harmful effect is – it’s just bad. They fall back on the aphorism that artificial things are never good for you (give me azythromycin over mold-derived penicillin any day). And they never acknowledge, probably never realize, that their hostility is tied to the emotional response elicited by those poorly run and poorly reported-upon stories about aspartame and brain cancer. The rational argument has been disproven, but the emotional aftertaste remains.
Conspiracy theories rely on this habit of thought. So do medical myths. How many people still believe that cellphones might cause some form of harm, even if they concede the data show there’s no link to brain cancer? How about high voltage lines?
The sad thing is that people who don’t recognize and modulate (not eliminate, modulate) this tendency of human thought become sheep at best, conspiracy theorists at worst. For the last several years the anti-vaccinationists have been taking a beating on the logical front with several studies giving pretty good evidence that there is no link between the thimerosol preservative formerly used in vaccines and the incidence of autism.
At the beginning of this year, several very shocking revelations about the ethics of the lead author of the original study that should have demolished any credibility that the MMR / Gut / Measles Virus hypothesis ever had. Andrew Wakefield faked the data. He made inappropriate compensation to his subjects for their participation. He was paid by ambulance chasers to find a link between vaccines and autism. His work is totally discredited.
And yet, even when forced to acknowledge that there is no link between either the measles virus or thimerosol (now completely absent from vaccines) and autism, parents in the Autism community will still look at vaccines with suspicion. Any minor news item about adverse reactions to vaccines, no matter how rare, no matter how mild, will be freshly jumped upon with cries of “see, we were right!”. It’s sad, really, considering all the people this has harmed. The well has been poisoned, and even after the poison has been neutralized, everyone thinks they taste almonds in the water.
I’m willing to bet something similar will happen with the LHC. Even though the major doomsayers Wagner, Plaga, and Rössler have been exposed as cranks and frauds, people are still uneasy about the collider, not because of anything specific, but because the emotional aftertaste of the Wagner lawsuits has primed them to believing that there is something vaguely sinister about the experiment. When scientists, with very good reasons, laugh at their fears, it’s called arrogance. And yet, had Wagner and Rössler not come to the fore, would anyone think twice about the safety of the machine? Other than the very mundane, but very real concern of mechanical failure, that is?
The current, somewhat spurious parallels being drawn between today’s financial crisis and the Great Depression fit into this pattern as well. The aftertaste of the “Fear Itself” speech gives Rosevelt’s policies a sheen they don’t deserve. But given the long lead that pro-Rosevelt hagiography has in the school system, it’s unlikely that the vast majority of Americans are going to realize the harm that came with the New Deal and wash the taste out of their mouths. But people determined to learn from history take the view that, as as Greg Mankiw put it:
When evaluating political leaders, it is better to trust “the moot mathematics of economics” than “the impression of recovery.”
Our human habits of thought make us susceptible to certain weapons in the information warfare arsenal. This is a weakness. But not a totally harmful one. In fact, I think that it is likely that having this weakness also gives us the ability to experience hope. One reason I am such a fan of science, to the point where I actually became a professional in it, is the power of the scientific method to counteract human gullibility while preserving hope.
Scientists have a lot of personality quirks and annoying traits, but the one trait that is much more common in that tribe than in the general population, one the general population would do well to emulate, is the forced habit of washing one’s brain of previously held notions when evidence – tested evidence – proves those notions wrong.
*People with small children will probably immediately recognize that P&G made lemons out of lemonade by repositioning Dreft as a more gentle detergent suitable for infant clothes.