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Confirmation Bias, Illustrated

From Six Chix


Precision and Accuracy

While it might seem an exercise in splitting hairs, in Approximate quotations by Mark Liberman, the author opens up the basis for a good discussion on the differences between approximation, precision and accuracy.  All three aspects are important and necessary but they are different and are each more appropriate in different contexts.

An approximate quote can yield a better general sense of what was being communicated but then the accuracy depends on the interpretation of the journalist.  A direct quote as from a transcript is more precise but more burdensome to the reader.

Sometimes the need for precision is paramount.  On other occasions, an approximation is more efficient.  It is a matter of horses for courses, as long as we keep the distinction between precision and accuracy clear.

Fairy tales masquerading as evidence

Science bible stories, take 27 by Mark Liberman is a useful discussion (including in the comments) about the tendency of media to take up a topical research paper without regard to the methodological robustness of the study or whether the results are meaningfully true.

As I observed a few years ago, “scientific studies”  have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It’s only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they’re true. For most people, it’s enough that they can be interpreted to be morally instructive.


I’d add a third important factor: by and large, the “wise men” (and now the “wise women”) don’t really care about whether the empirical and theoretical foundations of their opinions are sound . They care about readers, ratings, and reputation — and in some cases about political outcomes or cultural values —  with truth relevant only insofar as it affects those goals.

I think Liberman is correct.  People rarely consider what evidence they need in order to make an argument, instead they go after information that is convenient to get.  At the same time, the market structure for ideas and information is such that there are incentives to produce affirming information to a range of prejudices, regardless of the truth of the matter.  Elsewhere I refer to this as cognitive pollution as it constitutes dirt in the system that tends to occlude rather than clarify.

RELATED:  The culturomic psychology of urbanization by Mark Liberman

To analyze does not necessarily mean to produce useful information

From Reviewing the Movies: Audiences vs. Critics by Catherine Rampell.

It is a fair and interesting question or set of questions.  Do audiences and critics assess movies in different ways?  If so, in what ways do they differ?  Which views, audience or critics, provide a better forecast of future performance?  These questions apply to art, sports, books, etc. There are answers to some of these questions.  The general informed public and specialists do tend to review things differently.  General informed public tend to factor in more context and larger macro considerations than do specialists.  General informed public tend to be better forecasters than are specialists.  Nate Silver covers a lot of this in his The Signal and The Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t
What is notable is that Rampell asks a legitimate question and has an idea on how to answer the question.  Her error is to use information that is available (Rotten Tomatoes Database) rather than information that is needed.  There is a fairly detailed critique of her analysis in the comments.  The article serves as an example of Selection Bias (the distortion of a statistical analysis, resulting from the method of collecting samples) and Information Bias (the tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect action), and possible Mere Exposure Bias (the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them).


Almost all Americans devoutly believe, the liberal, market principles on which our country is built will triumph around the world.

From Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East by Walter Russell Mead.  Read the whole thing.

The end of history, which AI founder Francis Fukuyama used to describe the historical implications of the Cold War, is to American political philosophy what the Second Coming is to Christians. In the end, almost all Americans devoutly believe, the liberal, market principles on which our country is built will triumph around the world. Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East and even Russia will some day become democratic societies with market economies softened by welfare states and social safety nets. As a nation, we believe that democracy is both morally better and more practical than other forms of government, and that a regulated market economy offers the only long term path to national prosperity. As democracy and capitalism spread their wonder-working wings across the world, peace will descend on suffering humanity and history as we’ve known it will be at an end.


It seems misanthropic to doubt that a particular country isn’t on the road to freedom and prosperity, and it also seems like heresy against our national creed. That tendency is reinforced among our policy elite and chattering classes. The “experts” ought to know better and be more skeptical, but they are often more naive and more dogmatic than the American people at large. It is often the best educated and connected who are most confident, for example, that political science maxims work better than historical knowledge and reflection when it comes to analyzing events and predicting developments. When democratic peace theory or some other beautiful intellectual system (backed with regressions and statistically significant correlations in all their austere beauty) adds its weight to the national political religion, a reasonable faith can morph into blind zeal. Bad things often follow.

What Americans often miss is that while democratic liberal capitalism may be where humanity is heading, not everybody is going to get there tomorrow. This is not simply because some leaders selfishly seek their own power or because evil ideologies take root in unhappy lands. It is also because while liberal capitalist democracy may well be the best way to order human societies from an abstract point of view, not every human society is ready and able to do walk that road now. Some aren’t ready because like Haiti they face such crippling problems that having a government, any government, that effectively enforces the law and provides basic services across the country is beyond their grasp. Some aren’t ready because religious or ethnic tensions would rip a particular country apart and cause civil war. Some aren’t ready because the gap between the values, social structures and culture of a particular society make various aspects of liberal capitalism either distasteful or impractical. In many places, the fact that liberal democratic capitalism is historically associated with western imperialism and arrogance has poisoned the well. People simply do not believe that this foreign system will work for them, and they blame many of the problems they face on the countries in Europe and North America who so loudly proclaim the superiority of a system they feel has victimized them.


Americans need to face an unpleasant fact: while American values may be the answer long term to the Middle East’s problems, they are largely irrelevant to much that is happening there now. We are not going to stop terrorism, at least not in the short or middle term, by building prosperous democratic societies in the Middle East. We can’t fix Pakistan, we can’t fix Egypt, we can’t fix Iraq, we can’t fix Saudi Arabia and we can’t fix Syria. Not even the people who live in those countries can fix them at this point; what has gone wrong is so deeply rooted and so multifaceted that nothing anybody can do will turn them into good candidates for membership in the European Union anytime soon. If we could turn Pakistan into Denmark, the terrorists there would probably settle down—but that isn’t going to happen on any policy-relevant timetable. We must deal with terrorism (and our other interests in the region) in a world in which the basic conditions that breed terrorists aren’t going away.

All this should challenge the application of the antismoking model to obesity.

In The Making of the Obesity Epidemic: How Food Activism Led Public Health Astray  by Helen Lee, the author makes the argument that the nature of obesity is misunderstood, that the evidence of the ill-effects of obesity are poorly understood, and that public policy has been ineffective.  In addition, the author makes the claim that a significant part of policy ineffectiveness arises because the public health community mistook the lessons of the campaign against smoking and attempted to apply the same approaches in the smoking campaign to the campaign against obesity, expecting similar results when in fact the two issues were different and the approaches to one could not be extrapolated to the other.

All this should challenge the application of the antismoking model to obesity. Where smoking can be banned, overeating cannot be. The two behaviors are similar only in that they, like much else we do, are factors in health. There is no secondhand eating. Nor can there be “no overeating” sections of restaurants and airplanes. Overeating and unhealthy foods are fuzzily, subjectively, and variously defined, whereas we can all agree on what smoking and cigarettes are. What that means is that unhealthy foods will remain widely available — even more available than cigarettes, which can still be found at any corner store. If history is any guide, food availability and diversity are likely to increase, not decrease.

On the importance of clarity

From July 29, 2013 The New Yorker.

Journalistic train wreck

S. Dakota Indian Foster Care 1: Investigative Storytelling Gone Awry by Edward Schumacher-Matos

A year long investigation led to a three part radio series with serious allegations of moral, financial and legal malfeasance.  The ombudsman of the news organization, NPR, then spent a year and a half investigating allegations that the substantial majority of the news report was misleading and factually incorrect.  As with any major dust-up there are points and counter-points.  It appears though that, on balance, the ombudsman is right, that the report departed from the organization’s own journalistic standards and ethics in material ways.

It is worth reading to reinforce 1) that there are always two perspectives (or more), 2) that even reporting from organizations with resources and a reputation for integrity can be dramatically wrong, 3) that misplaced and unquestioned assumptions were likely a material contributor to a journalistic train wreck, 4) that a compelling narrative arc is no substitute for factual accuracy, 5) that context is critical, and 6) journalistic accolades and awards can go to reports that are materially wrong.

I ought to have eaten a pretzel in the first place!

From Fables and Fairy Tales by Leo Tolstoy, page 37.  An example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, combined with the availability heuristic.

Three Rolls a Pretzel

Feeling hungry one day, a peasant bought himself a large roll and ate it. But he was still hungry, so he bought another roll and ate it. Still hungry he bought a third roll and ate it. When the three rolls failed to satisfy his hunger, he bought some pretzels. After eating one pretzel he no longer felt hungry.

Suddenly he clapped his hand to his head and cried:
“What a fool I am! Why did I waste all those rolls? I ought to have eaten a pretzel in the first place!”

Taking the last link in the chain of events and stopping there invites misdiagnosis of a situation.  It is not uncommon that a team will seize on the most recent cause as the most obvious cause, will already be halfway towards solving the problem (“Always stick with pretzels”) and won’t want to go back and look at root causes.

Sharing the decision

Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers.

Originator of the term early adopters, Rogers laid the foundation for much contemporary work on the diffusion of ideas. His model remains in wide circulation.

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