Predicting The Future, Maybe

I think we’ve all been there.  We’ve either all been playing a game or a sport and seen a gross mis-justice.  The referee got it wrong.  It was such a terrible decision bordering on negligence.  In fact, the ref must surely be taking a bribe.  There are simply no other reasons that he could possibly have made that decision.

Of course, those decision go against your own team more often than not!  This isn’t always victim mentality, though, or poor refereeing! It could be something called “motivated reasoning”.

Motivated reasoning is like confirmation bias on steroids.  Confirmation bias is where you tend to only look at things to confirm your theory, rather than the things that contradict it.  Motivated reasoning takes it to the next level because it causes people to provide elaborate rationales for why the other facts are false or point at something that completely doesn’t make sense.

A friend once enthusiastically told me about an article about online dating which proved everything she wanted to believe about it, but I looked at it and thought “well that’s just not right”.  Our reactions both suited our particular views though.  She found dating fun and easy, so reading an article suggesting a requirement to date most of the country so that you’ll eventually find some perfect is great.  I find dating staggeringly difficult and thus get stupidly nervous meeting new people, so ideally I’d like to believe that I’ll be pretty much a One Person Wonder so I only have to go through that terror once.

In her Ted Talk “Why you think you’re right — even if you’re wrong“, Julia Galef provides the example of a guy called Alfred Dreyfus, a Frenchman accused of military secrets to Germany in 1894.  I don’t want to repeat her entire talk, so I’ll just say that the evidence against Dreyfus was flimsy at best but he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on the aptly named Devil’s Island off the coast of South America anyway.

Another high-ranking officer in the French Army called Colonel Picquart (no, he doesn’t captain the Enterprise, that’s Captain Picard) found evidence that it wasn’t Dreyfus sending the information.  However, when he presented this evidence he was told that Dreyfus was still guilty but that now someone else must be imitating him, and his handwriting!

(The only evidence against Dreyfus – or purported evidence – came from an amateur graphologist who claimed his handwriting was similar to the writing on the torn up noted that started the affair. Even he conceded the writing wasn’t identical, but explained this away by saying that Dreyfus was clearly trying to disguise his true hand.)

Eventually Dreyfus was freed, but it was an arduous process.  Even when he was, it was by presidential pardon rather than exoneration.

According to Galef, though, the interesting thing about Dreyfus’ original conviction was that historians don’t believe there to have been a conspiracy theory around it.  The officers who investigated thought that there was a genuine case against him.

The problem was that they weren’t able to look at everything in front of them impartially and change their mind if they needed to.

The ability to change your mind is a very important skill (in my opinion), although it really only happens when it’s of benefit to us.

A guy called Philip Tetlock, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School did a study on how to predict the future.  In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Tetlock said that the most important factor in forecasting was the ability to change your mind.

MR. ZWEIG: Your work suggests that you want people to update their forecasts and not be too slow to change their minds, right?

MR. TETLOCK: Yes. A key defining feature of the best forecasters is that they update often, and they typically update by relatively small increments.

Tetlock credited the most accurate forecasters as being those who were most open-minded and make small, but frequent, changes to their predictions.

I think Galef’s talk and Tetlock’s research show that if you really want to see things clearly, you’re probably best not being absolutely sure that that’s how you’re seeing it in the first place.

Racy days help me through the hopeless haze
But my oh my…
Tragic eyes, that I can’t even recognize
Myself behind.

So if the answer is no,
Can I change your mind?

Out again, a siren screams at half past ten
And you won’t let go
While I ignore that we both felt like this,
Before it starts to show.

So if I have a chance,
Would you let me know?

Why aren’t you shaking?
Step back in time
Graciously taking –
Oh you’re too kind.

And if the answer is no,
Can I change your mind?

We’re all the same
And love is blind.
The sun is gone
Before it shines.

And I said, if the answer is no,
Can I change your mind?
And if the answer is no,
Can I change your mind?

Change Your Mind by The Killers

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