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Dust on Your Lens: Gravitational Waves and Cognitive Biases

Scientists are always looking for the next Big Thing so they all got excited several months ago about what looked like the discovery of the long-predicted gravitational waves. I got pretty excited too. I even blogged about it (“Ripples In Corporate Space-Time: Do Companies Have An Internal Clock?”). Now it looks like it was wrong. Dust on the lens apparently. What a downer.

Now here’s a thought. You can be pretty sure that these scientists (from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, no less) had all the high-tech gear necessary to see invisible waves at a distance of untold zillions of miles.

I remember when I read the report being overawed by the procedures they had gone to get the measurements. Cryogenically-cooled what nots, measurements trillions of times smaller than a human hair, oodles of mathematical corrections and thingamujibs, and then after all that, lots of peer-review. So they had to jump over a lot of really big obstacles. And yet the “discovery” was still wrong.

So all these high-powered scientists from an ultra-prestigious institution of highest research with all their super-duper equipment and incredibly careful experimentation and analysis still got it wrong. And it was a really big thing to get wrong too. Reports were carried in all the global media because discovering gravitational waves is a bit like Newton ‘discovering” gravity, or the laws of motion, or Einstein’s E=MC2. Right up there with the discovery of the wheel or chocolate-covered raisins.

I guess the simplest explanation was that they saw what they wanted to see. Seen the right way even dust on a lens could be seen as being gravitational waves right? Like seeing a picture in the clouds or doing a Gestalt test. Much of our lives as humans is about seeing things that we want to see that really aren’t there but that we really, really want to be there. Our brain then obliges.

And for most humans at most times such innocent deceits are key to a happy life on earth and even to our survival. Being under an illusion that all is good when it isn’t is a pretty useful coping mechanism for most humans at most times.

And if you believe hard enough, you can get a high on having a purpose in life: religion, or some other interest or belief that keeps you going happily until life’s end. So I am definitely not against believing what you want to believe.

But occasionally you still need to be aware of what’s going on under your hood, so to speak, so you don’t get totally bamboozled, like these Harvard/Smithsonian guys, or the Japanese team (at RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology) that published their research about having found a snazzy new way of growing pluripotent stem cells, which was not only wrong but maybe at least partly fraudulent. But it still started off by people wanting to believe in a simpler, cheaper way of growing stem cells.

So we can see that even if you a are super-smart nerd with a sky-high IQ, working in a super-respected research center, holding impressive degrees and masses of highly-cited publications, you can still get it wrong.

Seems like the problem of having dust on your lens is not just for physical scientists. It’s also the same for analysts using unsuccessful but hallowed methods for predicting the performance of companies, or, or for predicting why people behave in certain ways. Or, controversially, predicting climate change with based on the belief that we understand enough to accurately explain and predict what’s going on in our hyper-sensitive little planet.

Cognitive biases are a hot little topic in the new disciplines of behavioral economics and behavioral finance and they have hit the big time through these fashionable and insightful new disciplines.

But it’s clear that the cognitive biases that throw dust on our shades don’t just exist in the social and economic sciences. They exist everywhere. And they can be very, very difficult to spot, even by the smartest guys with the most expensive toys, even when they have other super-smart guys and gals peering over their shoulders.

That is at least partly because, if you have super-smart guys peering over your shoulder who have the same worldview as you do and believe the same sorts of things that you do, and share the same types of friends, then it’s easy for them all to think that the dust on their lens is actually the real McCoy.

The principle works in science, politics, and knowledge generally. It has occupied the waking thoughts of philosophers for many thousands of years. It will occupy them for as long as the human race continues which won’t be very long at the rate we are going.

What do you know for sure that could also be dust on your lens?



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