Have you ever seen a swan? If so, how many have you seen?
For four years, my family lived on a pond that we shared with a family of swans. I saw this one family a lot. More recently, I’ve seen a few more swans, but given that swans live long, maintain monogamous relationships, and tend to remain in the same habitat, I suspect I’ve been seeing the same swans over and over again. I’d take a wild guess that I’ve seen a total of thirty swans in my life. You might ask yourself the same question now: how many do you suppose you’ve seen? (We’ll return to the matter of swans in a moment.)
I’ve been on vacation in Florida, so it’s been a couple of weeks since my last WMBW post. During the holidays I was able to read a couple of excellent books: one of them, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the psychologist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, asserts that we have two systems in our brains – one designed to produce immediate beliefs, the other to size things up more carefully. The other, Being Wrong, by journalist Kathryn Schulz, explores both the reasons we err and the emotional costs of recognizing our wrongness. Both books have done much to clarify my intuitive beliefs about error. If you suspect this is a case of “confirmation bias” you’re probably right – but at least my confirmation bias gives me a defense to those who say admitting doubt is tantamount to having no beliefs at all. (I can’t have a bias in favor of a belief unless I have a belief to begin with, right?)
Well, to those who fear that I totter on the brink of nihilism, I assure you I do have beliefs. And perhaps my strongest belief is that we human beings err – a lot. Since starting this website, I’ve started to see people committing errors with truly alarming frequency. The experience helps me understand witch hunts, as I now see error the way Cotton Mather saw witches and Joe McCarthy saw communists – everywhere. The difference, I’d submit, is that Cotton Mather never suspected himself of being a witch, and Joe McCarthy never suspected himself of being a communist. In contrast, I see myself being wrong every day. In fact, most of the errors I’ve been discovering lately have been my own.
My willingness to admit to chronic wrongness may be partly due to the fact that Schulz devotes much of her book to rehabilitating the reputation of wrongness – pointing out that, far from being the shameful thing most of us consider it to be, wrongness is endemic to who we are and how we think – specifically, to our most common method of rational thought – reasoning by induction.
Consider this diagram:
Reasoning by induction, says Schulz, is what causes even a four year old child to “correctly” answer the question of what lies behind the dark rectangle. By way of contrast, she says, a computer can’t answer such a puzzle. The reason? A computer is “smart” enough to understand that the dark rectangle may hide an infinite number of things, from a stop sign to a bunny rabbit to a naked picture of Lindsay Lohan. Without inductive reasoning, the computer will have to consider (and reject) an infinite number of possibilities before deciding on an answer. We humans, on the other hand, are much more efficient – we’re able to form nearly instantaneous conclusions, not by considering all the possibilities we don’t see, but by coming up with plausible explanations for what we do see. Even to a four year old child, it seems highly probable that the image behind the dark rectangle is the unseen middle of the white bar behind it. It’s certainly plausible, so we immediately adopt it as a belief, without having to exhaust an endless list of other explanations. Inductive reasoning makes us the intelligent, quick-thinking creatures we are.
In his book, Daniel Kahneman calls this WYSIATI. His acronym stands for “What you see is all there is.” Like Schulz, he points out that this is how human beings generally think – by forming plausible beliefs on the basis of the things we see, rather than by tediously rejecting an endless list of things we don’t. And, like Schulz, he gives this sort of thinking credit for a good deal of the power of the human brain.
But there’s a downside, a cost to such efficiency, which brings us back to swans. If you’re like me, you probably believe that swans are white, no?
“Which swans?” you might ask.
“Well,” I might well reply, “all of them.”
I first formed the belief that swans are white after seeing just a handful of them. Once I’d see a dozen, I’d become pretty sure all of them were white. And by the time I’d seen my thirteenth swan, and my fourteenth, confirmation bias had kicked in, leaving me convinced that my belief in the whiteness of swans was valid. It only took one or two more swans before I was convinced that all swans are white. Schulz says it was the philosopher Karl Popper who asked, “How can I be sure that all swans are white if I myself have seen only a tiny fraction of all the swans that have ever existed?”
Schulz observes that as children, we likely observed someone flipping a light switch only a few times before concluding that flipping switches always turns on lights. After seeing a very small sample – say, a golden retriever, a shih tzu, and Scooby Doo — children have sufficient information to understand the concept of “dog.” We form out beliefs based on very small samples.
Kahneman describes how and why it’s so common for groups to underestimate how long a project will take: the group imagines all the steps they anticipate, adding up the time each step will take; it factors in a few delays it reasonably foresees, and the time such delays will likely take; and it even builds in an extra cushion, to give it some wiggle room. But almost invariably, it underestimates the time its project ends up taking, because in fact, the number of things that could cause delays is virtually infinite and, well, you can’t know what you don’t know. In a sense, to use Kahnemen’s phrase, you can’t help but feel that “what you see is all there is.”
Now here’s what I think is a critical point. The way inductive reasoning takes such very small samples and draws global conclusions about them makes sense when worlds are very small. If the child’s world is her own house, it’s probably true that all the wall switches turn on lights – it’s only when she enters factories and astronomical observatories years later that wall switches turn on giant engines and rotate telescopes. Here in Virginia, all swans probably are white; I’ll only see black swans if I go to Australia or South America, which I may never do. There wasn’t much problem thinking of the world as flat until there were ocean voyages and jetliners. Both as individuals, and as a species, we grow up in very small, homogeneous worlds in which our inductive reasoning serves us well.
But the real world is more varied and complex. It’s when we expand our frames of reference – when we encounter peoples, cultures and worlds different from those of our youth – that what we “know to be true” is likeliest to be challenged. And by that time, we’ve become convinced that we’re right. All experience has proven it. Everyone we know knows the truth of what we know. After all, our very conceptions of self, and of our worth, and our very comfort, depends on our being right about the Truth.
More, later, about the emotions involved when one of these strangers challenges that which we know to be true.