Thursday, December 15, 2005

Odds on the Obvious

The Web has nothing over The New Yorker when it comes to serving up delicious, inadvertent connections.

The December 5th issue includes Margaret Talbot's "Darwin in the Dock: Intelligent design has its day in court," about the Pennsylvania court case "testing whether it is constitutional for public-school classes to present the argument of intelligent design." You can't get the article online, but you can read an interview with Talbot here.

Talbot provides a telling portrait of the single-minded creationism/ID adherents who penetrated the Dover, PA, School Board and the overmatched intellects who stump for ID. Near the end, she quotes one witness for the defense (i.e., the ID supporters) who opined: '[I]t might be interesting if science was 'reconfigured so that the notion of design would be taken as a kind of literal unifying concept.'"

It sounds a bit like a restatement of the Clockmaker Argument — the existence of a clock is evidence of the existence of a clockmaker. But it also seems to say, forget about the Old Testament God, let science do its thing, and look at design for what it is: a process that incorporates variation, accidents and incremental improvements in service of some purpose. Design, any designer will tell you, is highly evolutionary. A designer rarely starts with a creation. Instead, she creates and then kills off ideas along the path to solving a problem in the most elegant and true way.

Or maybe that's not what he meant at all....

In the same issue, a review of Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know doesn't get into the science of evolution, but the book's findings do suggest some interesting parallels:

Most people tend to dismiss new information that doesn't fit with what they already believe. Tetlock found that his experts used a double standard: they were much tougher in assessing the validity of information that undercut their theory than they were in crediting information that supported it. The same deficiency leads liberals to read only The Nation and conservatives to read only National Review. We are natural falsificationists: we would rather find reasons for believing what we already believe than look for reasons that we might be wrong.

This trait cuts both ways. Though we are capable of blindness, we don't know it. We only think the others are blind.

Also, people tend to see the future as indeterminate and the past as inevitable. If you look backward, the dots that lead up to Hitler or the fall of the Soviet Union or the attacks on September 11th all connect. If you look forward, it's just a random scatter of dots, many potential chains of causation leading to many possible outcomes.

Hmm... What does that remind me of?

And, like most of us, experts violate a fundamental rule of probabilities by tending to find scenarios with more variables more likely.

In fact, the reviewer points out, when more events have to align, the scenario is less likely to result. So we are not greeted as liberators, and the troops don't go home in six months.

Although Tetlock's book is talking about political prognostication and why it's often incorrect, could these and other principles apply to other sorts of expertise? Could we be looking at the fossil record and other evidence slightly off because of these human flaws? Maybe not the way the creationists want us to, but closer to their appreciation of simplicity versus the expert's grasp of complexity.

After all, says reviewer Louis Menand, in explaining why specialists fail to outguess the average Joe, "The odds tend to be with the obvious."

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