Monday, February 28, 2011

Why We Put So Much Stock In Expert Predictions

From Dan Gardner's Future Babble:
The world is complicated – too complicated to be predicted. And while the human brain may be magnificent, it is not perfect, thanks to a jumble of cognitive wiring that makes systematic mistakes. Try to predict an unpredictable world using an error-prone brain and you get the gaffes that litter history. As for why we believe expert predictions, the answer lies ultimately in our hard-wired aversion to uncertainty. People want to know what’s happening now and what will happen in the future, and admitting we don’t know can be profoundly disturbing. So we try to eliminate uncertainty however we can. We see patterns where there are none. We treat random results as if they are meaningful. And we treasure stories that replace the complexity and uncertainty of reality with simple narratives about what’s happening and what will happen.  
Sometimes we create these stories ourselves, but, even with the human mind’s bountiful capacity for self-delusion, it can be hard to fool ourselves into thinking we know what the future holds for the stock market, the climate, the price of oil, or a thousand other pressing issues. So we look to experts. They must know. They have Ph.D.s, prizes, and offices in major universities. And thanks to the news media’s preference for the simple and dramatic, the sort of expert we are likely to hear from is confident and conclusive. They know what will happen; they are certain of it. We like that because that is how we want to feel. And so we convince ourselves that these wise men and women can do what wise men and women have never been able to do before. Fundamentally, we believe because we want to believe.
I fundamentally believe that the world is much, much more complex than it is generally made out to be. I'll be writing more about this and other themes related to it in the coming weeks.

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