This is the second post in a three part series on being a scientist in a post-fact world. The first post explored the history of how we got here. This post focuses on the fact that social scientists have pretty much known for a long time that most humans decisions are not taken based on facts and helped by increased understanding. The third will attempt to look at what scientists living in a post-fact world should do.
I am by no means a social scientist. But I most definitely recognize their existence and the validity of the work. Therefore as an honest scientist, I should first look at what is in the literature and rigorously studied before leaping to and giving primacy to my own intuitive ideas about how people’s minds work.
If I were to summarize the findings in a few words its that humans don’t base their thinking and behavioral decisions on fact-informed logic. Computers do. Spock does (did?). Academics pretend we do. Scientists arguably do in the aggregate across all scientists, but demonstrably don’t as individuals. And most humans don’t even pretend to be logical-factual in their decision making processes.
Here is a blitzkreig summary of social science literature on human decision making (so short as to be almost insulting to the complexities of the field, but hopefully digestible):
- Humans are short term thinkers – economists have formalized this in the notion of the discount rate. Businesses often use a discount rate of about 8%. That means that $100 today is worth about twice as much as $100 given to me 9 years from now, and four times as much as $100 given to me 18 years from now. Note this has nothing to do with inflation. It is a statement about how much humans are willing to defer gratification. Economists treat this as a rational behavior. You may or may not see this as rational. But it sure explains a lot about why it is really really hard to get people to care about graphs of the impacts of climate change that have a title with the year 2080 in it. Problems in 2080 press on me about 0.52% or roughly 1/200th as much as the problems I have today. Climate change is going to have to to be 200x more impactful on my life than finishing my dissertation, get tenure or raising my kids are this year.
- Humans have diverse, ordered needs – Maslow famously identified a hierarchy of needs. The idea is that humans only worry about higher level needs after lower level ones are addressed. The first priorities are physiological (food+warmth), then security (physical safety). Then comes social belonging/love followed by esteem/prestige. At the top of the list is self-actualization. Now, to be sure Maslow’s hierarchy is a simplification, and it has been corrected and amended to death, but the original idea remains compelling for capturing some core ideas. Where does keeping the planet protected come in? Where does appreciating a cool butterfly? or appreciating biodiversity? They’re certainly pretty high in the list (i.e. low priority), quite probably only at the tippy-top actualization level. UNLESS they become part of social belonging and self-esteem, which leads immediately to …
- Humans make a lot of choices as expressions of identity and belonging – A great deal of human behavior is made as a signal of what group one belongs to more than a carefully thought out story. A great example is climate change. Circa 2000 polls showed that the best demographic predictor of belief in climate change was education level (more education made one more likely to believe in climate change). But over the 2000s climate change became simply a predictor of political affiliation (in the US Democrats were more likely to believe in climate change than Republicans). Climate change become a badge of identity and belonging rather than a fact evaluated based on education. In short, social calculus explains much of our thinking and behavior and explains many things that would otherwise seem irrational.
- Humans have dual circuits for thinking – Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his research on this topic. He calls them fast and slow thinking. Fast thinking can do amazingly complicated things including reading a billboard at high speed. But it is not based on logic or abstract thinking. And it is subject to many biases and fallacies – in short to many errors. Slow thinking is basically our Spock and the only place that applies logic and facts to arrive at novel conclusions. But the point is that a surprising number of our decisions are taken by the error-prone fast thinking part of our brain.
- Human emotions drive much decision making – This comes as a shock to classical economists but not to psychologists nor advertising executives. This simple idea has led to the far more effective campaigns against smoking that involve television campaigns and pictures on cigarette packages that involve disgusting teeth, people recoiling from the smoker etc vs the older campaigns that just put a black-and-white print message on cigarette packs saying “Warning Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health”
Before summarizing the implications of this for a post-fact world, let me briefly comment on how this relates to scientists:
- Scientists are a very unusual subset of human personalities – in a nice paper by Weiler et al 2012 they use the Myers-Briggs personality assessment*. Myers-Briggs identifies four roughly independent axes of personality variation. So each individual’s personality is located in a 4-dimensional space. They compared US climate scientist’s personalities (and other types of scientists) to the general public. What they found is that on one axis (extrovert vs introvert) scientists were no different than the general public (about a 50/50 split in both cases). But on the other 3 axes, scientists were statistically significantly biased towards one end. Most importantly, scientists are more intuiters while the general public is more sensers. These words can be a little misleading but basically intuiters work with abstract thinking, while sensers work with concrete sensory-driven thinking. Scientists are also more thinkers (analytical and looking for cause and effect) than feelers (focused on empathy and personal relationships) (this is the weakest distinction of the three significant axes). Finally scientists are more judgers (prefer linear processes leading to crisp outcomes) than perceivers (happy to follow non-linear processes retaining a cloud of ambiguity). Long before this study, psychologists took the 2^4 (=16) corners of the 4-D space and identified jobs that people with that personality type were typically found in. One personality INTJ (introvert, intuiter, thinker, judger) was actually labelled the scientist box. But INTJ is a rare corner – it is about 1.5% of the population (note that by default each corner should have 6.25% of the population). And ENTJs (extroverts but sharing the other 3 personality traits with INTJ and most scientists) are another 4% of the population So if you read the first part of this post and said “the people I hang out with aren’t this irrational”, it is because you are hanging out with a very weird outlying 5% of the population who are demonstrably unusually prone to linear thinking about cause-effect and abstract processes.
- Scientists work by belief too – But it would be a serious mistake to take this as a badge of exclusionary elitism. All that data above about irrational thought processes applies to scientists too (we are humans before we are scientists). Get really honest with yourself about why you believe in climate change. Is it because you understand the details. Do you know the laws and equations of black-body radiation. It only requires high school algebra and geometry to calculate a rough heat balance of the earth. Have you done it? Can you name the key experiments and observations confirming this theory? Or are you using social processes to decide who you trust and believing in climate change because others say so? And what is the source of your knowledge about CO2 being a greenhouse gas – can you explain why? have you looked at empirical data? or do you “know” it because somebody you trust told you its true? Don’t worry everybody thinks using the “social computer” of many people communicating to each other. We would be absolutely paralyzed if we had to deeply know everything ourselves – even as scientists we have to trust other people to build our cognitive world view (see an interesting-looking book on The Knowledge Illusion – Why we are never thinking alone). We differ from non-scientists only in our criteria for picking who to trust, not in avoiding “knowing” by “trusting”. Or to take a different line of argument, do you know of scientists who have a pursued an idea when it seems hopeless? sometimes they turn out right (and then become famous). One example is the story of Barry Marshall who discovered and proved that stomach ulcers are caused by a bacteria. Starting only with correlational evidence (most ulcers had the same bacteria), her persisted not only against expert opinion but through a series of experiments that would appear to reject his idea, before later experiments confirmed his idea. Lakatos recognizes this aspect very clearly – the hardened core assumptions are chosen by belief and cannot be rejected or accepted. And Kuhn’s idea of scientific revolutions clearly showed that scientists belief systems play an important role. So scientists work by beliefs and trusting others even within science! What is special about science is that we have an adversarial system in which the rules of logic win over majorities of scientists, not because individual scientists are more Spock-like than the rest of humanity.
People decide what to believe and take decisions on how to behave through a complex process in which emotions, social considerations, and error-prone “fast” thinking circuits all play a large role. The logical, analytical, abstract, fact-driven slow-thinking circuits are used fairly rarely. Scientists tend to use their slow-thinking circuits (I’m making a few leaps here) more than most people and so it is bad to generalize from how we think. But even scientists tend to primarily think with emotions and social considerations and “know” things that would probably better be described as “trust” or “believe”. And even within the realm of logical thinking it is not obvious how things far in the future or high up in the Maslow hierarchy of needs should be weighed in. The New Yorker made a similar argument recently in an article entitled “Why facts don’t change our minds?”
So what do you think? Am I overstating the irrationality of human behavior? Of scientists? Should every human think completely rationally and be data-driven about whether to smoke or worry about climate change? Whether they should or not, do they think purely rationally? What does this mean for scientists who want the world to change based on facts we discover?
*Again social scientists have moved beyond Myers-Briggs and lean more to the Big Five Personality traits which has more empirical justification. But Myers-Briggs has been used for decades, many people know how to interpret it, and it has close relationships to the Big Five. Just my opinion, but if you’ve never taken a Myers-Briggs test, it is worth the 20 minutes to see where you come out. You can find lots of decent tests online these days and it may give you some insights about yourself, but mostly it will give you some insights that not everybody else thinks the same way you do.