Saturday, October 29, 2016

How To Discipline Your Credulity

     Wishful thinking – the desire to believe what one wishes to be true – is at the root of many a problem in the affairs of men. As we approach Election Day 2016, quite a lot of persons on both sides of the contest are predicting their side’s victory. They’re quite confident about it. Yet only one candidate can win.

     Imagine that one or the other candidate were to learn, with high confidence, that he was to be defeated, and therefore that further prosecuting his campaign was pointless. What would he do?

     Well, he might solicit second and third opinions, hoping for a revision of that grim forecast. Or he might accept the predestined defeat and “get his resume out,” as we in the private sector are known to do when it appears that our jobs are endangered. What he wouldn’t do, once he’d received sufficient confirmation to convince him that his defeat is foreordained, is carry on exactly as before. That would be a pointless waste of his time, energy, and money.

     We seldom see this in presidential contests. Several contests of recent years have come as close to “locked up tight” well before Election Day that the eventual loser should have known the axe was about to fall. Yet none of them accepted defeat before the votes were in. Wishful thinking proved more powerful than any amount of predictive information – and in 1964, 1972, and 1984, there was plenty of predictive information, all of it quite clear as to the eventual result.

     Wishful thinking is a factor among the enlistees of a presidential candidate, as well. The writing can be on the wall in ten thousand point type, but they want to believe “he still has a chance,” so they do believe it: not all, but some, often a strong majority. They must if they’re to continue to labor for him. And those enlistees, often including a great many unpaid volunteers, go on to the bitter end, squandering their time, energy, and money on a hopelessly lost cause.

     Scientists know all about wishful thinking and its destructive power. We’ve all read about the Piltdown Man, Trofim Lysenko’s “vernalization,” Rene Blondlot and the “N-rays” that only he could perceive. We’ve been forced to evolve a defense against it – and we have, and it works very, very well:

When you realize that you really want a particular result, immediately start compiling all the reasons it won’t occur.

     You must be absolutely honest about that effort:

  • Omit no possible indicator, however dubious.
  • Collect cross-confirmations from as many sources as possible.
  • Don’t downplay any of them, even if there are potential countermeasures.

     This, of course, is easier when the subject at controversy is natural law: the ability to predict the response to a stimulus applied to a specified context. But it’s applicable to elections, albeit with greater difficulty.

     Do you want your candidate to win? Of course you do. So start collecting all the indicators that he’ll lose. Next to each one, put any possible countermeasures, whether they’ve been attempted yet, and if so what resulted. Keep it all in a list that you update frequently. And when the writing is on the wall and there’s no course that will lead to victory given the time and resources remaining, accept it. Kick back with a good book, a glass of brandy, and a cat.

     It works for me.

1 comment:

Manu said...

Donald Trump isn't exactly "my candidate" but even so, I would prefer that he win. The polls strike me as biased or misleading -- and maybe that's wishful thinking. FiveThirtyEight says something like 20% chance that Trump will win, but I think they are missing out on the voters who are in the "Trump Closet".

I figure when in doubt, go with the Vegas betting odds. Vegas gives him something like a 1 in 3 chance to win, last time I looked, and I figure that's the most accurate odds we're going to get.

So definitely going into this as the underdog, but not entirely hopeless, either.