Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Living in and Combating Distorted Reality

Last time, we talked about the subjectivity of perception and how it can be influenced easily. While it is impractical nor necessary to have complete objectivity all the time, it is critical that we recognize our own limitation and try to reduce undesirable impacts as a result of it. But, how did we get to be like this in the first place?

In life, we continuously and constantly receive information, make observations and sample the physical and virtual spaces around us, and project from the past and present to the future. Thus to begin with, we have a built-in “biased sampling”, in statisticians' terms. Most people can and have reduced such biases significantly by simply increasing their sampling of space/time and number of samples through first or 2nd hand means etc.

Further, we shaped our behavior and values from the feedback received with additional experimentation and re-enforcement as we interact with others and the environment. While this is required for learning, the outcome could be a positive or negative one depending on the circumstances and path. Still, for the most, we often fall into the trap of the so-called confirmed bias in psychology and cognitive science as we constantly look for affirmation of our beliefs, a dangerous trait that is likely to bring us towards to the extremes.

Perhaps the most extreme and oldest illustration I can think of was this 1700-year-old story in Chinese history. When Emperor Hui of Jin dynasty 晋惠帝 was surprised to hear the report that countrymen were starving to death due to shortage of grain, he asked “why don’t people eat meat congee?” Granted that Emperor Hui was supposedly a little retarded, but how could he get the his priorities right when he was so out of touch with reality? No wonder the country suffered so much under his rein. Sadly such problems are more prominent and more threatening as more power/influence are gathered around individuals who still have only the same amount of time each day like you or me!

Once my university professor brother told me a story about his encounter with his then university president’s first lunch visit to the faculty cafeteria. While the prix fixe lunch for the faculty included a choice of one vegetable and one meat entree, the cafeteria served three entrees with one additional meat dish to the President. Without knowing the menu, the president commented joyfully that cafeteria food for the faculty is really good. The story could have ended there and the president could have kept his wrong impression for some time. However my brother did not let it go and responded immediately: “Mr. President, with this visit of yours, we will not have meat entrees for dinner tonight”. Embarrassed and realizing what was happening, the President never returned to the cafeteria, although I thought the better thing to do is for him to make sure he is treated the same way as everyone else.

Yes, the least we all can do is to follow the example of that small child in the famous Danish fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Anderson. He spoke the naked truth that the emperor has nothing on! Of course, that particular fairy tale’s ending was a little disappointing but realistic: the emperor did finish his parade as planned despite the incident, and similarly, President G.W. Bush continues to stick with his Iraq policy....

Now back to bias. While the old and popular saying of “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics” reflects the difficulty in discerning, applying, and interpreting data properly, it is actually not so hard if we can just become aware of, at an intuitive level, one single most fundamental and common problem we have. In more technical terms, it is to recognize the difference between causality and correlation.

Causality refers to the natural concept when one event causes another to happen (at a later time). For example, we all expect if a person doesn’t eat or drink, that person would die within some period of time. Coupled with curiosity and the desire to know why and how things happen, we often hold causality as the natural if not the only model of what is happening around us even when the available data and knowledge do not support it.

This brings us to another model and the concept of correlation that basically states the events considered are not independent of each other. Note it says nothing about if one does or does not cause another, nor assumes the order of events in time. The misuses, intentional or not, and thereby the erroneous and sometimes harmful consequences take place when we take a leap of faith and attributes the causes of an event while there is only evidence of their correlation. When enough of us make similar mistakes and remain unchecked, the results can be irrational customs or practices. One obvious example I can think of is the various forms of superstition in different cultures. Another is the use of herbal and over-the-counter health supplements. While they may be harmless and may even be helpful in some cases, we must be clear that by taking those supplements for whatever the reasons, we must not promote the wrong idea that they WILL cure some problems or lead to better health. This turns out to be hard to do for many especially when some of them stood to gain financially by selling more of those supplements!

In sum, we must be aware of the distinction between causality and correlation in order not to make or propagate significant errors in judgment, and not to be misled and misguided by those who take advantage of our ignorance. This recognition and simple logic is our first line of defense. We must try to have a bit more humility and keep a healthy skepticism. It will go a long way in reducing undesirable biases in our lives.

Talk to you soon!

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