Homeopathic vodka

In this short video, the initiators of the ten 23 campaign against homeopathy create some 30C vodka: in other words, vodka that has been diluted in water until not a single atom of the original remains. Should it be available on the National Health Service?

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Want promotion? Don’t copy your boss.

An interesting round-up from BPS Research Digest describes a series of experiments that identify what is being called a social comparison bias. This seems to be a specific kind of self-serving bias, in which people choose to promote others whose strengths are different from their own. The researchers argue that this is a kind of defensive mechanism in which people try to preserve the importance of their individual strengths.

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What is Bayesianism? Why should you care?

I’m hugely grateful to Ignite Bristol for allowing me to open their second night with this 5 minute talk about probability, and to the film crew for doing such a professional job.

Though lots has been written about Bayes, I wanted to convey to a lay audience what he achieved and why it’s so important now. Here is an attempt at a set of “footnotes” for anyone who wants to follow up: Read the rest of this entry »

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Monkeys show loss aversion, too

Given a choice between a risky decision and a safe decision, people choose differently depending on whether the payoffs are described as a gain or losses. This is known as “loss aversion”. Laurie Santos and her colleagues worked out how to give monkeys a choice that could be presented either as a gain or loss. Their choice patterns matched the behaviour of humans, as she reveals in this TED talk which really gets going after about eight minutes. It turns out that “a monkey financial advisor is just as dumb as your human financial advisor.”

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Deliberate wrongness: a strategy to avoid confirmation bias

Continuing my coverage of the blogs that discuss confirmation bias, I’m pleased to see Scott H Young’s post “Why I’ve Decided to Be Wrong More Often”, in which he discusses what you can do to be less biased in life. He recommends deliberately seeking out contrary opinions.

I also leave myself open to being wrong, and seek out ideas that disagree with me. I try to read books from authors with whom I disagree with. I pay most attention to commenters who argue against an article I’ve written.

More central to his strategy is to accept that mistakes are inevitable, to prepare for them and to learn from them. This involves being open to the possibility of being wrong on quite fundamental things, including political or cultural beliefs that are tied up with personal identity. It also involves self-forgiveness: accept that you were wrong, learn and move on.

My goal is to be wrong about one big idea in my life, business or philosophy every month. I know if I’m not having big moments of wrongness at this frequency, it’s almost certainly because I’m ignoring other perspectives, not because I’m infallible.

There’s an analogy with being a venture capitalist: if all of the projects they back turn out to be viable, it suggests they would haven’t taken enough risk. Venture capitalists will aim to have a certain proportion of failures among the start-ups they back, though obviously at the time they don’t know which will succeed and which will fail.

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Confirmation bias and emergency medicine

I’ve been following with interest the discussion of confirmation bias on Twitter, blogs and Wikipedia discussion. My favourite of the blog posts is one by Rogue Medic which expands on and talks through the Francis Bacon quote which appears in the Wikipedia article. It highlights another area where confirmation bias can lead to disaster.

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Reflections on writing about Confirmation bias

A year ago, the Wikipedia article on Confirmation bias was in a poor state. Whoever had written it was well-intentioned but they’d been working from a small number of sources and perhaps hadn’t seen the big picture. I started a substantial rewrite. The community gave me a lot of help to make the text accessible, and a couple of weeks ago it reached the highest quality standard on Wikipedia: Featured Article. (“Confirmation bias” as it was on 10th August 2009 vs “Confirmation bias” now).

This week I learned it has been chosen as “Today’s Featured Article” for tomorrow (Friday 23rd July). A one-paragraph summary will appear on the front page, where it can be seen by around four million users. Around sixty thousand will click through to the article itself. It will also be seen through the dozen or so sites that mirror Wikipedia. With this new prominence, it is more likely the article will be translated into other languages (extracts have already been translated into Spanish and Catalan). The are also other delivery platforms: I’m already planning a spoken version of the article, but won’t have time to do it before tomorrow. Being naturally the first Google hit for “confirmation bias”, the article has a high prominence (getting nearly a thousand hits per day) and it is regularly recommended and discussed on blogs, online communities such as Reddit.

So, it’s fascinating to watch the ripple effect of this article to which I’ve contributed. Confirmation bias is something you’d definitely hear about if you do certain courses within a psychology degree, but it’s not exactly the sort of topic that you would expect to see stories about in the newspaper or the evening news. Hence it’s significant that perhaps millions of people will hear about it through this article.  To be honest, this provokes mixed feelings. Read the rest of this entry »

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