How Fanatics Hack Our Minds

May 1, 2020

In his 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles MacKay wrote, “During seasons of great pestilence men have often believed the prophecies of crazed fanatics, that the end of the world was coming. Credulity is always greatest in times of calamity.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been no shortage of “crazed fanatics.”

n a recent interview, Bill Gates claimed that “normalcy will only return when we’ve vaccinated the entire global population.” Acknowledging that the “economic hit” will be immense, he proclaimed, “but [we] don’t have a choice.” That is, no choice other than to go down the path Gates prescribes.

Then, to deflect criticism from his prescribed path, Gates sets up a mystical strawman opponent who wants to “ignore what’s going on here.”

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel was an architect of Obamacare. Emanuel too proclaimed, “We will not be able to return to normalcy until we find a vaccine or effective medications.”

Rhetorically, Emanuel asked, “How are people supposed to find work if this goes on in some form for a year and a half? Is all that economic pain worth trying to stop COVID-19?”

Emmanuel didn’t invite a dialogue on his questions. He answered his questions with the cry of every other fanatic, “The truth is we have no choice.”

Fanatics proclaim their way is the only way forward and want us to believe “we have no choice.”

Notice, Gates and Emmanuel present a false dilemma, two alternatives: shut down the economy for many months to come or do nothing. You either support the lockdowns, or you’re a threat to public health.

Gates and Emmanuel refuse to acknowledge other possibilities. They fail to see the limitless possibilities that arise from voluntary adjustments by businesses and individuals.

Through this COVID-19 crisis, fanatics have weaponized the false dilemma logical fallacy to obscure “rational, honest debate.” “This insidious tactic has the appearance of forming a logical argument, but under closer scrutiny it becomes evident that there are more possibilities than the either/or choice that is presented.”

You may recognize this tactic in various other forms. You either want educational spending by government to increase, or you’re against education. You either want higher taxes on the “wealthy,” or you want the poor to go without healthcare.

Foxes and Hedgehogs

Those who use the false dilemma tactic and think in black and white terms have the worst records as forecasters. In his book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker reports on the research of University of Pennsylvania professor Philip Tetlock, who interviewed 284 forecasters to understand the makeup of an accurate forecaster from the many more who are “often mistaken but never in doubt.”

Tetlock metaphorically drew on the Greek poet Archilochus who wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” “The hedgehogs are more the big idea people, more decisive,” Tetlock observes. For forecasters, decisiveness is not a good quality. Don’t rely on the forecasts of hedgehogs.

A physician with the mindset of a hedgehog might remove your tonsils to cure repeated sore throats. Medical hedgehogs wouldn’t be knowledgeable of dietary and lifestyle changes that could support your health.

Pinker warns, those “with Big Ideas—left-wing or right-wing, optimistic or pessimistic—which they held with an inspiring (but misguided) confidence” were the worst forecasters. Having a narrow focus, hedgehogs can’t see the big picture beyond their specialization. In the words of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, they labor under “an enhanced illusion of their skill.” Their forecasts, Kahneman adds, “produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options.”

The black-or-white thinking of these poor forecasters stems from their desire “to squeeze complex problems into the preferred cause-effect templates.” Ideas and evidence that don’t fit their theories are treated as “irrelevant distractions.”

Fame leads to arrogance. Kahneman writes, “The more famous the forecaster the more flamboyant the forecasts.” Tetlock observes, “Experts in demand were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight.”

Pinker adds that poor forecasters are allergic to the ambiguities of life and “to wishy-washy answers.” Rather than looking for evidence that contradicts their position, they pile “up reasons why they were right and others wrong.” Such experts “were unusually confident and likelier to declare things ‘impossible’ or ‘certain.’ Committed to their conclusions, they were reluctant to change their minds even when their predictions clearly failed. They would tell us, ‘Just wait.’”

We already hear the “just wait” threat from experts who assure us that if we don’t keep following their advice, the second wave of COVID-19 will inevitably be “far more dire” and the “potentially overwhelming outbreak.”

Foxes are the “superforecasters.” Pinker instructs that they are “not necessarily brilliant,” but “they have personality traits that psychologists call ‘openness to experience’ (intellectual curiosity and a taste for variety), ‘need for cognition’ (pleasure taken in intellectual activity), and ‘integrative complexity’ (appreciating uncertainty and seeing multiple sides).”

Superforecasters are actively looking for their mindset biases. Pinker writes of the best forecasters, “They constantly ask themselves, ‘Are there holes in this reasoning? Should I be looking for something else to fill this in? Would I be convinced by this if I were somebody else?’”

Politicians and central planners listen to fanatical hedgehogs who insist their way is the only way. The hedgehogs may be decisive, but their forecasts are often spectacularly wrong.

Why Hysteria is Contagious

Jonathan Sumption, a former UK Supreme Court Justice, recently warned, “When human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat.”

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