Your gut may be leading you astray

An interesting comment on rationality and conservatism:

I think Sarah Palin is indeed a Rorschach test for Conservatives, but it’s about much than manners or players vs. kibbitzes – it’s about what Conservativsm MEANS.

The core idea behind Conservatism is that most of human learning is done not by rational theorizing, but by pattern recognition. Our brain processes huge amounts of data every second, and most information we get out of it is in the form of recognized patterns, not fully logical theories. It’s fair to say that 90% of our knowledge is in patterns, not in theories.

This pattern recognition is called common sense, and over generations, it’s called traditions, conventions etc. Religion is usually a carrier meme for these evolved patterns. It’s sort of an evolutionary process, like a genetic algorithm.

Liberals, Lefties and even many Libertarians want to use only 10% of the human knowledge that’s rational. And because our rational knowledge cannot yet fully explain neither human nature in itself nor everything that happens in society, they fill the holes with myths like that everybody is born good and only society makes people bad etc.

Conservatives are practical people who instinctively recognize the importance of evolved patterns in human learning: because our rational knowledge simply isn’t enough yet, these common sense patterns are our second best option to use. And to use these patterns effectively you don’t particularly have to be very smart i.e. very rational. You have to be _wise_ and you have to have a good character: you have to set hubris and pride aside and be able to accept traditions you don’t fully understand.

Thus, for a Conservative, while smartness never hurts, being wise and having a good character is more important than being very smart. Looking a bit simple simply isn’t a problem, you still have that 90% of knowledge at hand.

Anti-Palin Conservatives don’t understand it. They think Conservativism is about having different theories than the Left, they don’t understand that it’s that theories and rational knowledge isn’t so important.

(via Rabbett Run)

A possible example of the writer’s perspective at work is provided by survey research showing that Tea Partiers are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change (established by models) but receptive to natural variation (vaguely, patterns), and they’re confident that they’re well-informed about it in spite of evidence to the contrary. Another possible data point is conservapedia’s resistance to relativity, which is essentially a model that contradicts our Newtonian common sense.

As an empirical observation, this definition of conservatism seems plausible at first. Humans are fabulous pattern recognizers. And, there are some notable shortcomings to rational theorizing. However, as a normative statement – that conservatism is better because of the 90%/10% ratio, I think it’s seriously flawed.

The quality of the 90% is quite different from the quality of the 10%. Theories are the accumulation of a lot of patterns put into a formal framework that has been shared and tested, which at least makes it easy to identify the theories that fall short. Common sense, or wisdom or whatever you want to call it, is much more problematic. Everyone knows the world is flat, right?

Sadly, there’s abundant evidence that our evolved heuristics fall short in complex systems. Pattern matching in particular falls short even in simple bathtub systems. Inappropriate mental models and heuristics can lead to decisions that are exactly the opposite of good management, even when property rights are complete; noise only makes things worse.

Real common sense would have the brains to abdicate when faced with situations, like relativity or climate change, where it was clear that experience (low velocities, local weather) doesn’t provide any patterns that are relevant to the conditions under consideration.

After some reflection, I think there’s more than pattern recognition to conservatism. Liberals, anarchists, etc. are also pattern matchers. We all have our own stylized facts and conventional wisdom, all of which are subject to the same sorts of cognitive biases. So, pattern matching doesn’t automatically lead to conservatism. Many conservatives don’t believe in global warming because they don’t trust models, yet observed warming and successful predictions of models from the 70s (i.e. patterns) also don’t count. So, conservatives don’t automatically respond to patterns either.

In any case, running the world by pattern recognition alone is essentially driving by looking in the rearview mirror. If you want to do better, i.e. to make good decisions at turning points or novel conditions, you need a model.


1 thought on “Your gut may be leading you astray”

  1. Without getting into the conservative vs. liberal / pattern matching vs. puzzling two-way table, this sounds related to some of the ideas James Reason put forth in _Human Error_. Puzzling is more fun for many of us and necessary when we don’t have existing patterns to match, but it’s more error prone in general (at least when done by the unaided human mind). Patterning is faster and more accurate but limited by the limits of our patterns.

    That leads, of course, to Dietrich Doerner’s work and the idea of using simulation (management flight simulators, C-ROADS, etc.) to improve one’s stock of patterns (one’s intuition) in both quantity and quality.

    While I’m by no means an expert in this area, I’m told that Lev Vygotsky split learning into two types, patterning and puzzling, which aligns with these thoughts.

    This also aligns with Gary Klein’s recognition-primed decision making as an alternative to approaches such as Kepner-Tregoe’s rational approach.

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