To be wrong with infinite precision

We harbor a crippling dislike for the abstract. One day in December 2003, when Saddam Hussein was captured, Bloomberg News flashed the following headline at 13:01: u.s. TREASURIES RISE; HUSSEIN CAPTURE MAY NOT CURB TERRORISM.

Whenever there is a market move, the news media feel obligated to give the “reason.” Half an hour later, they had to issue a new headline. As these U.S. Treasury bonds fell in price (they fluctuate all day long, so there was nothing special about that), Bloomberg News had a new reason for the fall: Saddam’s capture (the same Saddam). At 13:31 they issued the next bulletin: u.s. TREASURIES FALL; HUSSEIN CAPTURE BOOSTS ALLURE OF RISKY ASSETS.

So it was the same capture (the cause) explaining one event and its exact opposite. Clearly, this can’t be; these two facts cannot be linked.

Do media journalists repair to the nurse’s office every morning to get their daily dopamine injection so that they can narrate better? (Note the irony that the word dope, used to designate the illegal drugs athletes take to improve performance, has the same root as dopamine.)

It happens all the time: a cause is proposed to make you swallow the news and make matters more concrete. After a candidate’s defeat in an election, you will be supplied with the “cause” of the voters’ disgruntlement. Any conceivable cause can do. The media, however, go to great lengths to make the process “through” with their armies of fact-checkers. It is as if they wanted to be wrong with infinite precision (instead of accepting being approximately right, like a fable writer).

Note that in the absence of any other information about a person you encounter, you tend to fall back on her nationality and background as a salient attribute (as the Italian scholar did with me). How do I know that this attribution to the background is bogus? I did my own empirical test by checking how many traders with my background who experienced the same war became skeptical empiricists, and found none out of twenty-six. This nationality business helps you make a great story and satisfies your hunger for ascription of causes. It seems to be the dump site where all explanations go until one can ferret out a more obvious one (such as, say, some evolutionary argument that “makes sense”). Indeed, people tend to fool themselves with their self-narrative of “national identity,” which, in a breakthrough paper in Science by sixty-five authors, was shown to be a total fiction. (“National traits” might be great for movies, they might help a lot with war, but they are Platonic notions that carry no empirical validity—yet, for example, both the English and the non-English erroneously believe in an English “national temperament.”) Empirically, sex, social class, and profession seem to be better predictors of someone’s behavior than nationality (a male from Sweden resembles a male from Togo more than a female from Sweden; a philosopher from Peru resembles a philosopher from Scotland more than a janitor from Peru; and so on).

The problem of over causation does not lie with the journalist, but with the public. Nobody would pay one dollar to buy a series of abstract statistics reminiscent of a boring college lecture. We want to be told stories, and there is nothing wrong with that—except that we should check more thoroughly whether the story provides consequential distortions of reality. Could it be that fiction reveals truth while nonfiction is a harbor for the liar? Could it be that fables and stories are closer to the truth than is the thoroughly fact-checked ABC News? Just consider that the newspapers try to get impeccable facts, but weave them into a narrative in such a way as to convey the impression of causality (and knowledge). There are fact-checkers, not intellect-checkers. Alas.

But there is no reason to single out journalists. Academics in narrative disciplines do the same thing, but dress it up in a formal language—we will catch up to them in Chapter 10, on prediction.

Besides narrative and causality, journalists and public intellectuals of the sound-bite variety do not make the world simpler. Instead, they almost invariably make it look far more complicated than it is. The next time you are asked to discuss world events, plead ignorance, and give the arguments I offered in this chapter casting doubt on the visibility of the immediate cause. You will be told that “you overanalyze,” or that “you are too complicated.” All you will be saying is that you don’t know!

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Nassim Taleb (2007)

To be wrong with infinite precision by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply