Thursday, February 11, 2010

TED 10 Wed AM: The Need for More Skepticism

Strong sessions today, and I enjoyed a string of great encounters with Bill Gross, Mark Zynga, Daniel Kahneman, Michael Shermer and Scott Kurnit.

Daniel Kahneman
Score: 9 Balloons

The opening session, Mindshift, started with Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, founder of behavioral economics. As an avid student of the subject (read my blog posts on the paralimbic cortex and irrational markets), I loved it. Kahneman took the opportunity to educate his audience on a class of cognitive traps I hadn't previously heard of, that all stem from our general inclination to mistake happy memories for experiential well-being.

We have two selves, he observed: the experiential self and the remembered self, and the remembered self dominates our thinking even though our memories are woefully incomplete. For example, which vacation is better -- the two weeks of blissful relaxation that fills every moment with joy (even though you didn't have a camera with you to record it), or the extreme expedition marked by difficult travels and punctuated by a few exciting moments from which you culled some exciting photos? Even if you factor in the hours of reminiscing that you get from those photos, the former vacation generated far more joy, and yet we tend to remember the latter vacation as better and more fun. I have thought about this very phenomenon during ski trips, when we endure tens of hours of packing, unpacking, driving, and freezing on windy chairlifts in order to experience at most two hours of memorable but fleeting downhill motion.

The decoupling of experienced and remembered happiness was validated in a pain study that chronicled people's characterizations of their colonoscopies. Every 30 seconds they rated their pain levels, and later rated the overall pain level of the operation. Oddly, their overall ratings had nothing to do with the accumulated pain they reported -- rather they reflected only the intensity of the last couple minutes of the procedure. In other words, the memory of a very painful procedure could be improved by adding some low intensity pan at the end, since that's what patients remembered as they rated the overall pain level. The experiential self may have had an awful time, but the remembering self would have thought it was okay.

Khaneman's talk gets a 9 for provoking these questions: How does this insight impact our everyday decisions, and how can we know who experiences real well-being when only our remembering selves report in? Of course, Kahneman himself deserves a high rating for his contribution to economics. (And speaking to him later, I was proud that he had high praise for my college roommate David Laibson, now a behavioral economist at Harvard.)

Dave Cameron
7balloons.jpg Score: 7 Balloons
UK Conservative leader Dave Cameron chimed in by satellite video from London, discussing the need for transparency, choice and accountability in government. Cameron, projected to win the coming election, impressed the audience as intelligent, compelling and -- most importantly for his campaign -- entertaining. Speaking from the British Film Academy, he quipped, "Politics is show business for ugly people."

Although he didn't really put forward any original thinking, he referenced a great quote from Robert Kennedy citing the need to look beyond gross national product for the success of a society. Asked whether he disagreed with Clinton that "It's the Economy, Stupid!" Cameron replied that a strong economy is the means to an end, not the end itself. A compassionate conservative! How exciting that in the UK conservatism is rooted in libertarianism rather than Christianity. (Having said that, Cameron's opposition to a pan-European currency confounds me.)

Here is Cameron's talk:

Esther Duflo
Score: 8 Balloons
"Our next speaker," announced TED Curator Chris Anderson, "describes herself as short, French, vivacious and pig-headed." No, it wasn't Nathalie -- it was Esther Duflo, who applies the scientific method to resolving debates on how to mitigate hunger, disease and poverty in Africa.
Specifically she cited three experiments to advance us beyond the equivalent of "giving the patient leeches" because we don't know what really helps. For example, they wanted to test anti-malarial campaigns to dispense bednets -- is it better to give them away (will people use them? will people be willing to pay for them when you stop giving them away?), to charge full price so they are valued, or to sell them at a discount? (Bednets are an extremely effective and economical way to stop malaria among the people who use them and their neighbors, since malarial spreads among villagers.) Her team arranged for coupons to be distributed that carried a range of discounts from very small to free. They found that the coupons with the greatest discounts, especially the free ones, were redeemed more than others (of course) but more importantly those bednets were used just as much, and the users were just as likely as the others (even a little bit more) to later buy more bednets themselves.

Duflo also cited an experiment that measured how many incremental hours of education per child resulted in a dollar invested in various types of support. Surprisingly, it turned out that deworming treatments and informational campaigns on the benefits of education were 10X more effective than investing in meals, teachers and scholarships. Counter-intuitive, but proven!

Michael Shermer
Score: 9 Balloons

Those of you who read my blog know that Shermer
has been my hero for many years. He runs the Skeptics Society and has written several great books on the pervasive deficits of critical thinking.
In this encore appearance at TED, Shermer talked about patternicity -- the evolutionary adaptation we have developed to see patterns in data -- sometimes a good thing but sometimes not. Evolution has favored high patternicity -- hypersensitivity to dangers leads to short term survival, even at the expense of resources. And so we have an overdeveloped sense of patternicity. Dopamine enhancers like cocaine increase patternicity, and our right brain hemispheres are particularly culpable, as evidenced in experiments where we expose data with possible patterns to one eye or the other. While patternicity sometimes serves us well (scientists depend upon it), too much can drive us mad, as it did John Nash. Paranoia, in fact, can be viewed as an extreme state of patternicity.
Shermer brought some great visual examples of data sets where elusive patterns exist, and other examples where patterns are mistakenly perceived. For example, the Iraqi government recently bought hundreds of Electrostatic Magnetic Ion Bomb Detectors for $40,000 each, even though EMIBs are nothing but hollow plastic boxes with protruding antennae.

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait for the Kahneman talk to get posted. These are the kinds of differences that really colour the human experience.

    Adding on to the ski analogy. During a recent outing, I ended up cartwheeling then sliding about 150 meters down a really steep slope. I relived that event vividly for the next three nights. Thinking about it now, I can't recreate the emotion and vividness of those initial reenactments.

    It's the mellowing effect of time.