Friday, May 07, 2010

Are we what we read or hear?

I haven't commented on the British elections, but it got me thinking. You see, I am a long term if variable supporter of both the UK Liberal Party and the Scottish Nats.

As I read the somewhat breathless commentary, I thought that a bit of history would have helped. The Libs have been in the place the Lib-Dems are before - closing in on second spot - and suffered for the same first past the post reasons. But what has all this to do with my heading - are we what we read or hear?

At primary and secondary school, I read the Armidale Express, less often the Northern Daily Leader and, rarely, the Sydney Morning Herald. In the latter part of school I also sometimes read the Financial Review. By contrast, we had a subscription to the Economist and I read it cover to cover every issue. We had no TV, so my electronic news came via ABC.

Beyond this, my information came from books and especially from my family and those I talked to. We were an academic-political family, so I was exposed to a fair range of information and a mix of views.

Now here I want to pick up a comment by Noric Dilanchian on Generational Change and the 1970s a postscript. He said:

I've been surprised by how conservative people are today. But I should not be, everyone arrives at "today" from different paths, backgrounds and if you like, "baggage".

Leaving aside the conservative issue, Noric is right about different paths.

In my own case, what I read, listened to and argued about led to a mix of not always consistent views.

I became a supporter of the UK Libs because I saw them as a minority party like the Country Party, while many of their attitudes seemed close to mine, if also a bit alien in spots. I also did a fair bit of English history with the Whig/Tory divide, while John Buchan's books with their often Highland settings also had the Whigs as a natural part of the backdrop. I think even today, this is Lib-Dem territory. 

The Scottish Nationalists appealed for totally different reasons. This was well before they achieved their later electoral success, long before devolution. Here it was the connection with my Grandfather with his sense of Scottishness, a well as a sense that the Scots Nats and the New State Movement were fighting for a common cause.

Now compare all this with the Australian Liberal Party.

In many ways, the Liberals were tribal enemies. They were also, as I saw it, a city party. If you consider that during my first fifteen years I rarely read the Sydney Morning Herald, indeed this was in some ways the enemy paper, rarely visited Sydney and indeed never met an avowed Liberal voter outside a few family friends from Sydney, you can get a feel for the the things that formed my thinking at that stage. Even now, I regard the Liberal Party as a very strange beast. 

This is not an essay on the evolution of my own thinking. Rather, I am simply sketching out some ways in which my own thinking was formed by what I read and heard.

As I write, by the way, I have the British election reporting on in the background. Quite distracting, but oh so very familiar.

At one level, asking whether our views have been formed by what we have read or hear may sound a bit simplistic. However, I am interested in different patterns, in the nuances. in Noric's different paths.

So what are the things that have formed your views? To what degree have you been formed by what you have read and heard?


Noric Dilanchian said...

Jim, what I'm currently reading is making me review my beliefs founded on what I've READ in the past.

I'm currently reading Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan. Wikipedia indicates Taleb is currently "Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at Polytechnic Institute of New York University". It also notes he has a "PhD in Management Science (thesis on the mathematics of derivatives pricing)".

A central concern for Taleb is how to act in a world which more than ever is difficult to understand. That challenges predictions, certainly predictions based on myths, grand narratives or on the fly cause and effect assumptions. All these for me recall what I hear today from politicians and most media stories (note, they are stories, narratives, rarely restricted to a mere recitation of facts).

So, if I may, going beyond your question, a concern is: What reading and experience has formed my beliefs and are they relevant and useful to current situations?

I'll end with where I'm at in the book, a quote from page 84 of The Black Swan: "The way to avoid the ills of the narrative fallacy is to favour experimentation over storytelling, experience over history, and clinical knowledge over theories."

I agree, our era requires review (by experimentation, experience and clinical knowledge) of the reading which has formed each of us.

Winton Bates said...

I'm currently reading Malcolm Gladwell, 'What the dog saw'. He has an excellent chapter entitled, 'Blowing up: How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitability of Disaster into an Investment Strategy'.
I was strongly influenced by J S Mill's 'Essay on Liberty'. I read it out of interest in my first year at UNE rather than as recommended reading for the course I was studying.
This began a life-long interest in the things that Mill was interested in liberty and its relationship to human development. It also sparked the interest in Mill's writings and in books written about Mill - which is reflected in my blog.
Paradoxically, I now think Mill got a lot of things wrong, but I think we can still learn a lot from trying to understand where he was coming from. Many of the issues that he was concerned about in his time are very similar to those we have to deal with today.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting, both.

Do you know, I haven't read Taleb, Gladwell or (Winton, I blush at this one) Mill!

Noric, can you amplify what Taleb means by the narrative fallacy? This would help set a context for your quote.

Winton, interesting how one writer can affect us. The equivalent in my case would be Popper or Kuhn.

Noric, it's interesting to what degree new material we read makes us review beliefs based on past material we have read. To pick up one of Taleb's points, it is experience that makes me challenge some of my past beliefs.

Noric Dilanchian said...

Winton, thanks for the heads up on Malcolm Gladwell's chapter.

Jim, "narrative fallacy" is a big idea in Taleb's Black Swan book.

It's best for me to finish the book before summarising.

So below I've stuck to quotes from what I've read so far.

(Page 52) "Our inferential machinery, that which we use in daily life, is not made for a complicated environment inwhich a statement changes markedly when its wording is lightly modified."

(Page 56) "I am saying that a series of corrobative facts is no *necessarily* evidence. ... We can get closer to the truth by negative instances, not by verification! It is misleading to build a general rule from observed facts."

(Page 58) "Cognitive scientists have studied our natural tendency to look only for corroboration; they call this vulnerability to the corroboration error the *confirmation bias*."

(Page 59) "Once your mind is inhabited with a certain view of the world, you will tend to only consider instances proving you to be right. Paradoxically, the more information you have, the more justified you will feel in your view."

(Page 69) Taleb postulates that the human mind has an inclination to narrate in part because it is an efficient way to obtain and compress data. Then he goes on to state: "The more random information is, the greater the dimensionality, and thus the more difficult to summarize. The more you summarize, the more order you put in, the less randomness. Hence the same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it actually is. And the Black Swan is what we leave out of simplification."

(Page 70) "Our tendency to perceive - to impose - narrativity and causality are symptoms of the same disease - dimension reduction."

(Page 77) "Indeed, lottery buyers overestimate their chances of winning because they visualize such a potent payoff - in fact, they are so blind to the odds that they treat odds of one in a thousand and one in a million almost the same way."

(Page 79) "Indeed, abstract statistical information does not sway us as much as the anecdote - no matter how sophisticated the person."

By the way my Taleb quote in my prior comment was Taleb's conclusion of sorts from "The Narrative Fallacy" chapter from which I've reproduced most of the above quotes.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Noric. That does help. I am now going to bring this up in a main post. I look forward to reading you later synthesis.

Winton Bates said...

I'm not sure that you have missed much by not reading Mill. Reading Popper would have been more useful (although I can't claim to have read first hand as much of Popper as I should have).

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Winton. I have some references to Popper in a draft post that I am writing on the evolution of my own views. But its a long time since I read him. Perhaps I should re-read!