Sunday, October 17, 2010


Dan gardner, one of my favourite newspaper columnists, has a new book out: Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail -- and Why We Believe Them Anyway. Newspapers all over the country have been picking up an exerpt from its introduction. You can find one at Often Wrong and Rarely Accurate

Gardner writes: “As for why we believe expert predictions, the answer lies ultimately in our hard-wired aversion to uncertainty. People want to know what's happening now and what will happen in the future, and admitting we don't know can be profoundly disturbing. So we try to eliminate uncertainty however we can. We see patterns where there are none. We treat random results as if they are meaningful. And we treasure stories that replace the complexity and uncertainty of reality with simple narratives about what's happening and what will happen. Sometimes we create these stories ourselves, but, even with the human mind's bountiful capacity for self-delusion, it can be hard to fool ourselves into thinking we know what the future holds for the stock market, the climate, the price of oil, or a thousand other pressing issues. So we look to experts. They must know. They have PhDs, prizes, and offices in major universities. And thanks to the news media's preference for the simple and dramatic, the sort of expert we are likely to hear from is confident and conclusive. They know
what will happen; they are certain of it. We like that because that is how we want to feel. And so we convince ourselves that these wise men and women
can do what wise men and women have never been able to do before. Fundamentally, we believe because we want to believe.”

I read about Gardner’s book and felt the shock of being exposed. He might be one of my favourite columnists, but I hadn’t imagined that he knew me so well. I didn’t think he knew me at all. But what do I know anyway?
Last Thursday I had one of those so-called educational experiences, call it a life lesson in being your own expert and believing what you want to believe. It happened as I made my way to work, around 7:30 AM. I was boarding the LRT, our transit train here in Edmonton.
When you take a train on the LRT you have some choices. There are, in fact, two ends to every station. Depending on what decisions I have made before I take the train, I might enter the station at either the north end, or the south end. If I enter at the north end, the thing I most often do, I will turn right at the bottom of the stairs and catch the train called Century Park. When I enter at the south end, as I did that day, I will turn left at the bottom of the stairs and take the train called Century Park. I can be confusing for anybody, so Edmonton Transit provides clear, loud automated announcements to prepare you for the arrival of your train. These announcements are accurate about 99.9 percent of the time. Nothing could be simpler, really!
I was thinking as I entered the station at the south end. Just what I was thinking I cannot quite recall. I might have been writing a letter in my mind, or planning a lecture, or editing the guest list for a birthday party, or mentally preparing tonight’s supper. I know better than to let my mind go at that hour, but I honestly keep forgetting that in the past few years I’ve pretty much lost my ability to think and travel at the same time. It’s a bit like walking and chewing gum. I have to do one or the other. When I got to the bottom of the stairs I turned right and waited for the train. I had only a few seconds to wait. The announcement came on loud and clear. “Next train, Clareview,” it said. The train pulled up in front of me and I got on.
I was not alone. The platform was busy with people getting off and on. I was already comfortably seated when the door closed. When the door closes, a clearly audible announcement comes on. On my route to work, the announcement usually says, “Next Stop, Central Station.” Automation is an imperfect thing. Sometimes announcements on the train are a little off. When this happens, the driver generally picks up the microphone and appologizes for the computer’s failings. That announcement is accurate about 90% of the time.
As the door closed, the automation said, “Next stop, Stadium Station.”
Comfortably seated, I waited for the driver to make the correction. He didn’t make a correction, but that didn’t bother me. I had forgotten about the letter I might have been writing or the supper I might have been planning. Now I thought about the times when the announcements are wrong. I felt so sorry for the people who believe the announcements when they are wrong. I was happy, content, relaxed in my seat. It wasn’t until the train came out of the ground, halfway to Stadium station, that the light began to dawn. I had entered the station at the south end, I had turned the wrong way. I had ignored the name of the train when it arrived. I had disbelieved the announcement that told me we were on our way to Stadium. And now I was not headed for work at all.
Oh well, I sighed. There is a solution. I stood on the platform at Stadium Station, waiting for the train called Century Park. As I waited I wondered what the day would bring. When I got to the office I discovered that Graham Thompson, another of my favourite newspaper columnists, had published an article about FASD Justice Ministers’ Interest In Finding Solutions For FASD Offers Hope Thompson was quoting an expert—me. He was quoting me accurately. No errors were made. And I’m almost certain that what I said was right.

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