Friday, April 8, 2011

The Clarity of Embarrassment.

Yesterday I sort of embarrassed myself in front of thousands of people in the twitterverse.  It might not have been such a big deal, but it was a lapse in critical thinking, and since this blog puts a lot of emphasis on skepticism, I couldn't help but feel like a fool.

Let me explain.  Yesterday, Richard Wiseman, author of an excellent blog featuring fantastic optical illusions and puzzles, posted a irresistible magic trick on his twitter page.  He invited readers to select one of five cards -- as he labeled them: 9C, 2H, 5C, 7D, and 10S -- and then he asked you to click on this link to see if he guessed it correctly.  Try it now... did it work for you?

Well, it worked for me.  Just like any other magic trick, I knew there was nothing supernatural about it, but I assumed that there was some kind of trick that allowed him to make the prediction.  After all, he got my card right, and I've seen plenty of other tricks in a similar vein -- number tricks, and various other word games that almost always get the right answer.  Perhaps it was some kind of statistical phenomenon, I thought, whereby people almost always select the 2nd of five options.  Or maybe it was that people tended to prefer its placement on the page, which he must have chosen strategically, or maybe people tend to like the letter "H" more than the others.  I couldn't see how it was possible, but as with many other things in this world, that didn't mean there wasn't an explanation.  I felt that there was one.  On his twitter page, Wiseman said he was getting an excellent response from the twitter card trick, and he was going to share a few of them.  Perhaps eager to expand my own readership, I responded with an enthusiastic endorsement of the trick, and to my surprise, he shared it with his 75,000 followers just a minute later. 

Within a minute of my first message, I qualified it with another: there is, I said, a built-in 20% chance that he'll get the card right by coincidence, but I thought that there had to be more to it than that.  Well, in just a few more minutes, a number of clever folks were taking shots at my intelligence.  I immediately realized my oversight.

I hadn't questioned my assumptions.  Why would there have to be more to it than a 20% chance of getting the answer right?  He's not performing in front of an audience, so he's under no pressure to get the answer right, and there's a certain opaqueness about twitter that allows one to highlight messages you like and keep invisible the ones you don't.  So all he needed to do was bamboozle a few people, and share their testimonials.  I hadn't seen the comments of the 80% of people who tried it and did not have their card predicted correctly.  It was a classic experiment: between me and many other tricked readers, it demonstrated our willingness to be fooled, our talent for imagining elaborate explanations, and our tendency to record the hits and ignore the misses.

This is, of course, a well known phenomenon.  When I play roulette, my odds of winning are just about the same every time I play.  But if I'm feeling lucky while I'm playing, I may take more notice of my wins than my losses.  And just the opposite is also true; if I'm feeling unlucky, I may take more notice of my losses... and of course in either case, my suspicions are confirmed, and I seem to have some evidence that the universe is on my side, or is conspiring against me.  Indeed, this sort of thinking is pervasive, and it's hard to set aside.  Some people are chronically at the mercy of an insidious cosmos.  When we harbor ill feelings toward another group of people -- another ethnicity, nationality, political party, etc -- we have a tendency to catalog in our minds all of the evidence that supports our prejudice, and forget about all the evidence that contradicts us.  When we adhere closely to a particular theology, we may call good things that happen "blessings," but we may be unable or unwilling to attribute the bad things to the benevolent deity we imagine God to be.

We can all be fooled sometimes.  As much as you might strive to think critically about the world, sometimes it doesn't take much to make you throw your skepticism right out the window.  It doesn't matter that I knew it wasn't "magic."  I realized quickly enough that there was a 1-in-5 chance of success regardless of whether there was anything else at play, but it took longer to accept the fact that the trick was perfectly ordinary, that there was nothing special about it except that I happened to be in that 20% of people who just by accident saw evidence that it was more than just chance.  We are often unable to see beyond our own narrow frame of reference, so that with just a single trial (your experience), you might deduce that there is a complex system at play, rather than simply a high probability of having that experience as the result of pure chance.

Our interpretation of the world can be similar in just about any circumstance.   We see the Earth and the universe as perfectly suited for harboring lifeforms like us, so we may conclude that it was designed with us in mind.  Of course, many cosmologists think there could be any number of other universes, and any number of different properties for the physical laws of nature.  But it's easy to see that beings capable of contemplating the universe are only going to exist in a universe where those beings are permitted by the laws of nature.  It's a bit like speculating on your purpose for being alive at this moment.  You might wish to think that there was a special, predetermined chain of events that led to your conception and birth, but what about all of your potential brothers and sisters that never made it through the barriers of birth control?  They cannot attest to any special purpose, because they never existed.  We may feel like there has to be some spiritual director of the great cosmic drama, but the universe is under no obligation to adhere to our preferences.  The universe is a place rich in mystery and wonder, but in terms of any alleged purpose or design, the truth could be more ordinary than we want to think, or more ordinary than it feels.  We are prone to deducing design where there may be none.

Insomuch as this was an embarrassing moment for me, I would love to just delete my tweets and not highlight this little incident.  But science has got to be bigger than that.  We have to be brave enough to admit when we are wrong.  And in any case, embarrassment is not all bad.  We need it to learn valuable lessons.  I've learned to be careful about what I say, largely due to the countless times I've gotten egg on my face for not doing so.  Those lessons go a long way toward making you a better person, but as we saw yesterday, it's no guarantee against making mistakes in the future. The lesson here, of course, is that skepticism has a marvelous way of helping you to not make a fool of yourself.  If you can approach the world with a critical eye, you're more likely to avoid a twitter pile-on.  And believe me, it smarts.

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  1. Excellent honest post. (I chose the 2♥, too.)

  2. The 'trick' didn't work at all for Tweetdeck users which shows previews of Twitpic photos underneath the text.