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Lies, damn lies, and heuristics

Published on 03 September 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

To err is human. It is unavoidable, given the limits of the brain as well as of time, energy and resources humans can invest in making choices. Systematic errors, on the other hand, might be avoided, if we are attentive and smart.

When confronted with choice in a complex situation, it is rational to chose a short-cut in order to reach a decision. One calls this approach a “heuristic”, a term coined by Herbert SIMON, [1] and refined by Gerd GIGERENZER.[2] In their view, heuristics are short-cuts a rational mind faced with bound rationality will use to get to a rational decision.

Daniel KAHNEMAN, on the other hand, uses the term “heuristic” in describing an unconscious process, by which the System 1 (unconscious) brain finds a related easier question to answer instead. An unconscious process of substitution takes place. Contrary to the heuristics of SIMON, KAHNEMAN’s heuristics are not chosen. They are supplied by what he calls “the mental shotgun” – which operates on the intensity of feelings. The result may well by systematic error – or bias. We should be aware of this.

Sarin (mustard gas) has probably been used in Damascus, with much loss of life. The Assad regime is reputed to have a stockpile of this gas. Whether this is the source of the poison is more difficult to establish – stockpiles might exist in the region (Saddam’s stockpile?). Also, basic production is akin to that of some pesticides – the technological skill lies in “weaponization”. One can trot out “usual suspects” having more reason to destabilize the region than the Assad regime.

President François HOLLANDE has called for military intervention to “punish” the regime.[3] I shall not touch the factual issue but link it squarely to KAHNEMAN’s heuristic.

The big questions to answer – prior to any decision – would be, roughly speaking: (a) who did it? (b) What might happen, now and in the not too distant future, if a military strike is carried out? I’ll leave the long-term consequences aside – despite the ominous (and unintended as well as unexpected) fact that the “winner”, at the end of the US war in Iraq, might well be US “axis of evil” member: Iran.

The two questions are most difficult. They should be answered before the political choice is made. Few would dare to express an informed view of what might happen. Too many variables; too many interests.

Enter HOLLANDE: he substitutes these factual questions with an argument from affect: ASSAD should be punished. Now this is a simple moral question people might address with a certain amount confidence. Surely, punishment must be meted out – we all have moral principles. The UN Charter and related treaties, declarations, and more, are clear on this matter. The use of chemical weapons is a crime. So there is a basis for moral indignation, and resorting to KAHNEMAN’s “shotgun approach.” Daniel DENNETT would call this a case of using Occam’s Broom – to sweep unpleasant questions under the rug of rhetoric.[4]

“Principle” discussions and “moral imperatives” have come to dominate public discourse. They tend to be “conversation stoppers” – all is said already. Not only have I grown weary of such adjudications, but I’ve also become wary of the rhetoric. I have developed my own emotional heuristic: legalism and morality hide a simplistic approach to the situation. It distracts from an understanding of the context. It relegates the context to the “dustbin of the contingent” – not worthy of political attention.

Is it not ironic that, in a world where everything seems up for sale, the political discourse has become an endless list of non possumus? Who lives by abstractions dies by abstractions…

[2] Gerd GIGERENZER – Peter M. TODD, and the ABC Research Group (1999): Simple heuristics that make us smart. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[4] See: Daniel C. DENNETT (2013): Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking. Norton, New York.

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