Monday, November 5, 2012

The Mule and the Two-By-Four

You know those times when you’re talking to someone and you just know they’re not listening? Vacant eye contact, I call it. Whatever is going on in his or her brain has nothing to do with what you’re saying. If you haven’t had this experience, you have never had teenagers. Or tried earnestly to persuade someone in your circle of family or friends of the wisdom of your political views, which you are quite certain they would embrace if they could just understand them.

I think of myself as having achieved a measure of wisdom because I join those battles less frequently. For one thing, all my teenagers have grown up. For another, I have come to realize that some people just can’t be reached with the logic that seems so impeccable, so unassailable, to me.

But here’s a disturbing question: What if it’s not them? What if it’s me?

Why is it so hard for us to change our minds about some things? I think I’m open-minded, but perhaps what I really mean is that I listen politely while waiting for the other person to take a breath so I can jump in with my point of view. It’s not that I’m not listening. Somehow I’m not processing.

There are a couple of possibilities here: One, implicit in my self-regard, is that I have the answer figured out and further processing isn’t necessary. Maybe some tweaking at the margins—an intellectual bone or two to throw the dog holding a contrary view—but no wholesale re-evaluation needed. The second possibility is that something unfortunate has happened to my neurological wiring that has rendered me unable to accept competing inputs.

Why would that be? Is there some evolutionary imperative at work? Is intellectual ossification adaptive? Cling tightly to the views developed over a lifetime. It’s too late now to re-open all those boxes. It took too long to pack them in the first place, and you might get eaten while sitting there going through old points of view like so many old family photographs.

John Kenneth Galbraith, who coined the term “conventional wisdom,” said we don’t change our points of view until incontrovertible facts hit us upside the head, like the two-by-four in the old joke about the farmer and the recalcitrant mule. (“Why did you hit your mule in the head with a two-by-four?” the city slicker, aghast, asks the farmer. “Just getting his attention,” says the farmer.)

Societally there is ample evidence of the phenomenon Galbraith described. The crash of 1929 (where rampant stock speculation was ignored), the crash of 2008 (same thing, different securities), global warming (that crash has not come yet, so we’re still at the stage of the frog in the pot of water slowly heating on the stove).

Plenty of people understand what Galbraith taught us. And the reason we behave that way--vested interest in the status quo--is easy to understand too. I’ve always thought I was one of the ones not so indebted to how things have always been that I was unable to imagine how they might be.

But I wonder. Why don’t I change my mind more often? Am I just rarely wrong? Or has that two-by-four just not yet hit me upside the head?


  1. You just haven't been hit hard enough yet. Wait'll you get hit by the two-by-four a second term.

  2. Global warming? Perhaps you missed the October release by CRU that shows no appreciable temperature change for the past 16 years?

    This is Phil Jones' (Mr. Climategate) comment on climate modeling:
    "We don’t fully understand how to input things like changes in the oceans, and because we don’t fully understand it you could say that natural variability is now working to suppress the warming. We don’t know what natural variability is doing."

    How's that for a 2x4?

  3. Pat,
    One of the guys we love in our family is Nate Silver, a rigorous statistician who has looked at predictions in everything from baseball to politics. Statistically, he's amoral. Here is an excerpt from a recent review of his new book, The Signal and the Noise.

    Silver uses statistics to scrutinize the claims of people who don’t always have an incentive to be accurate. Until now, he took aim mostly at sports pundits and political handicappers. But the book hints at his ambitions to take on weightier questions. There’s no better example of this than his chapter on climate change. In recent years, the most sophisticated global-warming skeptics have seized on errors in the forecasts of the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) in order to undermine efforts at greenhouse gas reduction. These skeptics note that global temperatures have increased at only about half the rate the I.P.C.C. predicted in 1990, and that they flatlined in the 2000s (albeit after rising sharply in the late ’90s).

    Silver runs the numbers to show that the past few decades of data are still highly consistent with the hypothesis of man-made global warming. He shows how, at the rate that carbon dioxide is accumulating, a single decade of flat temperatures is hardly invalidating. On the other hand, Silver demonstrates that projecting temperature increases decades into the future is a dicey proposition. He chides some environmental activists for their certainty — observing that overambitious predictions can undermine a cause when they don’t come to pass — without descending into false equivalence.

  4. Assume global warming was an unassailable fact. A ten degree rise in the temperature was expected by the end of the century; what would you suggest we do?

  5. The problem about changing our minds is two-fold. The first is, as you point out, our reluctance to change our minds once we have made a decision. The second is, ironically, our refusal to recognize that we have changed our minds. Often people change their minds but cling to the notion that they have not done so. So maybe you have been hit by the two-by-four, but you just did not feel it.