The Truth Is Like a Lion: a Critique of a Critique

St. Augustine once said that, “The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.” Some people disagree.

Augustine-QuoteIn a critique of my brother’s excellent book, Psychonomics: How Modern Science Aims to Conquer the Mind and How the Mind Prevails, a reader who goes by the name Kyle Young posted a scathing 1-star review of the book imploring that people “shouldn’t read this book.” Evidently Young believes that truth needs to be defended, by him specifically, preventing everyone from reading what he considers “terrible and dangerous” books.

As the subtitle to my blog states, it’s increasingly difficult to be a producer in this world and far too easy to be a critic, and Young proves this with gusto. His review is faulty on a number of areas, but most alarming in his conclusion.

First, to be fair, the review and the book are both critiques—the review critiques the book and the book critiques modern pseudo-sciences (behavioral economics among others). A critique isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, critiques are a necessary component in the pursuit of truth. Critiques, per se, aren’t the problem—bad critiques are.

Young seems to be particularly affectionate of the straw man logical fallacy since he evokes it four times in his review. He should know, then, how to avoid it in his own argument, but unfortunately fails like a logical Chernobyl, the first of many hypocritical points. He misrepresents Psychonomics in several areas, most notably when he claims that Morse says a certain study, “can’t be trusted because there is a control group and a test group…” [emphasis added]. This is patently false. In fact, in several places, Morse says that the pseudo-scientists involved in certain experiments fail to make their case because the don’t control for certain conditions:

It is for this reason that scientists take pains to ensure there is a causal link before attributing causality. To do so, simply, scientists must run a series of experiments. The first experiment introduces the first stimulus and determines whether the second outcome occurs; the second experiment introduces the second stimulus and determines whether the first outcome occurs; and the control experiment introduces neither stimulus and determines whether either outcome occurs naturally as a result. Only when the scientist undergoes all three tests can he possibly make claims on causality.
As it turns out, such a robust series of experiments is hardly ever endeavored, and so causality can hardly ever be known for sure.

Psychonomics p. 243

Young falls for precisely the character flaw explained in the book—when people accept everything that a scientist says, well because…science! As Morse explains:

We pride ourselves that we base so much of our thoughts and actions on science, and we think that, because we spend so much energy and effort on facts, figures, and statistics, we have reached a new level of enlightenment and are no longer vulnerable to the appeal of the vague and the bunk. And yet, that very condition is exactly why we are vulnerable. Because we base so much of our thoughts and actions on science, we blindly follow when we should be skeptical; because we focus so much on the facts, figures, and statistics, we are distracted by the numbers and lose sight of the reality before us.

Psychonomics p. 257

Young blindly accepts the findings of behavioral economists and tout their, “rigorous statistical controls,” and expect us to believe everything they say. Put simply, Young is not being scientific about science. He’s just following in the footsteps of the behavioral economists who push their unreasonable conclusions on the public without fairly examining the alternatives.

What’s more is Young drops the epithet “denier” like it’s his minimum-wage job to do so. While, he doesn’t explicitly mention it, the “denialism” is no doubt in reference to Morse’s skepticism of the conclusions that anthropogenic global warming scientists make. You don’t accept the outrageous claims these scientists have concluded? You must be a denier! Well, until there is a sufficient body of evidence demonstrating causality (there are dozens of potential explanations for global warming), we should remain skeptical. Being skeptical isn’t “anti-science” as Young claims, but the opposite; it’s the only truly scientific thing to be. As Morse says, one of his goals in Psychonomics isn’t to discredit science, it’s to save science from itself.

But, people like Young won’t have any of that. Certain scientists and economists have made certain statements—however unsubstantiated they are—and the public needs to subscribe to them wholeheartedly and end the discussion there. That’s why Young implores his audience to “not read this book.” Instead of encouraging a thorough and exemplary well-reasoned discussion, he wants to shut it down—to censor the discussion. Of course, this is diametrically opposed to institution he’s ostensibly supporting: science. It’s clear from this that Young is really just trying to suppress the truth.

So, in my critique of a critique of a critique, I’m not attempting to dictate what you should believe. By all means, read the review (I’ve copied it in full below). But do yourself a favor and read the book it critiques as well. Psychonomics is a unique examination of the state of science and society as a whole and deserves at least one read. Young is wrong in his assessment, but I encourage you to find that out for yourself.

Young is right about one thing in his review, however. Psychonomics is a dangerous book. It’s dangerous to the status quo; it’s dangerous to the non-thinkers of this world who want to force their ideology on you and censor opposition. My goal isn’t to defend that book, it is simply to let it loose.

The critique:

610pQVMCsFL._SL300_We are in the midst of a brain science revolution. Highly sophisticated neuroimaging technology and cunning psychological experiments have helped researchers delve into the darkest corners of the human brain to shine light on how it works and explain human behavior.

Their conclusions boggle the mind: We make decisions before we are even conscious of our choices; we allow irrelevant influences to dominate our thought processes; and we go against our own best interest as a matter of course. In short, the latest brain science has conquered the mind and determined that we are all irrational and helpless in our condition.

But should that be the last word? In this startling account, Eric Robert Morse takes on the pop psychology establishment to show how this new understanding of the mind isn’t the paradigm-shifting revelation it is claimed to be. With meticulous precision, Morse dissects the latest Behavioral Economics and brain imaging research to reveal a discipline that is full of holes and bordering on pseudoscience.

In Psychonomics, Morse uses captivating stories to bring to life the often mystifying world of behavioral psychology. We hear tales of beautiful fashion models and brilliant finance models, of MVP quarterbacks and GDP architects. In all of these stories, Morse shows how modern science uses the most advanced techne and experiments to defeat the human mind, and, ultimately, how the mind wins.

The critique of the critique:

This is a terrible and dangerous book, and best characterised as the same kind of denialism that affirmed anti science groups draw on- I continued to read on in horror, so that I could in good conscience write a fair review to save you the trouble.

The author claims to be a skeptic, but this is straight out of the denial playbook- some examples that characterise the entire book:

From the first chapter he constructs a straw man of behavioural economics to attack, while ironically attempting to point out all the logical fallacies the field suffers. Contrary to the authors opinion, behavioural economists do define rational, and they never claim that there aren’t reasons for the heuristics and biases we see evidenced in their experiments or make value judgements like the author claims (he goes so far as to say that because there’s reasons for these biases and some stories in which he shows that might actually work out in our favour, that this means we are clearly rational, and ergo behavioural economics is wrong)- but any cursory examination of the work produced by the field shows these biases do exist, do yield clear sub-optimal outcomes, and are easily replicated, yet all of this to the author constitutes a clear attack on the value of the wonderful and amazing human brain (which it should be noted is a kluge of parts cobbled together over our evolutionary history, not a perfectly optimised machine.)

The author moves the goalposts when talking about decision making and neuroscience, saying the studies have only been applied to simple decisions in a lab, and so can’t be generalised to the wonders of more complex human decision making in natural environments- I’m sure when this research is done he’ll find some other post hoc rationalisation to move the goal posts again. He also then tries to link this back to behavioural economics, railing against the straw man that not having clear free will is akin somehow to an argument that we are irrational beasts- I doubt any behavioural economist has ever made this claim.

The author claims the results of one very large and often repeated behavioural economics study (again… repeated hundreds of times) can’t be trusted because there is a control group and a test group, and each participant is only given one scenario- the study might see different results if all participants were given both conditions (seriously- he actually argues this… Hence = denialism, not skepticism)- ignoring the obvious that this is how scientific experimental design works, and that we have rigorous statistical controls for exactly this kind of thing, in one of the books he criticises (Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman) there is actually a discussion of ‘The Linda Problem’ in which participants are essentially given both conditions and still make the logically incoherent choice- but the author ignores this because it doesn’t suit his purpose: attacking the strawman he has constructed (or he didn’t read/understand the subject material he attacks?)

The author generalises behavioural economics as being concerned only with judgements of economic value (i.e. money), and that humans are about more than money, so obviously they are wrong because he gives some supporting stories (seriously) that show that there’s more to decisions than money. This is an obvious straw man, behavioural economics is concerned with utility, and even in studies looking solely at money, he fails to show why participants in these studies would be rational in not maximising their earnings when they showed up with the intention of participating for a monetary reward. He fails to address similar studies that show the same heuristics and biases in non monetary conditions- even though he attacks books and authors who talk extensively about said research.