Strongly held assumptions resist data!

Planet Money yet again provided a great example of how preconceived notions resist contrary information.  First a bit on context, although the details of the episode aren’t totally relevant to the point I’m making here.  The episode focuses on the idea of taxing ‘Cadillac’ health care plans and they get an economist from MIT to argue for the proposition saying that the evidence is that such a plan does not negatively impact upon public health, controls cost and will likely lead in increased wages.

The sound engineer objects strenuously.

Madcap hilarity ensues as both try to convince each other by using criteria the other rejects.

The engineer relies on personal, anecdotal evidence (“I’ve seen this…I know someone that…”) while the economist relies on data (‘We’ve got X number of studies that say Y’).  There’s no convincing going on here and it reminds me (whoa…name dropping alert) of Kierkegaard’s  Either/Or (eh…it’s not that impressive, I only know about it because I heard a summary of the work via the Teaching Company) where he says everyone has to make a decision between the religious and aesthetic life and there’s no criteria upon which to base the decision which doesn’t presuppose the answer.

This is the same situation.  The economist could have cited studies until he was blue in the face and the engineer would still say:  “Yeah, but I don’t know anyone like that.”

I suspect this happens a lot more than we realize, even in the intelligence field and the problem lies in the fact that the protagonists don’t set the ground rules and aren’t clear what they’re talking about.  They both value different aspects of the issue their studying and what metrics to use to define success.  Of course I suspect any attempt to reach an agreement on what to talk about would result in it’s own dispute but at least these guys would know what they were arguing about rather than having to have a proxy fight about something else.

The other interesting point is one that was discussed by Richards Heuer when he says:

  • Mind-sets tend to be quick to form but resistant to change.
  • New information is assimilated to existing images.

Good examples of both of those here.


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