03 March 2009

On believing pundits

Given the extent to which we are exposed nowadays to toxic levels of punditry, it is gratifying to be reminded by Bryan Appleyard of Tetlock's (2005) psychological investigation of the reliability of pundits (New Yorker article on it here).

One of the findings was broadly that the more certain the pundits were, the more likely they were to be wrong, which is consistent with good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance.

This goes along, I guess, with another related issue I am exploring in my usual desultory way; the notion that the less meaningful a belief, the greater the passion and dogmatism with which it is held. This was observed by Swift (the war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Gulliver's Travels, 1726, ch. IV) so it's not exactly original, and of course as in that story, it is religious disputes which spring to mind as the most obvious examples. But there is more to it than that; Mary Douglas (1966) —if I understand her correctly, which is far from certain—came close to arguing that distinctions in the external world (particularly among, loosely, social artefacts) say much less about that world than they do about the sense of identity of those who make them. In other words, people and groups define themselves as "the kind of people who believe that..." and whatever it is that they believe is much more important than objective distinctions can sustain... I'm trying to follow this up in Douglas (1973) and one would think that returning to that book 35 years after I first read it, I would find it easier. No.

Any pointers gratefully received!

Douglas M (1966) Purity and Danger; an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo London; Routledge and Kegan Paul
Douglas M (1973) Natural Symbols London; Penguin

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