Universal Translator

Friday, December 30, 2011

Playing With the Pundits – Why We Keep Making Mistakes

Today Paul Krugman returns to his oft-repeated mantra that recent badly chosen economic policies have vindicated Keynesian economics both in the US and in Europe.  Specifically, Keynes argued that government spending should be cut during economic booms, not during economic slumps – that it should be countercyclical to the economy.  Krugman asserts that the disastrous results of Europe’s new commitment to “economic austerity” (and, to a lesser extent, our failure to enact a sufficiently large economic stimulus package back in 2009), validate this basic Keynesian principle.

I read Krugman’s column as yet another reminder that human evolution did not gift us with a brain designed to be very good at either (i) dealing with very complicated situations, or (ii) events that take place on something other than the human scale.  To be sure, our brains can learn to handle complicated situations and events on macro and micro scales, but learning how to do something is not the same as instinctively knowing how to do something.

For example, after sufficient time, almost all human babies will instinctively learn to walk upright; almost none of them will instinctively start creating and then solving quadratic equations.  Most of us can instinctively understand the Newtonian physics behind two billiard balls colliding on a pool table – we can, after all, play pool without having to solve vector equations in our head.  But trying to understand how light can be both a wave and a particle, how time itself slows down the faster one moves through space . . . these truths are very much not the things that come naturally to humans – we have a hard time even visualizing such things.

And this can be a problem, because it means that very often our big brains can actually figure out the solution to a complicated problem but that this solution will be met with distrust because it doesn’t feel right to most people.  For example, when money is tight because the economy is in the toilet a lot – probably even most – of us will instinctively argue that the appropriate thing for the government to do is spend less money . . . even though that is actually the worst thing the government could do. 

And so we find ourselves trapped.  Economically, we know that in the midst of a recession the correct policy is for the government to spend more money.  But politically we find ourselves incapable of persuading all those people for whom it “just doesn’t make sense” that increasing government spending is the right thing to do.  (It doesn’t help, of course, that in the US we have a political party committed to simply opposing whatever President Obama suggests; so when Obama proposes doing the right thing – like enacting an economic stimulus – the GOP can simply talk about how Obama is wasting more of the taxpayers’ money and that will actually make sense to a lot of people).

Let me share one of my favorite (and very timely) examples of how truly difficult it is for us humans to think on a scale outside of our own. 

I’ve become something a fan of that last video I found and posted on Christmas Eve, the one that presents winter images set to the music of The Carol of the Bells.  I think it’s quite pretty, but I also enjoy its sort of no-nonsense, extremely factual statement that “the axial tilt is the reason for the season.”  This is very strictly speaking true; as the earth orbits the sun, its axial tilt means that during about half of its orbit the northern hemisphere is pointed toward the sun, and during the other half of its orbit the southern hemisphere is pointed toward the sun.  This is the main reason the seasons change from summer to winter and back again.

Here’s what I find fascinating.  I must’ve run into dozens of people in the course of my life who have asserted quite confidently that the reason it gets cold during winter is because “the earth is farther away from the sun.”  This, of course, is wrong.  If it were correct, then the entire earth would get colder at the same time.  But we know that isn’t the case; when it is winter in the northern hemisphere it is summer in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa.  But what is truly remarkable is that in every instance I’ve had such an encounter the person speaking to me knows that fact too.

Consider how weird this phenomenon really is.  For a long, long time almost all people believed that the sun went around the earth.  That is, after all, what it looks like is going on.  We have to be taught that the earth goes around the sun.  Also, until they ventured very far from their own locales, people had no idea that the seasons were reversed once you crossed the equator.  We have to be taught that too.

So now a lot of people have two facts in their heads that – having passed elementary school – they accept completely:  the earth orbits the sun, and the seasons are reversed on the different sides of the equator.  And yet, when asked why it gets colder in the winter, what do a lot of people do?  They fabricate an answer based on what feels right (the earth must be farther away from the sun) that directly contradicts what they know to be true (the earth isn’t getting colder everywhere.)

When I’ve had the time and the inclination, I’ve explained to many of these people the idea behind the axial tilt (yeah . . . I’m one of those annoying people, I guess).  And it isn’t really a difficult concept to grasp – everybody I’ve spoken to gets it easily.  And I’m certainly not calling anybody to whom this had to be pointed out stupid.  I’m just saying that this is another great example of how effortlessly we humans can come to believe things that are not true – things that even a moment’s reflection would make it clear to us cannot be true – simply because those things “make sense” to us on a visceral level.

And that’s fine when you’re playing a game of pool, or driving a car.  It’s much less helpful when you’re trying to get a handle on the global or national economy, or you’re contemplating something like climate change.

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