The Frontal Cortex


Two examples of blinkered thinking:

1. Jeff Lewis, the incredibly entertaining lunatic at the center of Flipping Out, the real-estate reality television show on Bravo, fires his psychic because she wasn’t doing a good job of predicting the future. So what does he do? He goes and hires a different psychic. I’m fascinated by this thought process. On the one hand, Jeff’s empirical enough to realize that his psychic sucked. But he never even flirts with the possibility that all psychics suck. I know that we all have our rational blind spots, but rarely are they so elegantly captured on television.

2. I’ve recently been spending some time, perhaps too much time, with a few professional poker players. In general, these guys are mathematical freaks, able to crunch complicated probabilities in a split second. They tend to look at card hands like an insurance agent looks at a customer: no sentiment, just cruel cold statistics. Bayes would be proud.

And yet, I’ve never encountered a more superstitious bunch of individuals. (A common quip on the pro circuit is that “It’s unlucky to be superstitious”.) These guys have more nonsensical habits than Martin Luther. The best story I heard was that Jamie Gold, the 2006 winner of the WSOP, ordered scrambled eggs for breakfast everyday during the tournament even though he’s allergic to eggs. But Gold was convinced that eggs made him lucky.

What’s the moral? The mind has an astonishing capacity for contradiction. We can be good Bayesians and superstitious at the same time. That reminds me of a story a neuroscientist recently told me, about the addicted gambler who refused to give up his health insurance. The guy was flat out broke – and clearly loved engaging in risky games while inside the casino – but refused to tolerate the risk of a high-deductible. We sure are a funny species.

Got any other examples of inconsistent thinking? And please resist the obvious one about the scientist who believes in God…

Update: Somehow I wrote a whole post about internal contradictions without mentioning the one currently making headlines. The self-blindness (or is it just cynical political hypocrisy) demonstrated by Larry Craig and David Vitter is rather astonishing. But that’s another post.


  1. #1 mandrewa
    August 31, 2007


    I’m surprised by your assertion that a “scientist believing in
    God” is a contradiction. Let alone an obvious one.

    Would you elaborate on that?

    Recently I ran into an essay discussing Benedict de Spinoza which laid
    out the most persuasive argument against the existence of God that I’ve
    ever seen, but I don’t think most scientists have even heard of Spinoza
    let alone know the argument.


    But one can easily be a scientist without agreeing with Spinoza.

    Is his reasoning yours?

  2. #2 Jonah
    August 31, 2007

    I certainly have no problem with scientists believing in God, as long as it doesn’t affect their science. I subscribe to the version of scientific history in which the birth of modern science is intertwined with religion, and I believe that our early attempts to decipher reality (15th-18th century) were merely attempts to understand the work of God. Nature was just another book of the Bible, another divine text to be decoded. So I think it’s a little silly to insist that modern, 21st century science is at war with anything that isn’t utterly secular.

    My off-hand comment was merely an attempt to avoid the predictable avalanche of comments about God and science. Thanks for letting me clarify.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    August 31, 2007

    I would expect that whether “modern, 21st century science” conflicts with anything depends upon what we know now, in the twenty-first century, rather than what Newton knew in 1700.

  4. #4 mandrewa
    August 31, 2007

    Well, I agree with you Blake. That still leaves open the question
    of whether “modern, 21st century science” does conflict with a
    belief in God.

  5. #5 The Chieftain of Seir
    August 31, 2007

    I am very flattered by Mr. Mandrewa’s assessment of my essay.

    All credit should really go to Spinoza though. All I did in the first part of my essay was lay out Spinoza’s arguments as I understood them and why I thought that Spinoza anticipated modern thought on the nature of reality and how one should use reason to perceive truth.

    The second part of my essay was devoted to showing how Spinoza (and by extension modern thought) was mistaken.

    I am not going to bore you all with the details of my argument. I just did not want Mr. Mandrew’s comment to lead people to believe that I was an atheist. That is giving me too much credit. In reality, I am an ignorant fundamentalist hillbilly who happens to have a passing familiarity with some of the better atheistic arguments out there.

  6. #6 mandrewa
    September 13, 2007

    Chieftain of Seir,

    I apologize for this delayed response.

    You understate your achievement. Yes, I realize that Spinoza
    is a genius and that basically what you have done in your essay is
    to understand what he said and relate and interprete some part of
    these ideas to the modern world.

    Yes. But it’s a particularly small set of people that have done
    any such thing.

    I could have put in a link to Spinoza’s texts and if a thousand
    people went to those texts I’d know ahead of time that not one would
    get it.

    I put in a link to yours, and the odds of understanding are significantly

    It’s also possible — I don’t know — that your interpretation, your
    lucid reasoning about what Spinoza means, is unique.

    Here are the nails that you drove that particularly jumped out at me.

    a. Spinoza is arguably the beginning of the modern era. Many of
    his propositions are now taken as default assumptions. These
    propositions seem ordinary and unexceptional today because we assume
    them, but at the time they were disturbing.

    b. The shoe is still dropping. Although many of Spinoza’s ideas
    are now the unexamined assumptions of modern man, some parts have still
    not been appreciated.

    c. Spinoza’s work is in part a proof that God (in the sense that is
    normally meant) does not exist.

    d. We now know that one of Spinoza’s basic assumptions has been peculiarly

    e. Since Spinoza’s reasoning is a good part of the foundation of science
    and many other things, all these things now have a hole at their

    f. No solution to the problem is in sight. The universe seems a wilder
    and stranger place than what was at one time believed. In particular
    the possibility of the existence of some kind of God has been reopened.


    Moving on to your self-deprecrating assertion above that you are a “ignorant
    fundamentalist hillbilly,” I think I understand what you’re saying.

    By “ignorant” you mean in the trivial and ordinary sense that of all the
    possible things to know you know hardly any, while in the particular
    sense it’s a political comment that you don’t necessarily believe what
    the in-clique — the right sort of people — believe. It means you’re
    proud you flunked Political Conformity 101.

    By “hillbilly” you mean you were raised in the Appalachians.

    By “fundamentalist” you mean you’re parents were fundamentalist and
    you yourself were raised in that tradition, and you don’t believe that
    fundamentalists are the monsters that those who major in Conformity
    believe. But I refuse to believe that you yourself think that the Bible
    is to be taken literally.

    I realize that you’re a very smart person and it’s possible you’re
    going to take my disbelief as a challenge to make the implausible sound
    plausible, but I’ll tell you already I’m not buying it.

  7. #7 mandrewa
    September 13, 2007

    Thinking over that comment I made just above, I realized I left out
    something important, a particularly important nail that the Chieftain
    of Seir drove.

    Namely that Spinoza uniquely or almost uniquely among philosphers
    made something like falsifiable assertions about the universe.

    Odd assertions that have been tested and amazingly proven true.

    We know this because of Einstein, in particular, because Einstein took
    Spinoza not just as a guide, as a reasonable approximation of what the
    universe must be like, but he took him literally, as an exact description
    of how the universe the worked. Since that implausible assumption turned out
    to be amazingly productive we know that Spinozan metaphysics has to to
    some degree of precision correspond to the real universe.

    There is a sense in which it cannot be discredited.

    In the same way Newtonian physics cannot be discredited. It may be
    an approximation and in some domains in fact very wrong, but in many
    other contexts it will always be a very good approximation.

  8. #8 Miss11
    October 22, 2009

    The following table describes these methods. ,

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