Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Nedgroup's commercial about Sullenberger's landing on the Hudson is about expert heuristics, but is the analogy apt?

Nedgroup Investments (South Africa) is currently airing a striking commercial in which Captain Chesley Sullenberger narrates his landing Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after losing both engines to bird strikes. In the commercial. Sullenberger ascribes his feat to being "... just a pilot who used thirty years of experience to do my job." This is a good description of expert heuristics that developed over may years of experience in the form of associative memory. Herbert Simon, one of the founders of what is now known as behavioural economics, described this intuitive expertise here as "... nothing more and nothing less than recognition" (see also Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, p. 237). Alessandro Cerboni regularly blogs on expert heuristics and is worth following. 

The Nedbank commercial is an good one and will probably (speaking as layman on advertising) be effective. The question, however, is whether the implied analogy between the expert heuristics in an individual based on 30 years experience and the accumulated corporate memory of an investment bank, is an apt one? Therefore, can an organization acquire heuristic decision making skills, or are such skills lodged in individual human beings? A Google search brought up a number of studies on simple group heuristics (i.e. here), but I personally doubt that that would apply to a complex organisation operating in a complex environment. The answer may be found in the concept of corporate memory, about which I blogged some time ago in "Therapy for corporate Alzheimers".

Monday, July 8, 2013

Failed heuristics due to pilot's lack of Boeing 777 experience in Asiana crash landing?

Aircraft accidents make for useful case studies in researching heuristics (rules of thumb) based decision making. This is because multiple high-stakes decisions are made, compressed in time, space and complexity. According to Scott Shappell and Douglas Wiegman between 70 and 80% of air crashes are commonly ascribed, at least partly, to human error. They distinguish between errors of decision making, skill and perception.

Consider the recent crash landing of the Boeing 777 of Asiana Airlines at the San Francisco airport. The air crash investigation is obviously ongoing and the causes will eventually be established. It is, however, even at this stage clear that pilot error may have played a role.

In this post I would like to focus on the relative inexperience of the pilot on the specific aircraft and its possible role in poor heuristics based decision making. Expert heuristics based decision making typically occurs in what Kahneman refers to as intuitive (System 1) thinking and depends heavily on associative memory that comes from experience, lots of it (10 000 hours, if you accept Gladwell's popular account). Gary Klein is considered one of the experts in experts' intuitive decision making (pun unintended).

It was reported that the pilot in the Asiana incident had only 43 hours experience on the Boeing 777 and was making his first landing at the San Francisco airport. While he did have almost 10 000 hours total flying experience, consider the complexity of an airliner cockpit relative to a motor vehicle's controls. Then consider the difficulty the typical driver experiences when driving an unfamiliar vehicle. That should demonstrate the importance of expert experience based intuitive decision making when landing a relatively unfamiliar aircraft at a relatively unfamiliar airport. For another opinion on this issue, see this by Scully Levin (former SAA training captain) in Beeld, only in Afrikaans.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

There's still life in the old nag!

Right, time to get the show on the road again. There will be a change in emphasis, as I'll be spending more time on a developing interest, the role of conscious and unconscious heuristics in judgement and decision making. Long time readers (if there are any still around), don't despair, I still be taking on the odd myth that quacks live by.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Edge's question for 2012

From The Edge: To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

Yes, it's time again to marvel at the stimulating ideas put forward in highly condensed form by some of the world's leading scientists, philosophers and so forth. The question for 2012:

What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?

Last year's was especially good, considering the topics on this blog:

What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?

My choice? Well, obviously that would be Occam's Razor, as reflected in Einstein's Blade in Ockham's Razor by Kai Krause.

Other Edge questions over the years were:

  • 2005 - What do you believe is true, but cannot prove?

  • 2006 - What is your dangerous idea?

  • 2007 - What are you optimistic about?

  • 2008 - What have you changed your mind about?

  • 2009 - What will change everything?

  • 2010 - Is the internet changing the way you think?
  • Thursday, January 5, 2012

    False balance is an abomination

    A false balance is abomination to the Lord: but a just weight is his delight. — Proverbs 11:1

    From Wikipedia: False balance, also known as false compromise or argument to moderation, or argumentum ad temperantiam - a logical fallacy which asserts that given two positions there exists a compromise between them which must be correct.

    Also from Wikipedia: "Today, false balance is used to describe a perceived or real media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports."

    Hat tip to Dr. Harris Steinman from CAMCheck for drawing my attention to the excellent editorial, When balance is bias, in the British Medical Journal. The full text is behind a paywall, but can be read in CAMCheck.

    What more is there to say? Political correctness and fear of being accused of bias often make cowards of us all. In many debates there is only one logical, or scientifically viable, position. To pretend otherwise in order to appease the illogical or scientifically nonsensical side of the debate, is disingenuous.

    Examples include the anthropomorphic global warming debate, the vaccination debate and the evolution debate.

    Wikipedia seems to have a handle on the issue of managing the appropriate balance. Dave Snowden in Cognitive Edge points out that Wikipedia requires a balance of reliable sources, not a balance of political perspectives. Hat tip to Snowden for a good book relating to this issue, Farhad Manjoo's True enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

    * Image of no-go scale from The Gleaming Retort.

    Tuesday, January 3, 2012

    God, guns and crime

    Michael Shermer over at Skeptiblog had an interesting discussion on whether more God, or more guns, equal less crime. He based his discussion on his interaction with Professors Byron Johnson (More God, less crime) and John Lott (More guns, less crime).

    Both these premises could of course lead to massive correlation-causation confusion. Shermer found the evidence advanced by John Lott much more convincing than Johnson's. It should be noted that John Lott is a very controversial figure, but that despite questions about his methodology and even ethics, on the whole his premise that more guns equal less crime has held up, at least in developed countries.

    According to Shermer, Johnson's conviction that more God equals less crime, is based primarily on prison conversions. Shermer is very skeptical about prison conversions and I share his skepticism. I am not aware of research that shows what percentage of felons who converted to any religion in prison, remained in and practiced their new found faith after prison (and of course did not engage in crime again).

    Sadly, the contrary may be true. Shermer quoted Gregory Paul from his well-known 2005 study: "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,..." I doubt that these correlations will hold true in a country such as South Africa, but this should be food for thought in religious communities everywhere.

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011

    Define to confuse

    I have often wondered whether definitions of complex issues don't just serve to confuse the issue. We sometimes know what something is until we try to define it.

    Bob Sutton over at Work Matters calls this the "... folly of crafting precise definitions." He quotes a physicist friend, Larry Ford, who frustrates behavioural scientists with statements such as, "... there is a negative relationship between precision and accuracy."

    This creates a dilemma for persons like me, who prefer concepts to precisely defined and carefully measured; and who like solutions to be evidence based. An approach that seems well able to manage the ambiguities of complexity can be found at Dave Snowden's Cognitive Edge. Their South African 'agent' is Sonja Blignaut at The Narrative Lab.

    Saturday, May 21, 2011

    More complex than we can imagine

    My Phd back in the 1980's dealt with the possible role of inefficient interhemispheric transfer in specific learning disabilities. The models from which I worked were the effects of commissurotomies and agenesis of the corpus callosum and other commissures. In neuropsychology much was made of the localization of function and double dissociation was the gold standard. Norman Geschwind's disconnection theories were very influential in both neurology and neuropsychology.

    Image from Wikipedia Commons file authored by Thomas Schultz.

    It was also the time that simplistic pop-psychology ideas about whole brain stimulation proliferated. Neuroscientists tried to stop the flow of whole brain half-wittery to no avail. The trainers, the teachers, the mystics, the quacks and the charlatans latched on to the left-brain right-brain whole-brain idea like leeches and never let go again. The fact that neuroscience soon proved these simplistic ideas wrong was merely a mild inconvenience.

    Two quotes from a recent post "Connectomics" by Steven Novella over at Neurologica shows just how ridiculously oversimplified the left-brain right-brain concept is:

    "There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the adult human brain. Each neuron makes thousands of connections to other neurons, resulting in an approximate 150 trillion connections in the human brain. The pattern of those connections is largely responsible for the functionality of the brain – everything we sense, feel, think, and do. Neuroscientists are attempting to map those connections – in an effort known as connectomics."
    "... the connections among neurons in the brain are not the only feature that contributes to brain function. The astrocytes and other “support” cells also contribute to brain function. There is also a biochemical level to brain function – the availability of specific neurotransmitters, for example. So even if we could completely reproduce the neuronal connections in the brain, there are other layers of complexity superimposed upon this."

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    Darwin Awards for sky shooters

    Celebratory gunfire is an idiotic practice that results in many innocent deaths. According to Wikipedia 38 people died from random falling bullets in Los Angeles between 1985 and 1992. Celebratory gunfire in Kuwait after the end of the Gulf War in 1991 caused 20 deaths.

    We saw a lot of this stupid practice on television lately in Libyan war. I remember watching it and thinking that these idiots were not only wasting ammunition they may later need, but could also get innocent people killed.

    Now a "dof" (dof - Afrikaans term for dumb) rebel "celebrated" by firing an anti-aircraft cannon into the sky near Brega in Libya while a NATO warplane was patrolling the area. As anyone with half a brain would have predicted, the pilot "retaliated" and bombed the terrain, killing 16 rebels. In a just world the shooter would have been one of them and would have earned himself a Darwin Award. The Darwin Award is a satirical award given to those who most stupidly get themselves killed and thus remove themselves from the human gene pool to the genetic advantage of the rest of humanity.

    Thursday, March 31, 2011

    Tips for teachers from the neurobiology of learning

    The term "brain based education" seems to be redundant, a no-brainer, what else could education be based on, the liver? Yet it is one of the the biggest sources of quackery in education, also in South Africa. I list the advice by Prof. Michael Friedlander with some trepidation therefore, lest some quack latch onto something he or she does not fully understand and build a new mythology on it.

    Prof. Friedlander offered advice based on the neurobiology of learning for medical educators. I briefly list his ideas of factors important for learning below, summarised from Brain Scientists Offer Medical Educators Tips on the Neurobiology of Learning. Read the article itself for more information.

  • Repetition, appropriately spaced

  • Reward and reinforcement

  • Visualization

  • Active engagement

  • Stress (moderate)

  • Fatigue (the importance of sleep to consolidate learning)

  • Multitasking (provided tasks are relevant)

  • Individual learning styles
  • Here I would differ, there is ample evidence that teaching to individual learning styles is ineffective.

  • Active involvement: Doing is learning

  • Revisiting information and concepts using multimedia

  • Note that brain profiling, whole brain learning, the triune brain, brain blockages, etc., does not appear in the list!

    Sunday, March 20, 2011

    Facilitated Communication, what's the harm?

    "Facilitated communication (FC) is a process by which a facilitator supports the hand or arm of a communicatively impaired individual while using a keyboard or other devices with the aim of helping the individual to develop pointing skills and to communicate." (Wikipedia)

    It is, to my knowledge, not commonly used in South Africa. It is very controversial, the main issue being just who is communicating, the communicatively impaired person or the facilitator? The danger of misrepresentation and even fraud (even if unconscious) by the facilitator is obvious. FC has in the main been rejected by professional organisations, including the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

    So, what's the harm? There have been numerous cases of false accusations by facilitators of physical and sexual abuse by parents or other care-givers. Were they actually communicating the intent of the disabled person, or injecting their own (twisted) opinions? The role of therapists in the false recovered memory scams are analogous.

    That is exactly what happened in a case in Michigan , USA, as reported by Kim Wombles and Dr. James Todd in Science2.0, Facilitated Communication: A price too high to pay. I highly recommend reading the full article and the comments for a terrifying account of the damage created by a (probably) mentally disturbed facilitator, assisted by the vicious abuse of authority and lack of critical thinking skills by school staff, prosecutors and even the judge.

    I quote just the first paragraph of Dr. Todd's account:

    "I was one of the defense experts in the original criminal case against the Wendrows, along with Howard Shane, both of us testifying and consulting. It is hardly possible to describe how bizarre,vicious, and unjust the prosecution of the family was. In a rational world, accusations arising from facilitated communication would never be used in court. Facilitated accusations would summarily dismissed, and those who advanced them would be the ones in trouble. After more than a quarter century, there remains not a single methodologically sound study showing that FC has worked for a single individual. Dozens of studies have shown it reliably fails to produce genuine communication. The output is the facilitator's. That is what the science has shown--over and over. That's the reality of FC."
    This was not the only case of its kind.

    Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    How to complain about quack claims in South Africa

    The excellent work of the Treatment Action Campaign in the fight against HIV-quackery is well-known. The TAC now sponsors a blog, Quackdown, run by Nathan Gethen.

    Gethen recently posted a very useful Quick guide to lodging complaints with ASASA, the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa. It covers when to complain, how to complain and explains the process. Individuals can lay complaints free of charge. If I only had this information when I took on BioStrath's claims on ADHD.

    A hat tip to Dr. Harris Steinman from the excellent CAMcheck for alerting me to Quackdown. CAMcheck has many examples of complaints about quack advertisements and the outcomes.

    Monday, March 7, 2011

    The Edge's question for 2011

    Every year The Edge asks prominent scientists and other thinkers to answer a specific thought provoking question. The answers are always diverse and make for stimulating (if humbling) reading. Profound thoughts in byte sized chunks that even non-scientists can take heed of. These were the questions posed over the years:

  • 2005 - What do you believe is true, but cannot prove?

  • 2006 - What is your dangerous idea?

  • 2007 - What are you optimistic about?

  • 2008 - What have you changed your mind about?

  • 2009 - What will change everything?

  • 2010 - Is the internet changing the way you think?

  • The question for 2011 is very topical in a time where anti-science attitudes and irrational thinking seem to be proliferating across the globe:

    2011 - What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?

    Now, if that could really happen, but don't hold your breath.

    Sunday, February 27, 2011

    Brain Gym's disingenuous response to being caught out

    Three years ago Brain Gym was comprehensively discredited and faced a perfect storm. What has happened to them since? My observation is (no specific evidence) that they had been lying low. Certainly in South Africa they seem to have been less visible, which may however, have been due to the rise of competing quackeries rather than the bad publicity.

    Image from liveandlearn.net.au

    During the storm faced by Brain Gym in 2008, I tried to find a comprehensive online response from them without success. In preparing for this post,I finally found a response by Paul and Gail Dennison, the founders of Brain Gym. They responded specifically to the excellent review by Sense about Science. I had hoped for an honest appraisal of Brain Gym, taking into consideration all the science based criticism they have previously ignored. As shown below, that was not to be and I can only describe their response as disingenuous.

    The Dennisons' general reasoning was that Brain Gym worked, that they did not know and had never claimed to know why it worked. Further that they did not understand the neuroscience underlying the putative effects of Brain Gym and had never claimed to do so.

    Brain Gym works?

    Let's consider the Dennisons' first claim, Brain Gym works. They base this on "... more than a hundred anecdotal, qualitative, and quantitative studies and reports, ... available in the Research Chronology and published in Brain Gym Journal". Now that will only fool the Brain Gym faithful, whom of course the Dennisons' piece was written for. Anecdotes are not evidence. I've seen most of the studies they refer to. Mostly they were performed by Brain Gym practitioners (not independent), no control groups were used, or if there were control groups blinded designs were not used. Being published in the Brain Gym Journal obviously mean that the studies were not published in independent, peer reviewed journals. The Dennisons surely knew that the lack of credible evidence has been one of the main objections against Brain Gym, see for instance, Hyatt, K.J. 2007. Brain Gym: Building stronger brains or wishful thinking? Remedial and Special Education, Vol. 28, No. 2, 117-124. Who are they trying to fool?

    The next line of "evidence" to support their claim that Brain Gym works is the self report of their subjects. Now keep in mind that Brain Gym is used primarily in primary schools (although you find the odd high school and even corporate that values the dignity of their students or staff so little as to subject them to such nonsense).

    Here are two typical quotes from their article:

    "Our students report that, after holding the Positive Points, they are better able to think clearly, make choices, consider consequences, and let go of emotional overlay from past experiences."
    "Many students notice that their abilities to comprehend and think independently have improved upon increased spinal flexibility."

    Keep in mind that one of Brain Gym's claims is that their techniques work almost instantaneously. I've known some pretty bright people, but that level of instant introspection and insight I've never experienced. It is well-known that people's self-assessments are inaccurate and that on average, people rate themselves above average in any skill (which makes no statistical sense). See for instance this article Flawed Self-Assessment: Implications for Health, Education, and Business, hat tip and more information in Barking up the wrong tree.

    Look, however, at any Brain Gym manual and you see that the improvements their subjects (whether teachers or children) report are based on suggestion, acquiescence bias and confirmation bias. Children in particular are known to be suggestible and acquiescent to adults. What do you expect a child to report after reading in the Brain Gym manual for kids that:
    "We hold (our Positive Points) ... whenever we feel nervous of afraid. We know we can achieve our goals when we stop worrying about things and start working on them. In less than a minute, we begin to feel peaceful about planning for the future."
    That is the kind of evidence the Dennisons advance for their claims for the effectiveness of Brain Gym. It is sad to realise that many parents,teachers and even educational administrators will find that sufficient.

    They were clueless about the neuroscience?

    I've shown the Dennisons' claim that Brain Gym works to be without evidence. That makes the rest of their argument, i.e. they cannot be blamed for getting the neuroscience wrong as they never claimed to understand it in the first place, irrelevant. It is cynical and disingenuous, however.

    I've read numerous Brain Gym documents and attended a number of Brain Gym presentations over the years. Never once did I hear any Brain Gym consultant, including the Brain Gym gurus in South Africa at the time, admit to not understanding the science behind it. Their modus operandi was always to dazzle the audience with pop neuroscience, including Paul Maclean's triune brain, Roger Sperry's split brain and neurophysiology claims purportedly by Paul Dennison himself and also by Brain Gym's Carla Hannaford. I had one Brain Gym consultant telling me that he knew very well that the neuroscience claims were nonsense, but that he could not say that to the university of technology students he was working with as would destroy the placebo effect (which he claimed was due to quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle)!

    I've looked again at Dennison's Switching On and Hannaford's Smart Moves. While much of what they wrote was scientifically questionable, nowhere did they admit to being clueless about the neuroscience. They were bullshitting then about the science behind Brain Gym and they're bullshitting now about never claiming a scientific basis for Brain Gym.

    Thursday, February 24, 2011

    Gullibility bracelets, what's the harm?

    I'm a Johny-come-lately to this story, just about every newspaper and skeptical blog has covered the Power Balance bracelet fad started by the brothers, Troy and Josh Rodarmel. My first reaction was to call the brothers scam artists and worse. But, just think about it, what a boon for skeptics and bullshit busters - the scientific illiterati exposing their gullibility on the wrist for all to see!

    OK, that's a bit over the top. But still, it's quite amusing to observe and see just who is wearing the silly bracelets. As far as health scams go, the bracelets are fairly harmless. To my knowledge, no one is wearing the bracelets and as a result foregoing cancer treatment. What's the harm if some old folk wear them and due to the placebo effect believe that they're experiencing fewer aches and pains? No one will be bankrupted by buying them, especially with counterfeit bracelets costing less than candy bars flooding the market.

    Well, I believe the harm comes when children are involved. I see more and more disabled children wearing these things, believing their balance and coordination have improved. For many children with cerebral palsy and their parents, improved balance and coordination are crucial for better functioning and even for better career prospects. Improved balance and coordination is the false promise of Power Balance bracelets. These children and parents have typically had many disappointments in their lives, these bracelets will be more.

    Other areas of concern with children, are the false ideas they gain about science and how the body works. Parents (adults) may be satisfied with placebo induced illusions of improved power and coordination, but do they really want their children to believe that holograms can manipulate non-existing energy to produce mysterious improvements in the body?

    I am not going into the scientific detail of why Power Balance bracelets are a scam, there are many other blogs doing that. One excellent post is by Brian Dunning in Skepticblog, entititled Power Balance: Magical energy bracelets or nonsense?