Yes, Your Feelings Are Fooling You

Hans Rosling, unknown unknowns, and how to be honest

Maarten van Doorn
Jun 26, 2019 · 7 min read

So I was lying in bed in my underwear, studying the physician Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness, when a biting passage made me want to jump out of bed and shout from the rooftops.

Rosling, by the way, is the guy from the famous colorful bubble charts. The statistician who proved most of us walk around with a hopelessly outdated set of beliefs about basic statistics of how the world is doing. Name any indicator of humanity’s progress — life expectancy, GDP, deaths due to accidents or sicknesses, the number of children finishing primary school (including girls), how many people own guitars (my favorite graph) — you’re probably mistaken about it.

He also swallows bayonets

We’re mostly wrong about the world, and things are a lot better than you think. That was Rosling’s message. He delivered it in papers and talks — from Davos to TED to the UN to you name it — in a disarming Swedish accent, wearing the typical checkered shirt and square glasses, spicing up his talk with many anecdotes and jokes. Rosling was a pleasant guy with humor.

Yet there is one passage in his book Factfulness where the man’s rage screams through the pages.

The map and the territory

Does a sword fit in your throat?

Rosling is a scientist at heart. While not as extreme as Shawn from The Good Place — who encases himself in a cocoon upon hearing human emotion — he makes a passionate case for cold facts over stomach-feelings (or other ones) or prejudices when it comes to figuring out whether vaccines work, how many children finish school, or other ‘emotion-independent’ truths.

To show that gut-intuitions can easily lead us astray, he has the habit of ending his show by swallowing a bayonet. Something many intuitively feel to be impossible but, they now see, evidently is not.

I’m reminded of how Eliezer Yudkowsky explains why good reasoners typically don’t believe there are goblins in their closets. “The ultimate reason for this isn’t,” Yudkowsky clarifies, “that goblin belief is archaic, outmoded, associated with people lost in fantasy worlds, [dumb, irrational, sounds implausible, doesn’t make sense to my gut/intuition/feeling], etc.”

Rather: “It’s just that we opened up our closets and looked and we didn’t see any goblins.”

The point: your beliefs should not reflect what feels true.

They should be based on how the world is.

You have unknown unknowns too

Factfulness was published after Rosling’s death, his last passion he completed while battling through his final months with pancreatic cancer.

In it, one more time, he explains why we systematically get the answers wrong when asked simple questions about global trends — what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school; et cetera.

As Donald Rumsfeld once said in a nice piece of do-it-yourself philosophy, on the one hand, there are ‘known unknowns’. Things we now realize we don’t know. When they are not relevant for the present discussion, we don’t take the potential existence of these known unknowns to impede us from having an opinion. I know I don’t know the number of hairs on my neighbor’s head, but that doesn’t matter for the argument in this essay.

On the other hand, we have ‘unknown unknowns’. Things we do not know we don’t know that could very well show that something we regard as true is in fact unlikely to be so.

Indeed, in many issues, when something we regard as true is in fact unlikely to be so, it’s not just that we (apparently) don’t know the truth (but think we do). The deeper predicament is that we don’t know that we don’t know.

There can be, then, a relevant unknown unknown: a piece of information that makes our ideas unlikely to be accurate and, if we were aware of it, would force us to change our minds about what we believe is true.

And unless you’re God, you have some unknowns unknowns too —some convictions you mistakenly take to be likely true because there is some information you’re not aware of.

(Side note: in trying to draw our map of reality, we’re making judgments what’s more likely and what’s less likely to be accurate. We’re not in the business of proving what’s possible and impossible. It’s just about more and less likely — that’s all.)

How (not) to be honest

When we have relevant unknown unknowns, as we all do, there’s some piece of information out there, that we’re not aware of, but makes unlikely something we regard as true. This should prompt us to reflect on this crucial question:

What are possible data I’m not aware of now but that, if God whispered these facts into my ear, would cause me to conclude I was probably wrong? What kind of evidence would convince me to change my mind about what’s likely?

For example, let’s say you believe the stars could affect on which day it would be smart of you to ask that guy out. One of the observable consequences of this, if it were true, would be that there must be a causal mechanism by which stars can influence the minds of people. It would be fair of you — in the spirit of Rosling — to clarify what possibly unknown unknown piece of information would make you change your mind. What piece of information, that is, would make you conclude it’s more likely that there are no astrological influences, than it’s likely that the fundamental laws of physics are wrong (as you currently claim).

Here’s another way to put the same point.

Philosophers of science explain to us that the scientific method is so powerful because it is the arrangement that allows reality to answer us back. Scientist’s work at experimentally engaging reality to respond — the elaborate testing and experimentation — provides the means for nature to answer scientists back, sometimes so forcefully and unambivalently that cherished hypotheses are, sooner or later, discarded.

Approaching it from this angle, we could ask:

In what way does reality have to answer me back in order for me to discard my hypothesis, for me to conclude that I was mistaken?

… And you die

Here, finally, is the passage — written by a dying, bayonet-swallowing world-improver — that I want to print on a billboard and shout from the rooftops:

In a devastating example of critical thinking gone bad, highly educated, deeply caring parents avoid the vaccinations that would protect their children from killer diseases. I love critical thinking and I admire skepticism, but only within a framework that respects the evidence.

So if you are skeptical about the measles vaccination … ask yourself, “What kind of evidence would convince me to change my mind?” If the answer is “no evidence could ever change my mind about vaccination,” then you are putting yourself outside evidence-based rationality, outside the very critical thinking that first brought you to this point.

In that case, to be consistent in your skepticism about science, next time you have an operation please ask your surgeon not to bother washing her hands [this means likely death!].

You have to read in between the lines a bit. If you tell your surgeon not to wash her hands, you’ll probably die. So when Rosling, rightly, points out what a no-evidence-could-change-my-mind-about-whether-biological-science-is-accurate view entails, he’s saying that those who think biologists are likely mistaken about how germs and vaccines affect human bodies ought to act in a way that likely causes their own death.

Which they are already doing when it comes to (their own) children’s lives! In 2019 — no, this isn’t fake news — vaccine hesitancy has made it into the top-10 threats to global health.

… That’s not so funny, is it now?

Revealing one’s intention

We’re all fallible creatures, and nobody is perfect, and of course you’re not required to have a list of belief-falsifying data ready on the spot. But if you’re in it for the truth, and not for some fraudulent purpose, then you must be willing to specify:

What kind of evidence would convince me to change my mind?

If you’re sincere about getting at the truth, and your ultimate purpose is to be helpful and right rather than to deceive, you cannot but admit that you, not being God, have unknown unknowns, and conclude from that:

“Well, if some fact X turns out to be the case and an unknown unknown for me right now, then I’ll have to change my mind about [whatever issue is at stake]”:

We have to learn to recognize when we’re falling into a mismatched pattern of thought, and we have to then use that information to update how we make connections between the objects in our environment. — Zat Rana, It’s Not What You Know, It’s How You Think

Consult the facts, not your instinct

You might wonder, in the grand scheme of things, WHAT’S THE MEANING OF LIFE and also why did I bother to tell you about go and look for goblins in your closet and go and test whether humans can ‘swallow’ swords.

Well, did Rosling’s bayonet-swallowing act change your mind about whether humans can do so?

Scientists are amassing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to delude ourselves. As the famous physicist and Nobel-laureate Richard Feynman already knew:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Therefore, you have to be willing to test your gut-sentiments against the data, and honestly conclude that your intuitions about the possibility of human sword-swallowing and, perhaps, your feelings about the wisdom of injecting babies with certain chemical compounds, have been misleading you.

If you like truth more than fake news, and honesty more than spin, you must be willing to point to a potential unknown unknown piece of information that constitutes what it would take for you to change your mind.

There’s more to that

If you’re looking for more rants involving goblins, bayonets, and babies, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

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Maarten van Doorn

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PhD philosophy. Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +719K people. Follow to join our community.

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD philosophy. Essays about why we believe what we do, how societies come to a public understanding about truth, and how we might do better (crazy times)

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +719K people. Follow to join our community.

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