Saturday 1 August 2009

The man at the reins of the caveman at the reins of the Soil Association

I've been following the response to the recent systematic review of the health benefits and nutritional content of organic food with some interest. It's left me with an odd sense of despair which I'm trying to figure out. It's not so much the Soil Association's piss-poor retort1, but the sense that neither statement has any bearing on the public's feelings on the issue, or policy.

The Soil Association's willful misrepresentation of a powerful scientific tool (systematic review) is odious, but I don't think that it's going to adversely affect the public's understanding of systematic review. Anyone who blithely swallows their implied argument of "cherry picking" does so because it's a pleasing rationalisation of their existing bias, not because it makes any logical sense, so I doubt they will form some general conclusion that systematic reviews are a poor tool. Likewise, I doubt many who accept the report's findings will do so because of an understanding of its methodological rigour. This is an example of "confirmation bias", the tendency for us to favour findings which match our preconceived notions, and to dismiss those that contradict them.

I've recently finished reading Dan Gardner's "Risk" 2, which draws extensively on evolutionary psychology and the structure of the mind to discuss how we rationally and irrationally interact with risks. At the heart of the book is the notion that our brains run on two "systems", essentially the instinctive and the rational. The animal-like and instinctive "system 1", crafted by evolution, calls its shots using various hard-coded and unconscious "heuristics". The rational "system 2", the conscious human, applies flexible logic, imagination, reason, and emotion.

Unfortunately for the human, the caveman brain gets to call the shots by default. Speed is the issue. If the sleek modern mind scratches its chin as we're approached by a tiger, heedless of the caveman's instinctive cry to flee, we're hosed. So the caveman gets first dibs, and it's up to the modern mind to attempt to interpret correct that response if it gets the time. Often, its override doesn't work very well, especially if the caveman's in an imposing emotional state. The caveman's decision can stand unopposed, with the modern man only stepping in to provide a post-hoc rationalisation. This is bad enough when I've elected to buy Legends Springer, but it's a serious concern when the caveman winds up making public policy decisions.

The depressing - and hopefully inaccurate - conclusion is that our rational minds are cludgy patches to a piece of software that is meant to roam the savanna, a piece of software as cold and remorseless as any nightmarish android.3 I've concluded that this idea was floating around in my mind after I finished Gardner's book, and that what bothers me about the Soil Association's reaction, and everyone else's for that matter, is that it's such a stunning reminder of what irrational beings we actually are. If we're really just puny minds at the reigns of mighty cave men, what hope is there? What power exists that could "change our minds" for more than a lifespan?

I'm finishing this blog entry a few days after I started it, so my emotional state isn't quite the same. That last question is no longer rhetorical. To what extent can our modern mind over-rule the ancient one? What can we, as individuals or communities, do to take a more rational approach? Can politics move beyond using science as another rhetorical club when it's in its favour and discrediting it when it's not? I have no reason to believe so, but I hope that our rational minds are up to the job.

1Goldacre's links once again providing a fun counterpoint to his article titles.
2Amazon link.
3In the extreme case, we have this result, which suggets the conscious mind's freedom is an illusion, and the unconscious brain has already made our decisions for us! However the decision in question - pressing a button when the time seems "right" - is probably instinctive anyway.

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