Where did it all go so badly wrong? (Part IV: Confirmation bias)
[This is the fourth in a series of posts relevant to the all-consuming topic in Ireland at the moment: the fall of the Fianna Fail/Green Party Coalition Government, and the resulting general election to take place on the 25 February 2011. My title approximates a question/comment posed by a guest (I think it was Jim Glennon, the former FF TD) on George Hook’s programme on Newstalk].
Verificationism (also known as confirmation bias) is a pervasive cognitive error, where evidence favouring a particular point of view is collected and weighted heavily, and contrary evidence is discounted or ignored. House prices have been rising for years; therefore, they will continue to rise, so property is a safe-bet investment. Its opposite, falsificationism, is a difficult habit of mind to acquire. It is a must for any working scientist. Falsificationism requires considering what empirical evidence would invalidate (falsify) the position you are adopting. It seems, for example, that no amount of empirical evidence will convince the Labour Party that free fees do not increase access to third-level education (under-privileged students did not pay fees anyway!). Instead, just about all of the empirical evidence shows that to increase access, among other things, you need to intervene as early as is possible (from the pre-school level, and sustain this intervention through all of the school years). There are other variables too, from mentoring, to third-level institution-under-priviliged school relationships, etc. Cherry-picked anecdotes from a taxi-driver (former Minister Breathnach) are not evidence. One way of avoiding this bias is to state clearly what empirical evidence would falsify your opinion; another is to build an evidence-based brake into policy formation. In science this is done by international, anonymous, expert ‘peer review’. Peer-review and similar systems can be built into the process of Government. The terrible fiscal policy errors of the past ten years would likely have been detected if a properly-appointed and supported independent Fiscal Council had the job of publically peer-reviewing proposed Government policy. The mess which has torn up the corporate memory of Government departments (decentralisation) would not have made it out of Charlie McCreevy’s office had robust evidence-based policy tests been in place. The arguments for decentralisation pivoted on the focusing illusion, a cognitive error which emphasises only upside arguments (local benefits: ‘Welcome to Parlon country’ indeed!), but ignores costs (the wholesale destruction of corporate memory and procedure within departments). The whole country knew it was a boondoggle, but reversing policy mistakes of this scale and magnitude is very difficult indeed. Indeed, the whole debate about public sector efficiencies (the Croke Park Agreement) could usefully focus on the deadweight effects of appalling Government policy decisions, and figuring out how to reverse them.