Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cognitive Biases and Intelligent Design

As spurious as we usually find Wikipedia, its "anything goes" style of categorization produces some interesting lists. For example: here's a list of known cognitive biases.

Some of our favorites include:

  • Endowment effect: "The fact that people often demand much more to give up an object than they would be willing to pay to acquire it."

  • Anthropic bias: the tendency for one's evidence to be biased by observation selection effects (in biochemistry, sometimes called "carbon chauvinism")

  • Observer-expectancy effect: when a researcher expects a given result and therefore unconsciously manipulates an experiment or misinterprets data in order to find it

  • Von Restorff effect: the tendency for an item that "stands out like a sore thumb" to be more likely to be remembered than other items.
But our new and instant favorite is inarguably the Texas sharpshooter fallacy:
The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is a logical fallacy where information that has no relationship is interpreted or manipulated until it appears to have meaning. The name comes from a story about a Texan who fires several shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the hits and claims to be a sharpshooter.


One cannot use the same information to construct and test the same hypothesis — to do so would be to commit the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.


Attempts to find cryptograms in the works of William Shakespeare, which tended to report results only for those passages of Shakespeare for which the proposed decoding algorithm produced an intelligible result. This is a fallacy, because somebody else selecting different passages would find a different pattern (or more likely, no pattern). A similar fallacy happened with cryptograms in the Bible.
Richard Feynman once made a facetious observation during a lecture. "This morning, I saw the most remarkable thing," he said. "Right in front of me on the drive in was a car with the license plate 'FG7-82S'. Can you imagine? What are the odds of that happening?" The implicated enthymeme - that we wouldn't consider such a license plate special unless it spelled something like 'H3Y - Y0U', and that such "specialness" is entirely a function of the observer's expectations - struck us as delightfully bracing. Apply this anecdote at will to creationists everywhere.


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