Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Upside of Down: Chapter 6

ADMITTING YOU HAVE A PROBLEM: What Gamblers Anonymous Could Have Taught Dan Rather

A.K.A. The First Endnote In This Chapter Is A Cite Of A FreeRepublic Thread

No, seriously.

I don't get paid enough for this. But hey, you wanna support me? You wanna enable my descent into literary masochism? I'm a writer too, you know, and a frustrated one. Right now I'm working on a novel called The Oasis is Burning, which you can read for free at that link. Maybe share it with your friends and acquaintances? It's kind of like It Can't Happen Here meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a little Casablanca thrown in.

...Oh, right, the chapter. Awesome for me. Chapter 6 is about exactly what you think it's about - that glorious moment when the brave bloggers broke the spine of the liberal MSM and introduced the world to the power of the citizen journalist, ushering in a new age of reporting (and then they blew it by sending their kerners to try and discredit the Schiavo Memo. Way to go).

So...why is this here, in what's clearly meant to be a business book? All of the boob bait up until now could be rationalized as being relevant - Solyndra and welfare reform and the UAW and even Moochelle's health food tyranny are all within a couple degrees of the business world. The "everybody gets a trophy" crap from Chapter 1 (anyone remember that?) is the exception, but that was minor and I think we can chalk that up more to McArdle's premature fogeyism than to an attempt to add wingnut appeal. But where's the connection here? When we get to the end, we'll see that there are really more relevant, less political examples that she could have used. And I doubt it will have much purchase with the usual suspects, who've taken to denying that they ever supported George W. Bush.

For those reasons, I'm going to speed through this one. This is actually a short chapter - under 20 pages, compared to 25-30 for everything else. And while it is truly awful, I've peeked ahead and Chapter 7 is somehow much worse and yet should be more interesting to critique. So, if no one's offended, I think I'll skip the rundown of the glorious victory of the nimble tech-savvy patriots over the feeble liberal horde and just talk about McArdle's supporting information and her conclusion, which I suspect will make you laugh and/or scream at the monitor.

There's a famous psychology experiment that most undergraduate psych students are put through...It consists mostly of a video containing people who are standing in a circle and passing a basketball around between them. Participants are asked to perform a simple task: to count the number of times that a basketball is passed between two people in the circle...
After the video is shown, participants are asked to submit their results, which usually roughly agree with each other. Then they're asked what else they noticed in the video...
"The person in the gorilla suit?" the experimenter prods gently. "The one who came into the middle of the circle and beat on his chest before he walked out again?...None of you?"
You're killing me, McArdle, and not just because you tagged dialogue with "prods gently." The experiment she's describing was formulated by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. I happen to have a copy of their book, The Invisible Gorilla, sitting on my desk as I type this because I finished reading it about a month ago. Need I tell you that McArdle gets some things wrong here? First off, fifty percent of people notice the gorilla, not zero percent as McArdle suggests. That's the question mark in this study. Human nature being what it is, we seek to separate the people who noticed and the ones who didn't into distinct groups, but we've consistently failed to do so. The most Chabris and Simons came up with is that basketball players are somewhat more likely to be in the "notice" group because it's a situation they deal with, something referred to as "narrow transfer."

But more than that, the gorilla experiment is specifically regarding visual perception and attention, meaning that is yet another section that's wholly irrelevant. McArdle is trying to tie this in to some more abstract and general concept of perception ("...she was talking herself into believing the documents - focusing on the reasons to believe them, and ignoring that pesky gorilla in the room."), but that's simply not what the experiment is about. Keep this in mind any time you read a review praising McArdle (or any similar pop sociology writer) for her great research. Book reviewers are pretty lousy at handling books like this - they have neither the time nor the mindset to figure out if all those impressive endnotes actually mean what the author claims they mean. They go from the gut, same as everyone else.

Speaking of things that are irrelevant, McArdle hasn't inserted herself into the narrative in a while. Let's amend that:
Several years ago, I was showing this video to some friends at a party, and nope, no one had noticed the guy in the gorilla suit. But after we'd watched it a few times, one of my friends finally noticed the name of the professor who'd filmed it.
"Hey, that guy is my brother's graduate advisor!" he said. "I wonder...?"
So we watched the video again. Sure enough, his brother is in the video, and he hadn't noticed.
That added a lot.

And speaking of endnotes, you want to see the most useless citation ever? Endnote 7 is a strong contender:
One writer who Mapes contacted told me about in in a private email after reading an early draft of this chapter.
Second-degree hearsay from an anonymous source. Stellar.

How much space have I wasted on this? Ugh, let's wrap this up. Here's McArdle's conclusion, the justification for cramming this nonsense into her business book:
We all have an instinctive tendency to accentuate the positive, especially when the alternative is threatening. The key to overcoming this natural tendency is to accept information from outside sources - even, maybe, outside sources who hate you. They're the only ones who can break through all the motivated reasoning, the cognitive ruts that are all too easy to get into when you're among a large group of like-minded people.
If there is one lesson I've learned from Megan McArdle, it's that I should accept outside advice, listen to my critics, avoiding doubling down on errors or making excuses and admit mistakes in a timely fashion.

That's being a little unfair. Tu quoque - the fact that the author has never followed her own advice doesn't mean that the advice is bad. It is good to check your sources, it's something more people should do. The fact that McArdle is a raging hypocrite doesn't change that, although the fact that McArdle has succeeded despite all of this does make one wonder if her arguments maybe aren't as applicable in the real world as they would be in a logic class.

But I bring this up not because I wish to tear down the argument but because I'm trying to figure out why McArdle was paid to make it. Megan McArdle is the worst person to write about the growth potential of failure because she has a history of refusing to admit that she was wrong about anything. It's not at all uncommon for a journalist (and that's how she refers to herself throughout this chapter) to write a book collecting technical information on subjects in which s/he is not an expert. In that case, the writer has to bring something to the table, usually something personal. In McArdle's case, I was promised a very rare discussion of her own mistakes and how she learned from them. Here's a bit from the introduction - please try to overlook the abysmal writing and see the promise she made:
I am a spectacular failure. I am the Mozart of misfortune, the Paganini of bad luck...As you'll see in the chapters to come, the amazing husband and the fabulous job are the gifts of my previous failures.
Thus far, those "failures" have consisted of not worrying about her mother's health quite as much as she should have and getting dumped. I've peeked ahead a bit and the stuff she admits to never gets much heavier than that. She certainly never cops to making any serious errors once her ascent began, and for good reason, I imagine. Anyone who picked up this book without knowing who McArdle was and read about her botching basic math or moving the goalposts when her critics called her out or defending herself with weird analogies might start to doubt that she earned much of anything. All of those things make the unstated thesis seem more likely.

Maybe I'm wrong - there is still a significant chunk of the book left - but I suspect that any admission of serious fault is going to come with a very heavy dose of rationalization. You can see what I'm talking about in that last link, which was the first mea culpa McArdle made about Iraq - in 2008, after five solid years of denial. That article is interesting in that McArdle displays the roots of this book while getting so defensive that it undermines everything that she's arguing. Sure, she admits to being wrong, but only after a lot of this:
This is, as I have tried to say in other posts, valuable information--information that opponents of the war are losing as they insist that the thing was obvious...Knowing that "Iraq was a bad idea" or even "Persons X, Y or Z got it right" will not, by itself, much help us. It is extremely risky to rely on genius--for one thing, they might no be around when you need them, and for another, genius is often hard to separate from having the right set of biases to fit the situation...The cognitive biases that affected us were not unique, as witness to the fact that many of them are now in prominent display among many war opponents.
McArdle is only willing to admit to being wrong on the grounds that everyone admit that she was only really wrong because of circumstances, and that her reasoning was sound so it's not like she was wrong wrong, and as long as we all agree that the people who were right were all just biased and lucky and that we can safely continue to marginalize them. This is not the attitude of someone embracing failure. This is the attitude of someone who doesn't want to talk about it too much.

There's a story in The Invisible Gorilla about a trader who lost tens of millions of dollars of a bank's money, chased it by losing billions of dollars at a hedge fund, and still kept finding work despite a record of only becoming unemployed by destroying the companies he worked for. Everyone in the financial world just assumed he knew what he was doing. After all, his financial models made so much sense. They were more than happy to attribute his short-term successes to those brilliant financial models and his catastrophic failures to simple bad luck. Sound familiar?


  1. McArdle loved the Dan Rather scandal. She could opine at length about his bias and stupidity while telling herself that she's a careful journalist who's held to high standards. The helicopter parenting thing is another bit of conservative self-congratulations. In those and many other cases she's doing little more than cheerleading for her side. The book must have been incredibly thin for an editor to let in so much extraneous material.

    Did you see the New York Times review of the book? It was not positive. That must have absolutely killed her.


  2. My peripheral perception is terrible.
    So, I avoid driving and am humble in situations like tennis calls. But really good at some things. What I was good and bad at was bleeding obvious well before I was 20.

    Is McArdle totally unaware of what she sucks at, or is she just doing whatever it takes to keep the con rolling?