walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)_, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Subtitled _Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts_

I'm in a bad way here. I'm partway through several nonfiction books. It is looking like I may well not finish some of them (I'm quite confident I'll make it all the way through _The Dirt on Clean_, and fairly quickly, and _Death by Black Hole_, altho probably it'll take longer). This particular book is written in a way that I would ordinarily read quickly, but it is so maddening that I keep putting it down in favor of, oh, well, just about anything. Great for blogging.

I'm 100ish pages into the paperback edition. I remember really liking _Mismeasure of Woman_ by Tavris, altho have never been tempted to reread it and now I'm wondering about that, too. In any event, this book suffers from a number of problems I like to lump under the term "Wendy Kaminer". Not that Ms. Kaminer had anything to do with this book. I've bought several books by Ms. Kaminer and for quite a while I really enjoyed them. Then I started rereading them and I started feeling some qualms. Then I did some thinking and there aren't any more books by her in my library.

Here's the deal. Say you self-identify as a scientist/rationalist/skeptic/whatever. Let me be clear. I do not (this is often a surprise to people, but I _really_ value emotion/feeling/faith/etc. as a mechanism to learn about ourselves, others, and possibly the universe in general altho I hesitate to think anything could do much to explain anything that large and complex). But let's say you do. And let's take it just that little bit further, where you think you are rational and that _all other rational/scientific/skeptic/whatever people will agree with you if only you are clear enough about what you are saying is true_. This, to me, is Teh Crazy. The really bad kind of crazy that leads to more dead-or-worse than anything a garden variety pagan is likely to come up with on her own (think nuclear weapons). My approach to science -- like everything else -- is, hey, there's some information here, of varying levels of quality, it is certainly not complete, it may or may not be correct and consistency would be a lot to expect however hard one strives. Apparently, other people do not share this perspective.

So Tavris and Aronson collectively are writing to explain to people why they are often wrong. This is a useful thing to do, and I _love_ me some decision theory stuff. However, their subtitle (while snarky and humorous) is unfortunately intended by them in all seriousness. They really only care about confirmation bias and so forth as it applies to _incorrect_ decisions, or, at least, decisions which are (partially) incompatible with one's (stated) value system and/or reality.

I have a great deal of trouble believing that confirmation bias operates that selectively. If it did, it would have been stomped out a long time ago. I think confirmation bias serves a number of extremely useful purposes, and any discussion about it that ignores those useful purposes is really missing the point. There are glimmers, at times, that Tavris and Aronson Get This, but they remain glimmers, because Tavris and Aronson are far more interested in showing that, say, adult reconstruction of childhood sexual abuse is on a par with believing you were kidnapped by aliens and experimented upon or, say, writing a memoir about your experiences in Nazi concentration camps when, say, you didn't actually _have_ those experiences. Other reviewers have noted that they seem to be selecting a lot of Republican examples of political shenanigans that display confirmation bias and similar in the Worst Way. That didn't immediately set me off (the territory there recently has been _sooooo_ rich), but probably should have.

I guess my central problem is this. I have a child. So does Carol Tavris. So does Elliot Aronson. They have more than I do, and theirs are grown, so their experience exceeds mine. However. I just do not accept that any amount of parenting experience can justify this set of statements. And if you're writing a book about confirmation bias/foolish beliefs/bad decisions and so forth, you probably should not be making statements of this nature:

"You have memories about your father that are salient to you and that represent the man he was and the relationship you had with him. What have you forgotten? You remember that time when you were disobedient [Ed. ooooh ] and he swatted you [Ed. OOOOOH! ], and you are still angry that he didn't explain why he was disciplining you. But could you have been the kind of kid a father couldn't explain things to, because you were impatient and impulsive and didn't listen?"

This is about 1.5 steps better than, of course my dad had to beat me with a leather belt/coat hanger/metal implement that was handy. I was the kind of kid who _needed_ it! Which is what virtually everyone in maximum security prisons has to say about any father or step-father in their life who disciplined them (there are, of course, plenty with completely absent fathers and/or fathers who never disciplined them or who did much ickier things to them or whatever). It's better because the victim (the child) does _not_ identify with the abuse or the abuser. That's good, by several steps. It's worse because Tavris and Aronson in complete seriousness wrote a book in which they are advocating for bad parenting. Even people who still favor corporal punishment insist on making it clear to the child _why_ they are being beaten. If the kid doesn't get it then it won't work. The bias here is clear: Tavris and Aronson tried very hard as parents and bitterly object to their children (or any children perhaps) complaining about what the parents did or did not do. Got news for you: this comes with the territory. You aren't so old that you didn't see the writing on the wall, and in any event, there are fine examples of similar in the Bible (which, I might add, comes firmly down on the side of parents killing their children, adult or otherwise, in the event of such complaining; ought to give everyone a reason to pause before citing this book in favor of anything).

This is not an isolated example. When discussing vaccine controversy, they point out a conflict-of-interest on the part of the question-vaccine crowd but ignore the rich field similar on the pro-vaccine-and-manufacturer-set-schedule-regardless-of-feedback-from-the-herd.

I could accept that I disagree with the authors, and I continued reading after the above example (for another 25 pages). I have dear friends who completely disagree with my ideas about children and I fully respect them. I could very well be wrong. We could _all_ be wrong. Our children (universe willing) will hopefully grow up to be far better than any of us, and to look back on us with mystification and some small degree of contempt (hopefully admixed with compassion) for our backwards ways of doing things. But Tavris and Aronson's story of Aronson buying the canoe in midwinter is told as an example of cognitive dissonance (since he got stuck buying the crappy tract house). In the quote, he stands up for himself (he used it that winter anyway, thinking of summer adventures to come -- out of that crappy tract house). But at no point do they show that this is the positive side of dream-inspired behavior that seems out of step with the rest of one's values/lifestyle/etc.

And _this_ is where I really have trouble with them (and maybe the rest of the book is better!). I see at-odds behavior as an opportunity to learn: about myself, about someone else. I see the Holocaust memoir as someone trying to work through being abandoned by their mother and adopted by people who never emotionally connected -- NOT as an otherwise "healthy" guy stepping off into la-la land. I see the alien experiencers trying to make sense of mostly-buried memories of weird abuse/games/whathaveyou from childhood (whether a parent, other relative, neighbor or other child). The recovered memory crowd should be corraled and discouraged from "leading the witness" so much, and I watch carefully for what value system is being pushed when someone is using child witnesses to things like satanic rituals or day care sex abuse or whatever, because that is a strong indication for which direction a malleable witness got led. But whatever objections one has to these issues can be directly applied to _every_ piece of eyewitness testimony in a criminal case.

I'm the wrong person to be saying this but: this could have been a really good book; instead, it's a series of poorly aimed cheap shots that does a disservice to the subject and wastes an opportunity for real insight. I'm completely confused as to why it got such great reviews. YMMV; if it does, I'd be interested in whether it got better later on.

ETA: FWIW, I did skim enough to realize they know about Gottman's work with marriage/relationship conflict -- and re-interpret it to make self-justification the primary culprit. I also saw at least a little of the good police work/bad police work discussion and how some techniques are really catastrophically bad.
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