Monday, February 29, 2016

The interpreter

Brad DeLong put up a long excerpt from a NYT article that got me thinking:
... Then we stumbled on something very new. After 25 years of doing this [split-brain] test we finally asked a different question [of an experimental subject]. ‘Why did you do that?’ 
It is the inventive interpretive mind first applying itself to our personal life and then to our social existence that is our core skill. Once humankind realized it possessed this technology, we seized on it to thrive in and control our niche on earth. 
At that moment, his left brain was immediately confronted with a puzzle. Again, it knows why the right hand pointed to the chicken but why did the left hand point to the shovel? So, on the spot the left brain said, ‘Oh, the chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.’ 
That one simple observation, now repeated dozens of time on several patients, revealed another special capacity of the dominant left brain. We called this device the ‘interpreter’ and have come to realize it is the storyteller

Yet when Yuval Harari is talking about gaining control of people by the use of fictions, he is talking about the kinds of abstractions and ideas everybody can understand — money, religion, politics and preferences, the kinds of things an interpreter is at work on all day long.

Emphasis mine. This is why I cringe when economists want to hear a "story". Humans can rationalize anything. Humans can see patterns in randomness. I think economics is more in the thrall of "the interpreter" than most fields -- precisely because it deals with us.

I'm not saying I'm immune! Far from it. But if you start with the assumption that you don't understand economic agents, then you aren't as tempted to construct a story about what they think.


  1. Minor footnote:

    Gazzaniga and his student aske the split brain patient why he answered as he did in 1976. But the conflation phenomenon was already well known. IIRC, it was mentioned in a Bobs-Merrill's reprint about split brains back in the 50s or 60s. It was also well known from experiments with post-hypnotic suggestion from much earlier. When asked why they performed a post-hypnotic suggestion, subjects made up answers. :)

  2. I'd heard of those experiments. Interesting tie-in to "what might be wrong with economics."

  3. Well, narrative is one way to organize cognition. It may have become a bit of a fetish in the social sciences, but there are ways of avoiding just so stories. Minimizing descriptive length is a form of parsimony, for instance.

    As I hinted at on Noah Smith's blog, mathematics is no guarantee against fudge factors and just so stories. You can have just so equations, so to speak. ;)


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