Thursday, September 13, 2012

Beware Type 1 Errors

(Don't know what a Type 1 error is? You should.)

From a Smithsonian Magazine article:
This past May, a Venezuelan state TV host announced he had discovered a conspiracy to assassinate the elder brother of President Hugo Chavez.

His evidence? A newspaper crossword puzzle.

He pointed out that the crossword contained the word asesinen ("murder"), intersecting horizontally with the name of Chavez's brother, Adan. And directly above the name was the word ráfagas, meaning either "gusts of wind" or, more ominously, "bursts of gunfire."

David Kahn, an American historian and journalist, would call this a classic example of the "pathology of cryptology." In his seminal 1967 book, The Codebreakers, Kahn marveled at the ability of individuals to discover incredibly complex, albeit nonexistent codes, which he described as "classic instances of wishful thinking" caused by "an overactive cryptanalytic gland."

One is reminded of nutbars finding 666 encoded in things, when the best explanation of this bit from Revelations is that it was early Christians communicating to each other about Nero, using Hebrew numerology (in two thousand years maybe someone will try to read prophecy from our current area codes, who knows). As many an exasperated teenager has often asked, facing accusations that their rock posters contain hidden Satanic symbolism: if the devil is the master of deception, why can he not resist signing his handiwork? Even small-time embezzlers know better than that!

We are meaning-vores, and it gets us in trouble. In particular we constantly look for symbolic meaning where there is none. Sometimes we do it for fun, but sometimes it's mental illness (e.g. the raindrops are Morse-code messages from the devil telling you to kill your neighbor. That's a real example.) But it also happens to otherwise healthy people in extreme circumstances. Ever have a friend who, after a bad break-up, happened to see their ex by coincidence at the mall or a party? "Did you see the way she put the cup down? She was trying to send a signal to me. When she told me she didn't want to see me again, what do you think she meant?" Duh!

The bottom line is that it's possible to feel certain about something, and to still be wrong.  Really understanding this and knowing the hacks to get around our innate short circuits prevents bad beliefs.

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