March 30, 2009

Is A Brain Glitch To Blame For Financial Crisis?

Yes, but not that one.

CNN reports on a study:

"the real cause of the financial crisis could actually be down to a quirk of the human brain."

Take a moment a speculate on what you think that glitch might be.  Nope:

According to a new neurological study by Atlanta's Emory University, expert financial guidance causes the brain to switch off, disengaging from its usual rational decision-making process.

"It's almost as if the brain stops trying to make a decision on its own," Professor Gregory Berns, who led the research, told CNN.

"Normally, the human brain uses a specific set of regions to figure out the trade-offs between risk and reward, but when an 'expert' offers advice on how to make these decisions, we found that activity in these regions decreases."
Why would it be surprising to him that we trust experts?


The study doesn't just find what brain regions are involved in decision making, it even quantifies the effect of expert advice on a person's choice.  But as good as the study is, the interpretation is flawed.  The brain glitch isn't that we trust experts.  The real brain glitch is the one that made him put scare quotes around the word "expert."

"Our brains will make the assumption that other people know more than we do," he said. 
He isn't saying, "hey, isn't it far out how our brains switch off in the presence of experts?"  He's saying, "why would you blindly follow these so called experts?"

The irony of he himself being an 'expert', and people blindly following him, is lost on him.


He can't possibly be saying we shouldn't listen to experts, can he?

The point of having an expert is to trust his judgment.  If your judgment is nearly as good as his, than either he's not an expert, or you are. 

Being an expert entails more than simply amassing information; this is why having an internet connection and the first season of House does not make you a doctor.  It is why a Prescribatron will be a worse doctor both at the individual and the population levels (more on that someday.)

He must know that the average person could not hope to learn enough information on finance (or medicine, or law, etc) to be usefully critical of an expert's opinion.  (Or, the reverse: if you could, you'd be an expert.)  In keeping with "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," not trusting the experts and doing it on your own could be more disastrous.  (e.g. crash of 2000.) 

So why is 'expert' in scare quotes?  Does he think those guys really don't know anything about finance?

Berns says his research highlights how we should pay more attention to financial advice and question the motives of so-called experts, assessing their trustworthiness before submitting to their opinion.

Of course: financial experts aren't dumb, they're corrupt.

The real brain glitch is the one that assumes that anything that is attached to money is corrupt.  Or, more precisely, we can best judge the truth by knowing a person's financial biases.

This is how the CNN piece ends:

"Frankly, we should have everyone in the finance industry submit to brain scans," he says.

Ha! That's hilarious, especially since it was the exact opposite of the point of his study-- wasn't it the people seeking advice that were the problem?  See how much fun it is to distort science, even good science that you yourself conducted and has value up until the "Discussion?"   Here, he flips it around to say that the problem is with the experts.  Which is, of course, what he wanted to be true all along.

I'll wager he would never put "neurology expert" in quotes, because he isn't tainted by money.  (Well, government money, but nihil obstat.)

Meanwhile, because he doesn't "make money" on his studies (which of course he does) we're supposed to assume this is pure science-- accept it at face value.  "Well, it uses MRIs." The MRIs are a rhetorical trick.  They make it so you don't notice the political/institutional/personal biases.  How much money a guy gets paid is all we need to know to judge his honesty.

"No, it's the source of the money that matters."  Oh.  If I do a study on Geodon that fails, I have to disclose if it was paid by Pfizer.  If I do a study on Geodon that fails and I am sleeping with the Lilly rep, I have to disclose if it was paid by Pfizer.  Solid.

It's a little scary to think that science can be used by scientists to reinforce a populist bias, but there you go.


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