Tag Archives: confirmation bias

My son, the enigma machine

Little Roo has been babbling for some time now. Until now, it has been the fairly standard oohs, aahs, yelps and giggles. But the other day, we heard something that sounded distinctly like “Dada”. The joy! The amazement! He can talk and he knows who I am!


Or does he?

I couldn’t help think of the entertaining talk by science communicator, author and libel crusader, Simon Singh, that I’ve seen a few times at various events. The story, in its essence, goes something like this: within the Hebrew text of the Bible (the ‘Torah’) lie many coded messages that foretell future events. All one needs to do is remove all punctuation and spacing to leave a single string of thousands of letters, and the predictions pop out like a wordsearch puzzle. Using this technique, the Bible successfully anticipated the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald (“dallas” “president kennedy” “oswald”), Hitler’s evil intent (“hitler” “evil man” “nazi”) and “Newton”‘s theory of “gravity”. This theory was popularised by Michael Drosnin and his ‘Bible Code’ book – plus TWO follow-ups – which have supposedly sold millions of copies worldwide.

Then those pesky scientists, who like to destroy a nice story with ‘evidence’, came along to put the cat amongst the pigeons. One of them, Brendan McKay, a mathematician and computer geek, thought that if there was an array of thousands of letters, the chances of randomly coming up with some relevant words was well within reason, especially if you allow reading forwards, backwards, diagonally, skipping rows, etc. (as well as variations in Hebrew spelling). So he was challenged to find the same sort of predictions in a non-sacred text. He devised an algorithm – a series of calculation steps  – to mine the mystical and secret-containing book, Moby Dick.

It turns out that, using the same technique, Moby Dick predicts Leon Trotsky’s murder (“trotsky” “ice” “hammer”), Princess Diana’s death (“princess” “wales” “lady diana” “henri” “paul” “dodi”) and the 9/11 terrorist attacks (“world” “trade” and “center” “twin” crossed with “building” “Osama”). I also came across Dave Thomas’ work, which does a pretty good job at finding secret messages in a U.S. Supreme Court document (“hitler” “nazi” and so on), in Drosnin’s Bible Code itself (“vain” “hoax” “megalo-mania”), as well as predicting anti-Judeo-Christian messages in the Bible. These findings debunk the sanctity of the Bible and tell us that coincidences, no matter how spooky, are just that – coincidences.

There’s a video by Singh to explain it more graphically (the first 4 minutes are about the Bible Code):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

from 5×15

To take it back to Roo’s babble, most of time it sounds like this:


And this supposed random exploration of sounds and syllables is a part of how we develop the ability of speech and language. Babies move from gurgling vowel sounds at 2-3 months of age to add in consonants at 6-7 months, much like Roo is doing in the clip above. At this stage he’s as likely to say “gaga” or “baba” as he is to say “dada”, and we wouldn’t assume he’d developed an astoundingly early fascination with American songstress, Lady Gaga, or rapper of science – yes, a science rapper – Baba Brinkman.

From 6-12 months, Roo will continue to experiment with this vocal play, and it won’t be until he’s over a year old that sounds will start to carry meaning. For instance, he might make the sound a car makes or utter monosyllabic words in place of a more complicated phrase, and he will also start to understand the meaning of sounds he cannot yet say. At 18-24 months, he should then be at the stage to start using multisyllabic words in short sentences. There’s a correlation between early babbling and linguistic ability later on, as a review by Carol Stoel-Gammon explains:

…infants who produced more in the prelinguistic period (i.e. more vocalizations at age [3 months]; more CV syllables at age [1 year]) had superior performance on subsequent speech and language measures during childhood.

So, my initial sound clip, of Roo saying “dada”, is more likely to be a version of the Bible Code – a chance coming together of noises, among a cacophony of vocal explorations, to form a sound that is recognisable to us. Our temptation to believe that he’s forming meaningful speech seems to me to be a form of confirmation bias – the way in which we filter out the negatives and remember only the positives, thereby confirming our already-held beliefs. This is especially true if we retrofit the associations – there are many phrases that we could associate with JFK’s assassination or words that could be formed from two or three simple syllables, but we need only a couple to convince ourselves that ‘there’s something in it’.

We are tempted to add significance to coincidences all the time. When something relevant happens on a special day or when a psychic stumbles upon a personal fact (often in a room of hundreds of people), it’s often said that it’s “too spooky to be just coincidence, don’t you think?”. Practitioners of pseudoscience, like psychics and astrologers use this – intentionally or unintentionally – to convince readers that they have hit the nail on the head, when in actual fact they threw many nails in the vague direction of the person in the hope that one will strike its target.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Philosophers and scientists have long contemplated the concept of ‘free will’, and whether the choices we make in life are pre-determined and whether they are influenced by external factors. The extent or very existence of self-determinism has been brought to the fore with the recent riots and the ensuing debates about causes, justification and individual culpability. This particular case has been brilliantly interrogated elsewhere, and so needs no further elaboration here.

The complex argument of the nature of free will has been advanced in the modern era, through the use of brain imaging technology. For instance, recent studies have shown that some choices can be predicted from a subject’s brain activity a few seconds before the response occurs, suggesting that the ‘decision’ has been made before the person is even aware of it.

From Bode et al. (2011). PLoS One (http://goo.gl/vkmNG)

Whilst on a different time-scale, this brought to my mind the concept of nominative determinism, the premise of which is that the name that someone is given can causally influence their career or personality. This theory has support through analysis that suggests particular names are disproportionately over-represented in certain professions (Dennis/Denise amongst dentists, Lawrences amongst lawyers) and in certain cities (Louis in St. Louis).

Quite why I didn’t become a matador, I don’t know.

And what would this all mean for our little son, Reuben? Well if he is ‘implicitly egotistical’ and his name goes on to influence his life choices, perhaps he will have a taste for heavy metal-influenced rock music, move to less-than-buzzy Idaho or Nebraska, or play football in Russia.

Or perhaps not. While all this can be used to form nice little stories – I have attended a wedding overseen by a registrar named Love and been served by a bank clerk named Cash* – there may be some muddle in attributing causative effects, in that many cited examples could simply be cherry-picked coincidences (aptronyms**) or a result of pre-meditated bias. The cited example in the Wikipedia entry for nominative determinism, of Splatt & Weedon on urinary frequency, is certainly chucklesome, but given that over 20 million entries exist in the biomedical research database PubMed, it seems highly probable that such spurious connections will arise.

If a million things happen a day, then one-in-a-million events are bound to happen – it would be the absence of these that would be strange. This holds true for ostensibly exceptional cases, where one’s intuitive astonishment is brought crashingly back within reason by some deductive logic.

It seems plausible that these sorts of factors influence people’s thinking about fate and destiny. For instance, a highly improbable  occurrence, such as winning the lottery or bumping into an old friend half-way across the world, may lead the affected person to attribute this to a pre-destined map or a higher guiding power.

This probabilistic process was neatly illustrated by Sir Michael Marmot in The Joy of Stats (@17 mins 30 sec), where it was explained that when one adds up all the seemingly random, one-off car accidents across the population, the overall numbers remain predictably constant from year-to-year. Similarly, it is possible to toss ten heads or back six winning horses in a row, if you do it often enough or include a large enough cohort of participants, as demonstrated by Derren Brown.

This confirmation bias can lead to instances where certain associations are selectively used to assert that an event was fated. But what of the millions of significant dates, chance encounters, random events, etc. that pass without spooky connections?

Tim Minchin’s brilliant comedic dissection of the destiny of romance.

A stochastic nature to our lives brings about a rather optimistic outlook. Although uncertainty can sometimes be a little daunting, it would be depressing to think that our career, love-life, social interactions are mapped out or directed by a supernatural force. Furthermore, the brain imaging studies I mentioned above can predict responses only on the seconds scale and only around 60% of the time, leaving open the question of extent of indeterminism in our decision-making.

It would be wonderful to think that our son has an almost boundless array of opportunities ahead of him, and that we are an integral part in encouraging an intrepid spirit.

Our imagination is the only limit to what we can hope to have in the future. Charles F. Kettering

* Some wonderful examples come out of a simple Google Images search. Anthony Weiner, anyone?

** The example I noted as a postgraduate student was of Prof GM Poppy, who has a line of research in to genetically modified (GM) plants. Quite whether Everard Koch is affected by nominative determinism, however, is unclear.

The journey begins…

The spur to start more formally chronicling my scientific take on parenting came from my agreeing to do a report for the excellent Pod Delusion podcast. The report centred on the unsolicited and unsubstantiated advice my partner and I encountered during her pregnancy.

It was a pretty awesome experience becoming a dad for the first time:

Jerry Coyne – evolutionary geneticist and author of ‘Why Evolution Is True’ – wrote recently on his blog about experiences akin to those attributed to a higher power, in which the sheer awesomeness of an event can bring about a sense of transcendence but separate from anything supernatural or religious, and this was definitely one of those for me.

As someone with a scientific background, I have always been driven to take a rational, critical look at claims. But now with a child to look after, things seem more weighty:

I could trust that millions of years of evolution has provided me with a paternal instinct that will kick in as and when needed, thereby ensuring that the fitness of my offspring will be increased. However, with such responsibility, ‘winging it’ is a little scary [and …] I would like to know the decisions I make as a parent have the backing of more than a ‘gut feeling’ or the instruction of age-old religious doctrine.

I felt as though of lot of the unsolicited advice I had received was supported by mysticism, hearsay or anecdotal evidence. I could also see some biases creeping in:

Many of these intuitions get perpetuated by a massive confirmation bias – all the people who guessed a boy said “I told you so, I just knew it, the way you were carrying that bump it must have been a boy”, whilst the other remaining half, who had predicted a girl, remained strangely silent and seemed to forget their prediction altogether.

I mentioned this because it is apparent when it comes to psychoanalysis:

there’s a wealth of cod psychological theories to explain someone’s personality with proponents retrofitting individuals who conform to these ideas to support their claim, whilst ignoring all other individuals who don’t.

I could also see some beautiful examples of some common logical fallacies: correlation does not mean causation, sample sizes and statistical power, absolute risk vs. relative risk, and reporting and recall biases. Listen to the report for more details.

My science-trained mind would almost always lead me to query claims, as any critical thinker should:

Whenever I tried to enquire about the evidence or statistics behind a particular claim or point to evidence that – say – there is scant evidence that more births occur during a full moon†, that familiar glazed expression would appear and a cursory muttering of “trust the scientist” might be offered.

†[Interestingly, it seems as though progression through the menstrual cycles leads to variations in the sex ratio, but this of course is unconnected to lunar cycles].

But I realise that it gets very difficult when one is actually placed in the situation of caring for child:

People often want a cast-iron guaranteed to-do list of what to do and what not to do, but scientific guidance rarely works like that. One can make a recommendation on the best available evidence, but those recommendations are liable to change and attitudes and practices need to be flexible enough to shift too. My mum, for instance, listening to the pervading advice at the time, slept me on my front to reduce the chances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome through choking, but evidence since then has accumulated that shows an increased risk of cot death with front-sleeping and now babies overwhelmingly are slept on their backs.

And I do definitely value experiential advice, but I also appreciate that what works for one baby does not necessarily work for another. I guess that that was my motivation to look towards empirically validated advice to guide us during our rollercoaster, and so I concluded a few things I have picked up already:

  1. Be wary of any sentence that starts, “They say that…”*
  2. Do as I do, not as I say. There is a wealth of evidence that children who witness their parents carry out a particular behaviour – such as smoking, violence, even academic work – are more likely to behave in that way as adults.
  3. Open and honest attitude towards sex. Despite what Nadine Dorries may perpetuate, evidence suggests that when parents take a more positive attitude towards sexuality it can be beneficial for a child’s comfort with their own sexuality. And religiosity appears to have little impact on sexual risk-taking – the bigger influence is parental affection.
  4. Strike a balance. Musical training can be beneficial in attention, cognition, and language development. Early take-up, higher parental support, practice, and friendly rather than technically able music teachers all help, but there is evidence that successful childhood musicians need teachers who are ‘not too relaxed’ but ‘not too pushy’.
  5. And don’t read Mumsnet.**

*[I didn’t elaborate in the recorded report, but normally “they say that…” is followed by something that one person once said, that was based on a sort of hunch which may or may not be generalisable].

**[a cornucopia of anecdotes, ‘just-so’ stories and madly evangelical parents].

So that was my first formal attempt at verbalising some of the thoughts and ideas that came to me during a fairly tumultuous time. I wrote and recorded it during the first couple of weeks of our child’s life, so any glaring errors I will blame on sleep deprivation. More shall come as I look ahead to rearing this bundle of squidge.

[Note: more links to original studies will be added].