Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Admitting cognitive mistakes

In case you missed it over the weekend, here is a link to the NY Times story about how Dr. Robert Spitzer, author of a 2001 study that supposedly showed that self-reports of change in sexual orientation after therapy were credible, has now changed his mind. More than that, in a letter to the editor of the journal that published the initial study, he says, "I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy." You can read the text of the letter here.

In its exploration of a scientist's decision to admit he'd made a mistake it's quite a moving story. It's also a nice illustration of substitution, one of the shortcuts in thinking Daniel Kahneman describes in his fascinating book "Thinking Fast and Slow." As Kahneman puts it, "If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly . . . [we] find a related question that is easier and will answer it." According to Spitzer's letter, he substituted an easier question (how do individuals undergoing reparative therapy describe changes in sexual orientation) for the hard one (can some version of reparative therapy enable individuals to change their sexual  orientation from homosexual to heterosexual).

Spitzer then compounded the study's flaws by persuading himself that the self-reports in the studies were credible. In Kahneman's terms, he "focuse[d] on existing evidence and ignore[d] absent evidence." We all make these kinds of mistakes, and Kahneman not only shows how, he offers some useful correctives. I highly recommend the book.

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