“Disbelieving is hard work”

January 19, 2012

Daniel Kahneman

Theory-induced blindness and Vermeer’s and Rahmstorf’s “Global sea level linked to global temperature.”

In one of the many interesting chapters of  Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University Emeritus Professor of Psychology and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics discussed Daniel Bernoulli’s 250-year-old mathematical theory of risk aversion. 

Kahneman points out that “Bernoulli’s essay is a marvel of concise brilliance…

Most impressive, his analysis… has stood the test of time: it is still current in economic analysis almost 300 years later.  The longevity of the theory is all the more remarkable because it is seriously flawed.  The errors of a theory are rarely found in what it asserts explicitly; they hide in what it ignores or tacitly assumes”

Kahneman then goes on to demolish of Bernoulli’s theory.  This demolition is simple and incontrovertible, takes about one page, and is easily understood by anybody of average intelligence. Kahneman says this about the demolition…

“All this is rather obvious, isn’t it?  One could easily imagine Bernoulli himself constructing similar examples and developing a more complex theory to accommodate them; for some reason, he did not.  One could imagine colleagues of his time disagreeing with him, or later scholars objecting as they read his essay; for some reason, they did not either.

The mystery is how a conception … that is vulnerable to such obvious counterexamples survived for so long.  I can explain it only by a weakness of the scholarly mind that I have often observed in myself.  I call it theory-induced blindness: once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws.  If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing.  You give the theory the benefit of the doubt, trusting the community of experts who have accepted it.  Many scholars have surely thought at one time or another of stories such as [the examples that Kahneman gives] and casually noted that these stories did not jibe…But they did not pursue the idea to the point of saying ‘this theory is seriously wrong because it ignores the fact[s]’…As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert observed, disbelieving is hard work…”

What does all this have to do with ClimateSanity?  Simple – it sounds like Vermeer’s and Rahmstorf’s model linking global sea level to global temperature (“Global sea level linked to global temperature,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, December 22, 2009 vol. 106 no. 51 21527-21532 ).  It has been incontrovertibly demolished, but the believer’s just can’t let it go.  They must suffer theory-induced blindness.  They seem to have endless capacity to simply overlook the plethora of bizarre, improbable or impossible consequences of the Vermeer and Rahmstorf  model.


  1. Theories are pillars for learners (and scholars especially) to lean upon; when they collapse, ultimately a loss of sense of direction ensues and people find it hard to navigate out of what was once known as “the truth”. Peace.

  2. Umm, how is a long-winded description of confirmation bias interesting?

    • Mr Anonymous,

      Confirmation bias occurs when a person endorses the quality of data or an argument when it agrees with his beliefs and condemns the quality of data or an argument when it contradicts his beliefs. This happens despite the true quality of data or argument.

      That is different, but I think related to, Kahneman’s “theory induced blindness.” In theory induced blindness an otherwise obvious flaw in a theory is not addressed because it is not even seen.

      Perhaps the difference is subtle and not easy to grasp. Maybe that is why Kahneman has a Nobel prize and you make anonymous comments

      Best regards,
      Tom Moriarty

  3. Most of the interpretations developed for modern physics during the 20th century are completely defective; starting with the greatest hallucination ever: i.e. the Copenhagen interpreation of quantum mechanics, which causes so many paradoxes that it is now believed that if a model is not paradoxical it cannot be correct.

    It has been stated many times: “If you believe that you understand quantum mechanics then you do not understand it”.

    It has thus become common cause to fervently censor any information which indicates that quantum field theory might be wrong, that the BCS model of superconduction might be wrong, that the standard model of “particle physics” might be wrong, that Dirac’s wave equation for an electron is contrived, irrelevant mathematics. etc. etc. etc.

    Billions of taxpayers money is wasted to look for an energy-excitation at CERN which is believed to give matter mass, even though it is experimentally impossible to prove that any excitation, discovered in this manner, is acting like the Higgs boson is supposed to act.

    All these “great advances” are not just “most probably wrong” but can be easily proved, by using simple high school algebra and calculus (no Dirac fudging required) to be wrong. We are truly back in the dark ages of science; and any Galileo trying to point this out is censored and excommunicated.

    It has become impossible to believe mainstream scientists at all. Even the Vatican in the time of Galileo, was more open-minded than institutions like the Royal Society of London, The AAAS, Nature etc. etc. etc. are at present.

    • I do not think there is any conspiracy to “fervently censor any information which indicates that quantum field theory might be wrong.” Most people just disagree with you.

      Tom Moriarty,

      • You are an example of what is wrong in physics. You make a conclusion without first asking for facts. I have enough evidence that will stand up in court undert cross-examination that physics editors have become censors who at all cost protect the status quo. And as I can prove, they refuse to give reasons based on physics why they “disagree”. So PLEASE tell me why they disgree with me, since it seems that you are an all-knowing god!

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