• Pat Poletti

Liars, Damned Liars & Experts

The Three Types of Lies

“There are three kinds of lies”, Mark Twain wrote in 1905, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Originally attributed by Twain to the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disreali, the derivation of the quote pre-dates Disreali to Leonard Huxley in 1885 with his exclamation, “liars, damned liars and experts”. It seems that a healthy scepticism of consultants goes a long way back.

But why do five consultants deliver six different opinions? When someone claims to be “unbiased” are they really? How are farmers expected to sort through competing claims? The answer to all these questions is - it depends. Why does “it depend”?

Why isn’t there a simple universal truth?

Animal science is extraordinarily complicated. It is fiendishly hard to run a trial that standardises all inputs and also takes into consideration individual animal responses. If you run a trial you will get a response. But if you run the exact same trial say 100 times you may well get 100 different answers. If you graph those results against the frequency of any result what you get is a “bell curve” i.e. some results will occur more frequently than others. Crucially, any one trial result in isolation may sit at either end of the spectrum and as such we have to be cautious in our interpretation.

This diagram shows a typical Bell Curve. Each section represents the probability of a result falling within a section of the curve. Less common results plotting at either end of the curve will not be representative of the "norm".

Any trial undertaken, provided it is done well, is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes it supports your position, sometimes it contradicts it. So it is incumbent on the expert to try to make sense of the whole picture even though there are a number of jigsaw pieces missing or pieces that just don’t seem to want to fit. However, the human mind has difficulty with this preferring instead to not see the wood for the trees.

The “Einstellung Effect”

The “Einstellung Effect”, or more commonly “confirmation bias”, is the resolute determination to stick to one solution and ignore simpler or more effective alternatives. This tendency was documented as far back as 1620 by Francis Bacon when he wrote, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises”.

At its most cynical pharmaceutical companies are guilty of confirmation bias when they promote trial data that supports their product but conveniently ignore or even suppress trial data that doesn’t. But confirmation bias is a facet of normal brain function and can confound even the most diligent researcher.

Choose Your Philosophy

We are all biased - farmers, consultants, researchers, veterinarians. The trick is to draw your information from the “expert” that is philosophically in line with your own general approach. For example, if you are biological / organically inclined then there is not much point in consulting a hard-out urea, super and Roundup man. And secondly, are you achieving your farming goals? If not, change your consultant and expose yourself to another set of lies, damned lies and statistics.

To check if your philosophy aligns with ours, give Mineral Systems a call now: 0800 765 854.

Source: Scientific American

#Confirmationbias #EinstellungEffect #Farmingphilosophy

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