Oppositional Literature: The Key Tool For Achieving True Intellectual Honesty

[At ~1600 words, this post is on the long side. Just a friendly warning.]

An important philosophy I hold here at Casual Kitchen is to evaluate as many sides of an issue as I can, with as much balance and intellectual honesty as I can muster. I'm not always successful, obviously, but I try to do my best. And in today's post I want to share with readers the key technique I use to raise my level of intellectual honesty:

Whenever I read a book that advocates a position on any issue, I make sure the next book I read advocates an alternative and oppositional viewpoint.

Basically, I seek out the opposing viewpoint, and I do so right away. (The "right away" part is important--we'll see why in a few minutes.)

A recent example is when I read Michele Simon's book Appetite for Profit, followed by Jayson Lusk's book The Food Police. I deliberately read one right after the other. Michele Simon is what I'd call a food liberal: she believes the food industry feeds us unhealthy food, is running amok, and it needs to be reigned in by better government policy. Jayson Lusk is what I'd call a food libertarian: He prefers price- and market-based solutions for food-related problems, and he strongly believes consumers have the right to choose their food--even if it means choosing exactly the same unhealthy foods Michele Simon thinks shouldn't even be sold.

Clearly, it'd be a lot easier to just read one book rather than both. And, understandably, most readers would likely choose whichever book resonates with them the most.

Which is just another way of saying we choose the books we already agree with.

The next part of the equation has to do with how our brains function. Our minds are intuitive, pattern-seeking, and they very much dislike doubt and uncertainty. That's why our minds rapidly form strong and conclusive opinions, and they do so based on surprisingly little information. As Daniel Kahneman says in his brilliant book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the human mind is "a machine for jumping to conclusions."

So, even though it's impossible to have a fully informed opinion on this particular subject, guess what? By reading just one of these two books, you not only formed an opinion, you reinforced it too! We all like to think we're not like this by the way. But, ironically, our instinctive (and often defensive) belief that we're faaaar too open-minded to rapidly form opinions from insufficient information simply completes the circle. Why? Because we all form opinions before we should, and our failure to realize we do so makes us fail to correct for it.

Next, confirmation bias sets in: we tend to ignore or filter out information that disagrees with our opinion, selecting instead for confirmatory information--of our existing opinion, which we formed too early in the first place.

It gets worse. Since both books are polemical (I use the word in the non-pejorative sense) and highly persuasive, and since all of us are highly susceptible to confirmation bias, the book you choose, whichever one, will likely encourage you to form mental straw men* on the opposite side of the debate: Michele Simon is a big-government fascist trying to take away our Pop-Tarts! No! Jayson Lusk is a pro-industry wingnut who hates the poor!

Hmmm. But if instead you chose both books and considered them together, you'd discover something else: that Michele Simon is a basically good person trying to help people eat better, even if you might not agree with her top-down policy-driven ideas. Likewise, that Jayson Lusk is also a decent guy who's trying to help people too, even if you might beg to differ with the nature of his solutions.

Read one book, and we end up reinforcing a not-fully-formed opinion. But read two oppositional books, and all of a sudden our brains start backing down. The debate, not to mention our overconfidence in our opinions, just became a lot more humble. And a lot less polarizing.

The central idea here is to make sure we seek out heterodox and intellectually opposing views in every subject domain. Always, always, always seek out the contra-view. (Or contra-views! Not every debate has just two sides.)

I mentioned above that I seek oppositional viewpoints "right away." What's so important about doing so right away?

It all has to do with the incredible rapidity with which our minds seek patterns, leap to conclusions and form opinions. As we've already seen, we tend to form our opinions quickly, before we have enough information, and long before we should.

This process begins happening the minute you start book one. Thus the sooner you read something oppositional, the better you'll counteract the pattern seeking, confirmation bias-inducing, straw man-forming things our brains can't help but do. These invisible killers of intellectual honesty work fast, which is why time is of the essence. We want to embrace the oppositional view(s) before our opinions begins to form themselves, and long before our opinions begin to groove themselves. This makes us far less likely to be dupes for whichever debate position happens to hit our minds first.

Let's push these ideas even further. If you think through about all the ramifications of how we humans form opinions, you arrive at some rather unsavory implications. Here's a particularly disturbing one: if we form opinions sooner than we should, and then groove them with confirmation bias and all the other factors above, then all of our opinions--even our most entrenched and most strongly felt opinions--are arbitrary, even random. They're formed by luck! Everything depended on the first few pieces of information we gathered: our pattern-seeking, doubt-evading, ego-defending minds did all the rest behind our backs.

A quick sidebar: There's a really good chance that, right now, your ego is frantically trying to tell you that none of this is true for you. That you aren't like this. That your opinions are carefully thought out, none of them is "wrong" and you're too smart and far too open-minded to fall for something as obvious as confirmation bias or the straw man fallacy. Please consider the idea that your ego is very skillfully lying to you. We all think we don't do these things. But we all do.

One last thought: I’m not recommending this knowledge gathering strategy because I think I'm some kind of all-knowing genius. Far from it. I just happened to spend my career picking stocks: a domain where there were, at all times, multiple and equally valid opposing perspectives, and a domain where I got a lot of practice being wrong--really wrong--when I didn't pay close enough attention to those alternative perspectives.

The thing about stocks, the thing that really bakes your noodle about them, is that there's always a buyer for every seller. There has to be. If you've decided that stock XYZ is the one to own, that it's a great stock that's gonna go higher, then what's the guy on the other side of the trade thinking? If the stock you're buying is so incredibly awesome, how come he's so happy to sell it to you?

Despite this central and counterintuitive truth about investing, Wall Street is still filled with people convinced they're right about everything. That other guy is just dead wrong. And a jerk!

The way I describe it sounds kind of like our political environment, doesn't it? Sadly, this is how it is with debates in most domains where we have strong, ego-identified opinions. Thus the simple act of open-mindedly contemplating the oppositional view is rare, far rarer than you'd think. All the more reason we as individuals should hold ourselves to a higher intellectual standard than, say, Congress. Or Wall Street.

So, did you just read an adulatory biography about an important historical figure? Make sure your next book is an equally convincing critical biography of the same person. Did you just read a book on how FDR saved us from the Great Depression? Read Amity Schlaes' book The Forgotten Man next for a compelling oppositional view.

More examples: Have you been reading about global warming and you consider it an important threat to our planet? Then you have the intellectual obligation to also read, for example, Bjorn Lomberg's The Skeptical Environmentalist to fully understand the key contra-arguments. These are just a few basic examples. I'll leave it to you to do the same exercise in whatever domains are important to you.

If you're reading something that echoes your opinions, you're not learning. You're just digging deeper ruts for your opinions. Don't settle for echoing your own views. Seek the more intellectually honest approach of earnestly and habitually challenging them. We're human beings: our minds are built on biases, cognitive foibles and mental blind spots. The least we can do is to stop pretending we don't have them.

Related Posts:
Four Incredibly Useful Books on Fallacy and Cognitive Bias
The Illusion of Control and How It's Used Against You
Consumers: Pay For Your Own Brainwashing! (Or Don't)
Tips vs Strategy
Money Sundays: How To Get Balanced, Consistently Useful Expert Advice

Postscript: I don't recommend trying this out for the very first time with political topics, or with any domain where you have strong emotional attachment to your opinions. If you're like most people, you're already 100% convinced your political views are perfectly correct. In other words, an oppositional book cannot never be "equally convincing" because you're already convinced! Instead, begin your oppositional reading in domains where you don't have so much ego attachment to your opinions. After regular practice reading and absorbing oppositional literature, and seeing how much sense there is to other, different perspectives, you'll begin to hold all your views, including your political views, with more humility than you ever imagined.

* A straw man argument is a logic fallacy based on misrepresentation or exaggeration of an opponent’s argument. It's a highly effective--if unethical--persuasive technique used constantly in the political domain. Note also that in order to work, straw man arguments require an audience unfamiliar with the opposing argument (or even better: an audience that thinks it's more informed about the opposing argument than it really is). But if you already honestly and open-mindedly understand the opposing argument, you'll be utterly resistant to this rhetorical tactic. Those straw men dry up and blow away.

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at Amazon.com via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

Money Sundays: On Hindsight Bias, Misremembering, and Why You Should Keep An Investing Journal

This post is VERY off-topic, even for a Money Sundays post. However, it is relevant to the often typical arrogance of experts, policy makers and elites at all levels and in all domains in our society. Feel free to skip it if you'd like.

Once an event has passed, we tend to believe that we had better knowledge of the outcome before the fact than we really did.
--Michael Mauboussin, More Than You Know

Readers, do any of you remember the name Robert Citron? To municipal bond investors and anyone from southern California, his name is impossible to forget. Citron was the former Treasurer of Orange County, CA and he's (in)famous for singlehandedly blowing up that county's finances.

Citron used residents' tax dollars to speculate in a highly leveraged portfolio of repos and floating rate notes, and his speculations drove the entire county into bankruptcy in 1994. At the time, it was the biggest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

I want to share two quotes from Mr. Citron, both made publicly, shortly before he bankrupted Orange County. First, a quote from his annual report from September 1993:

"We will have level if not lower interest rates through this decade. Certainly, there's nothing in the horizon that would indicate that we will have rising interest rates for a minimum of three years."

In February 1994, just five months later, the Federal Reserve raised rates, exactly what Citron did not expect. But here's what our buddy Citron said immediately afterward:

"The recent increase in rates was not a surprise to us; we expected it and we were prepared for it."

Okay. It is duplicitous enough to act like you "know" where interest rates are going--only charlatans claim this. But it's far worse to misremember what you said so it sounds like you were right when you were wrong all along.

Worst of all, it's astounding to see Citron misremember what he wrote publicly just months before in his County annual report, especially given that he was running a risky, interest rate-sensitive exotic bond porfolio! The arrogance here is staggering.

This is a classic example of hindsight bias. It's a common cognitive error that we all make: we conflate what we know after an unexpected event happens with what we knew before. In Citron's case, he misremembers his own expectations, which allows him, hilariously, to claim he knew all along that interest rates would increase.

Fortunately for us, we had his original prediction in print, so we know what he actually expected, and we can see that he misremembered his prediction. We had his original prediction in print. Hang on to that thought: we'll return to it shortly.

Within a few months, Citron's exotic bond portfolio--a deeply risky portfolio he had no business running at all, and certainly not with taxpayer funds--blew up. It spontaneously put the entire county into bankrupcty. Thanks to Citron's arrogance and hindsight bias, 3,000 public employees lost their jobs and the county cut budgets across all services for years to come.

Worst of all, county taxpayers are still holding the bag: they get to make extra tax payments of some $76 million per year until 2027.

So, why am I talking about this? Because in personal finance, we are all mini-Robert Citrons. We are all consistently guilty of hindsight bias. It's one of the most common cognitive errors in investing.

Granted, in our personal investing, we can't detonate entire municipalities. Thank goodness. But we can and do hurt ourselves and our families when we make prediction errors, misremember those predictions, and then fail to learn from them.

So how do we avoid overconfident decision-making, and how do we make sure that we learn from our investing mistakes rather than misremember them? How do we protect ourselves from our inner Robert Citron?

The solution is laughably easy: keep an investment journal. And use it to document the reasons behind any investment action you take.

Here's how I do it: I use a simple spiral notebook, and whenever I buy or sell a stock, index fund, ETF, or make any changes to my overall investment portfolio, I simply write down four or five bullet points on what I intend to do and why.

And when I buy any individual stock, I make sure I write a short two- or three-sentence thesis on why I want to own the company, what it does, and, most importantly, at what prices I would buy more.

One more idea: you can use your investing notebook to keep a running list of stocks, funds or ETFs that catch your eye and that might be worthy of buying under the right conditions (and yes, of course, you'll jot down 2-3 sentences on what those specific conditions would be so that later you don't misremember them!). This is a convenient way to keep a stable of potential new investment ideas.

The whole point of keeping an investing journal is to subvert hindsight bias. Your brain has a subtle but powerful desire to conflate prior predictions with new information. It wants that wonderful feeling that it knew all along. Writing down your thinking at the time of prediction preserves it, inoculating it from misremembrance.

You'll see: in the future, there will be some disruption--affecting a stock you own, a fund you've chosen or the overall investment environment--and that disruption will impact your thinking and cause it to become unmoored. At these moments, it's priceless to be able to bring yourself back to the actual documented reasons why you bought a stock or a fund. With properly moored thinking, you can actually check to see if your thesis was correct or incorrect and why. You'll be able to learn from your mistakes rather than misremember them. And you'll have a concrete plan for what you should do when an exogenous event or an unexpected market selloff occurs.

In contrast, if you merely keep your reasons in your head, you are guaranteed to misremember them. What's worse, the key problem with hindsight bias and misremembering--as with most cognitive errors--is that we really, truly, honestly believe we don't do it. We are all mini-Robert Citrons. An investing journal is just a simple device to help protect us from ourselves.

Remember Robert Citron. Note your investment decisions and the thinking behind them in your investing notebook so you won't do what he did.

Some of the ideas in this post came from Michael Mauboussin's book More Than You Know, Hersh Shefrin's book Beyond Greed and Fear, and Nicholas Taleb's book Antifragile. For further reading on Orange Country's bankruptcy see Robert Citron's Wikipedia page for useful additional context.

Read Next: Money Sundays: Is Looking For Tax-Efficient Investments Icky? Or Intelligent?

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at Amazon.com via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

CK Links--Friday November 21, 2014

Links from around the internet. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

PS: Follow me on Twitter!

So damn addictive, this Cranberry Orange Pecan Bread. (Alosha's Kitchen)

You hardly even need a recipe for this: Roasted Cauliflower. (Diary of a Locavore)

An easy Anglo-Indian Beef Stir Fry, plus some great tips on tenderizing super lean beef.
(Food on the Food)

"I wanted to have a perfect body, but that’s not the case. And that's okay. Loose skin and all, I'm happy with where I've come from and where I am at now." (Huffington Post)

Related: What no one tells you about dramatic weight loss. (The Cut)

With GMOs, how can so many smart people be so sure that there's nothing to worry about? (Bloomberg)

More evidence that food miles have almost nothing to do with the carbon footprint of your food. (Farming Futures)

Related: Help the world by NOT going local and A Paradox for Locavores.

Whoops! Unilever inadvertently gives a small "mayo" maker a lot of free publicity. (Eat Drink Politics)

Another perspective on "Mayo-gate": Sometimes it's hard to know when consumer protection becomes protectionism. (Jayson Lusk)

Do you ever hear shark music? (Owlhaven)

I used to think that our genes are something we can't change. Imagine my surprise when I happened across a study which showed the opposite.

Westminster, Massachussetts attempts to pass a full-blown ban on the sale of all tobacco products. The town's reaction was… unexpected. (New York Times)

The shirt you wear is more important than landing a spacecraft on a comet. (The Verge)

Why I love the stock market. (A Wealth of Common Sense)

...But don't follow Tony Robbins' financial advice. Just... don't. (Barry Ritholz)

Got an interesting article or recipe to share? Want some extra traffic at your blog? Send me an email!

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at Amazon.com via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

Create Your Own Food Myths for Fun and Profit

One more post on food myths. Sometimes, people and organizations can gain--and even profit--from food myths. And once in a while you’ll find organizations that profit by making up their very own myths.

Which brings us to the two worst examples I've seen of a someone creating and profiting from food myths. Coincidentally (or not), both examples come from the same organization: The Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The CSPI is an attention-hungry watchdog group with the laudable mission of protecting and advocating for consumers. The organization's thirst for media attention, however, led to the publication of their infamous Ten Riskiest Foods report a few years ago, giving us our first example of a profitable myth: the myth of the "epidemic" of food poisoning.

I encourage readers to take a moment to look at my fisking of the Ten Riskiest Foods report. Under the guise of warning us of a seemingly serious health risk, the CSPI did a few things:

1) It encouraged consumers to avoid several perfectly safe and healthy foods because of massively exaggerated fears of food poisoning.

2) By manufacturing a health scare it drew attention and resources away from real health policy issues.

3) The CSPI itself gained an enormous amount of media attention, thanks in large part due to its own exaggerations and sensationalism.

Points 1 and 2 could be dangerous, point 3 is merely self-serving. But if we take all three points together, we severely stretch the boundaries of public health ethics.

On one level, the Ten Riskiest Foods report was well-played. There's a lot going on in the world, and people can only give their attention to a fraction of the things happening out there. "Food poisoning by ice cream" is the kind of thing that grabs readers, which is why so many people saw and heard media reports on this study. And of course nobody--certainly not the journalists repeating the myths--bothered to break out a calculator to figure out that the total number of cases cited in the report worked out to less than a rounding error.

Interestingly, despite an incredibly low incidence rate, we all seem to have a vague sense that food poisoning is a serious and growing problem. And yet, like airline crashes, we only hear about every single event because they are so rare. Which further serves to illustrate the power of myths.

The result? The CSPI gets the publicity, and we get a myth. A myth that greatly misleads us about the actual risks we face in life. This is one of the many reasons why in the modern era, when life is the safest it has ever been, we all feel more fearful than ever.

But perhaps an even worse example of CSPI mythmaking came long before the Ten Riskiest Foods report was a even glint in this organization's eye. This example dates all the way back to the 1980s, when the CSPI got media attention by pushing for increased use of transfats. Yes, increased.  That was until it changed its own myth--and got still more media attention--by later advocating against them. This excellent article from the Media Research Center summarizes the story here.

Granted, an organization is free to change its mind, and many nutrition scientists did just that about transfats: they decided they were a lot less healthy then they thought before.

What's glaring here is how the CSPI benefited from holding both positions without ever having to own up to being wrong. They voted for transfats before they voted against them!

Perhaps it isn't quite fair to single out the CSPI. It's far from the only group out there standing to gain from mythmaking. Plenty of food pundits employ the "healthy food has to be expensive" myth to rationalize all sorts of subsidies, food bans and politically imposed food policies. Even New Jersey's own Cory Booker, a perfectly good guy, helped spread that myth--admittedly inadvertently--when he did his incompetently executed food stamp challenge. Booker got positive media coverage and political credit for showing empathy with the poor. The rest of us got more "proof" that it costs a lot to eat healthy.

But do you want to know who is the quintessential exemplar, right now, of someone who gains from food myths? The Food Babe--with her downright freakish talent for manufacturing phony health scare myths on a near-weekly basis.

One final thought: A good myth is hard to debunk. It can take years. Think of when a newspaper runs something inaccurate, and then later runs a correction. The original story usually runs on the front page, where everybody sees it. The correction runs in tiny print on page A-29, where nobody sees it.

Remember these two examples from the CSPI. They got the publicity, the donations, and the reputational benefit of (supposedly) fighting for the consumer. We got stuck with conflicting information and still more myths. Heads they win, tails we lose.

Readers, is it ethical for advocacy groups to bend the truth to gain attention for their cause--even if it's ostensibly a good cause? What do you think?

Read Next: The Tragic Tale of Peat Village: A Natural Resource Fable

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at Amazon.com via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

CK Links--Friday November 14, 2014

Links from around the internet. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

PS: Follow me on Twitter!

"This year’s crop of fall cookbooks is one of the best I've seen in ages." (Dad Cooks Dinner)

Wine's not-so-quiet hypocrisy. (1 Wine Dude)

"GM technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%." (Jayson Lusk)

Marion Nestle celebrates the various food-related ballot measures passed with last week's elections. (Food Politics)

Intriguing diary of an intermittent faster. (Equinox)

Screwing your future self. (Mr. Money Mustache)

Bonus! How to grocery shop... with your middle finger. (Mr. Money Mustache)

We are all confident idiots, extemporizing on topics we know nothing about. (Pacific Standard)

...and still more on the Dunning-Kruger Effect: The value of "I don’t know." (A Wealth of Common Sense)

The police are still out of control. I should know. (Politico Magazine)

Got an interesting article or recipe to share? Want some extra traffic at your blog? Send me an email!

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at Amazon.com via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.