Who truly thought
up the idea of the econs?

On Start the Week at 9am on radio 4 UK Monday, 17 March 2014, Daniel
Kahneman of Princeton University was the main guest. He says that he wants to
say there are no econs. The econs are an imaginary species that never existed.
Kahneman says they were thought up by the economists but real people are more
like the other animals in being not rational, like the econs are supposed to be,
but he says they are quite reasonable.

Humans as they are, says Kahneman,
are in two minds of what he calls system one and system two viz. of fast
thinking and slow thinking. Most human thought and ideas are of system one, or
of fast thinking. It is almost, indeed Kahneman says, repeatedly, that it is,
automatic. System two, by contrast, requires quite a lot of effort all too
often and thus tends to be dodged by most people. But system one requires no
effort, it is effortless and many of its ideas are retained by the slower more
deliberate thinking of system two.

Kahneman feels that fast thinking
leads to error. He finds lots of conformation bias. One lot of errors he names
as anchoring. Court judges roll a dice and if it scores low then they tend to
give out low sentences but if it scores high then they tend to think in terms
of high sentences in the court cases they precede over. It is not only judges
and lawyers who are thus influenced by random numbers that might be suggested
by a roll of the dice, or some other source of suggestion, but we all are, says
Kahneman. But we tend to see errors made by others way clearer than we do when
we make them ourselves.

Any risk introduces a bias of two
kinds. We greatly fear a loss and much more than we desire its equivalent in
gains. Kahneman feels this is irrational as in money terms as he feels they will be exactly the same. He tends to
feel that arithmetic is neutral.

Though he admits that he errs by fast
thinking, like he says we all do, he is basically an unreflective man who seems
to be in a permanent state of hubris. Looking at the human race in general,
Kahneman says it is luck that seems to play a big part in their success.

At this point, the chairman, Tom
Sutcliffe, said that the golf player, Gary Player, said that the more he
practised the more luck he had.

Kahneman continues that when we are
faced with dilemmas of loss on both sides, we tend to gamble almost recklessly
though fear of loss on either side. But the discussion then tends to drift
towards Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon that says that doctors should first do no
harm but that high emotion can cloud our judgement so whether to operate on the
brain is never that simple. Lisa Appignanesi holds that the French might well
be right to hold that a crime of passion is beyond the free will of the
criminal, thus he might not be responsible for even murder. She notes that it
usually referred to males, as females were considered irrational or at least
next to it anyway.

Michael Ignatieff was also there and
they all seemed to agree that it was usually honour rather than passion that
was at the fore in what has been called crimes of passion. In any case, I would
say that we are as responsible for what we do in a fit of passion as we are
under what David Hume would call cooler emotions. All our emotions are quite
rational. A man in hot temper that might mean to give his wife a beating but he
might well very soon, even instantly, cool down if she draws a gun on him. He
might even lie that he was not about to hit her in that case.

Many of Kahneman’s sympathisers call
fast thinking intuition. I think he is right to say it is just fast thinking
but not distinct from slower thinking as he also says with the use of language
though both are usually tacit. Slowness
may well aid us to correct errors but so may later fast thinking. It seems to
be clearly wrong of Kahneman to think it is radically distinct. Most insights
will be tacit and very rapid indeed. But any assumption risks error. There is
no epistemological royal road that allows some privileged assumptions, such as
those of arithmetic, that do not risk error. So we always need to rethink. Error
is likely so we need to check for it. Kahneman writes and talks as if he is
unaware of his own folly. And it seems to be superabundant. Even when he admits
to error in his own fast thinking, he seems to only do so as otherwise he might
be openly claiming the superhuman status he seems to feel is truly his due. But
buffoon status seems to be his actual due but he has been lucky. By playing to
the gallery he has been given the Noble Prize.

Kahneman has said that if ever we
think that we have reasons for our beliefs then that is often a mistake but
that looks like yet another error of his, as we always believe what seems true
to us at any one time and there is usually an abundance of known reasons as to
why we think this, or that, is the case. None of them are likely to be errors as
to why we believe even if the belief itself is a delusion. If a bush looks like
a man from a distance, as one does in a garden that I pass most weeks, then I
can see why I first thought it was a man, even though I now know it is a
man-seeming bush only. If we think we know why we believe that will usually be
right, thought sometimes we might not know why we feel a meme is..

Most people seem to doubt almost any
belief that another challenges, even if only for a moment. We certainly forget
most things. Most people will have forgotten most they believed the day before.
When we recall things it is usually owing to some reminder in the present moment.

Kahneman feels our errors are not
random but systematic, without us realising the fact. Well, it is quite true
that we cannot err if we do realise it is an error, as Plato made clear over
2500 years ago. If an assumption seems to be the case, we will most likely make
it again so our errors will recur till we realise that the assumption that we
make is false.

As a Chess player in the 1960s, I
often did, by fast thinking, see an error then look at many other moves then
come back to use the error that I only again realised as such after I had
pressed down the key on the clock after
making the erroneous move. I might agree that slower thinking might well have
checked that folly of forgetfulness. But Kahneman seems to think both that slow
thinking is different in a radical way and that it gets more insights and both
those ideas of his seem to be false. A slow insight seems to be out of the

Kahneman might now be wedded to his
bogus idea that we have two radical ways of thinking, as he worked it out with
his friend, Amos Tversky, who is now dead. I do not think there is a case for
saying that slow thinking is more logical though I do think that logic is maybe
to do with the external account, or logos, rather than of thought, it is a way
of testing, as is also observation, rather than being psychology or the way we
think. However, the mind does relate quite well to logic in that the mind does
make assumptions. Any one of them can be false or true. Whatever it is what
Kahneman calls system one or system two, fast or slow, it will be equally
logical as logic is not about what is true or false but rather about only valid
inference. What Kahneman calls conformational bias errors seem to be logical
enough but errors only as they based on false assumptions. We need observation
to check for the truth or falseness of what we assume. Systematic error may be
owing to valid logic but false assumptions.

We are told by Kahneman fans that
slow thinking is the great problem solver, that it is the star, as the recent Horizon team said. But nearly all
insight seems to be very rapid. Most people might agree with me that insight is
the acme of thought. If so, then why consider slow thinking as the star?

We are also told that we are not
aware of tacit decisions that we make rapidly but that seems alien to my own experience.

A pet idea of the psychologists here is that
we are not aware of tacit thought but I expect there is hardly anyone who is
unaware in that way. But a lot of fast thought will be spent so quickly that we
will soon forget it. Most of what we think, as well as most of what we believe,
is hardly worth talking about, still less to remember. Belief and thought are
usually very fickle. No live mind can discipline itself with ease to be loyal
to any explicit theory. Most of the assumptions we make will hardly be confined
to a single paradigm, however we are committed to it. We can embrace creeds at
will but never believe them at will. To think is usually to rethink. So we rarely
believe in any of our theories, certainly not any religion or in any political
creed. To be committed is to do with our values rather than with what we think
is the case.

The laziness and reluctance to ponder
over things that is part of Kahneman’s case I have often experienced when I
disliked the topic, but not often whenever I liked the topic. I never
experienced that reluctance when I used to play Chess, for example.

The fans of Kahneman hate money and
they most likely hate the market too. They prefer their college sinecures. They
repeat, over and again, that money in particular gets us to err but they seem
to overlook that the waste of money does provide an incentive to get us to
think twice if we later feel we have erred. They say we spend impulsively but
do we not later realise the errors owing to not having enough money? Or is it
worth it for us, thus not a waste of money,
after all?

They tell us that we are over
influenced by what other people think, but then we need to think for ourselves
just to get an idea of what others think. But the psychologists never seem to
think that their criteria is more likely to be dysfunctional than is any of the
many biases they might discover in humans. They repeatedly go on about
redesigning the economic system, as if it was on par with re-decorating out a
single house.

I do not think that the Noble Prize
committee were right to award the Noble Prize to Daniel Kahneman but I do agree
with them that they are right not to have a Noble Prize for backward
psychology, or so-called brain science, as, like astrology,, psychology is a
pseudo-science. It has no hope of
telling the public anything substantial beyond mere common sense.

It is not clear that the rational
assumption, said by the likes of Kahneman to be a vital part of economics has
any effect on the main body of economic theory at all. As Gary Becker might
ask, can its replacement ever affect the downward sloping demand curve? I tend
to think not.

However, what is clearer is that David Hume and Adam
Smith never held the same selfishness assumption that Thomas Hobbes made but
rather they both agreed with Joseph Butler that Hobbes erred on selfishness. Like
Kahneman, Butler held that humans were more like the other animals, that
language was useful but over rated by the likes of Descartes and Hobbes. In
this, Butler began the line of thought that led to the theories of Charles
Darwin. Later economists like P.H.
Wicksteed tended to also agree that Butler was right. So econs look as if they
were mainly thought up by Kahneman himself, at least as he thinks of them. In
common with all his other ideas, they do not seem to be as important as
Kahneman thinks they are.