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Testing Jonathan Haidt

Posted By Don Boudreaux On November 18, 2012 @ 10:12 am In Health,Hubris and humility,Science | Comments Disabled

I happened across this paragraph from the site breastcancer.org [1] – not a political or ideological site:

Biopsy is usually a simple procedure. In the United States, only about 20% of women who have biopsies turn out to have cancer. By contrast, in Sweden, where cost accounting is much stricter and only the most suspicious lesions are biopsied, 80% of biopsies turn out to be cancerous (malignant).

Notice how this account can easily be read as evidence (1) against the alleged superiority of heavy government involvement in financing health care, and (2) for the alleged superiority of heavy government involvement in financing health care.

I, of course, have my priors – which, as Jonathan Haidt persuasively argues [2], are always in play (not only for me, but also for you and everyone you admire).  These priors are very good at guiding our intellects – our reason – to see in some bit of evidence, or some shard of argument, confirmation of our priors’ correctness.

When I read the above paragraph, my initial thought was “Ah, the Swedes.  Having an even greater level of government financing of health care than do Americans, they are obliged to deny potentially life-saving biopsies to women.  Here we have further evidence against the claim that Obamacare will deliver more life-saving preventive medicine.”  I didn’t have to ‘work’ for this thought; it just came.  It was, to me, immediately obvious.

But I did have to work a bit to realize that other inferences from this isolated fact – some very much the opposite of my own – are quite as consistent with this fact as my inference.

Of course, this ‘Haidt-ian’ reality does not mean that one inference is no better or no closer to the truth than are other inferences.

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[1] breastcancer.org: http://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/testing/types/biopsy

[2] as Jonathan Haidt persuasively argues: http://www.amazon.com/Righteous-Mind-Divided-Politics-Religion/dp/0307377903/ref=la_B001H6GAXW_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349785710&sr=1-1

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