10 February 2013

Fixing bugs in minds and bugs in societies

Suppose we notice what appears to be bugs in our thinking processes. Should we try to fix these bugs?

Or how about bugs in the way society works? Should we try to fix these bugs too?

As examples of bugs of the first kind, I return to a book I reviewed some time ago, “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind”. I entitled my review “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature”, and I still stick by that description. In that review, I pulled out the following quote from near to the end of the book:

In this book, we’ve discussed several bugs in our cognitive makeup: confirmation bias, mental contamination, anchoring, framing, inadequate self-control, the ruminative cycle, the focussing illusion, motivated reasoning, and false memory, not to mention absent-mindedness, an ambiguous linguistic system, and vulnerability to mental disorders. Our memory, contextually driven as it is, is ill suited to many of the demands of modern life, and our self-control mechanisms are almost hopelessly split. Our ancestral mechanisms were shaped in a different world, and our more modern deliberative mechanisms can’t shake the influence of that past. In every domain we have considered, from memory to belief, choice, language, and pleasure, we have seen that a mind built largely through the progressive overlay of technologies is far from perfect…

These bugs in our mental makeup are far from being harmless quirks or curiosities. They can lead us:

  • to overly trust people who have visual trappings of authority,
  • to fail to make adequate provision for our own futures,
  • to keep throwing money into bad investments,
  • and to jump to all kinds of dangerous premature conclusions.

But should we try to fix these bugs?

The field where the term ‘bug’ was first used in this sense of a mistake, software engineering, provides many cautionary tales of bug fixing going wrong:

  • Sometimes what appears to be a ‘bug’ in a piece of software turns out to be a useful ‘feature’, with a good purpose after all
  • Sometimes a fix introduces unexpected side-effects, which are worse than the bug which was fixed.

I shared an example of the second kind in the “Managing defects” chapter of the book I wrote in 2004-5, “Symbian for software leaders: principles of successful smartphone development projects”:

An embarrassing moment with defects

The first million-selling product that I helped to build was the Psion Series 3a handheld computer. This was designed as a distinct evolutionary step-up from its predecessor, the original Series 3 (often called the “Psion 3 classic” in retrospect)…

At last the day came (several weeks late, as it happened) to ship the software to Japan, where it would be flashed into large numbers of chips ready to assemble into production Series 3a devices. It was ROM version 3.20. No sooner was it sent than panic set into the development team. Two of us had independently noticed a new defect in the agenda application. If a user set an alarm on a repeating entry, and then adjusted the time of this entry, in some circumstances the alarm would fail to ring. We reasoned that this was a really bad defect – after all, two of us had independently found it.

The engineer who had written the engine for the application – the part dealing with all data manipulation algorithms, including calculating alarm times – studied his code, and came up with a fix. We were hesitant, since it was complex code. So we performed a mass code review: lots of the best brains in the team talked through the details of the fix. After twenty four hours, we decided the fix was good. So we recalled 3.20, and released 3.21 in its place. To our relief, no chips were lost in the process: the flashing had not yet started.

Following standard practice, we upgraded the prototype devices of everyone in the development team, to run 3.21. As we waited for the chips to return, we kept using our devices – continuing (in the jargon of the team) to “eat our own dog food”. Strangely, there were a few new puzzling problems with alarms on entries. Actually, it soon became clear these problems were a lot worse than the problem that had just been fixed. As we diagnosed these new problems, a sinking feeling grew. Despite our intense care (but probably because of the intense pressure) we had failed to fully consider all the routes through the agenda engine code; the change made for 3.21 was actually a regression on previous behaviour.

Once again, we made a phone call to Japan. This time, we were too late to prevent some tens of thousands of wasted chips. We put the agenda engine code back to its previous state, and decided that was good enough! (Because of some other minor changes, the shipping version number was incremented to 3.22.) We decided to live with this one defect, in order not to hold up production any longer.

We were expecting to hear more news about this particular defect from the Psion technical support teams, but the call never came. This defect never featured on the list of defects reported by end users. In retrospect, we had been misled by the fact that two of us had independently found this defect during the final test phase: this distorted our priority call…

That was an expensive mistake, which seared a cautionary attitude into my own brain, regarding the dangers of last-minute changes to complex software. All seasoned software engineers have similar tales they can tell, from their own experience.

If attempts to fix defects in software are often counter-productive, how much more dangerous are attempts to fix defects in our thinking processes – or defects in how our societies operate! At least in the first case, we generally still have access to the source code, and to the design intention of the original software authors. For the other examples, the long evolutionary history that led to particular designs is something at which we can only guess. It would be like trying to fix a software bug, that somehow results from the combination of many millions of lines of source code, written decades ago by people who left no documentation and who are not available for consultation.

What I’ve just stated is a version of an argument that conservative-minded thinkers often give, against attempts to try to conduct “social engineering” or “improve on nature”. Tinkering with ages-old thinking processes – or with structures within societies – carries the risk that we fail to appreciate many hidden connections. Therefore (the argument runs) we should desist from any such experimentation.

Versions of this argument appeared, from two different commentators, in responses to my previous blogpost. One put it like this:

The trouble is that ‘cognitive biases and engrained mistakes’ may appear dysfunctional but they are, in fact, evolutionarily successful adaptations of humanity to its highly complex environment. These, including prejudice, provide highly effective means for the resolution of really existing problems in human capacity…

Rational policies to deal with human and social complexity have almost invariably been proved to be inhumane and brutal, fine for the theoretician in the British Library, but dreadful in the field.

Another continued the theme:

I have much sympathy for [the] point about “cognitive biases and engrained mistakes”. The belief that one has identified cognitive bias in another or has liberated oneself from such can be a “Fatal Conceit,” to borrow a phrase from Hayek, and has indeed not infrequently given rise to inhumane treatment even of whole populations. One of my favourite sayings is David Hume’s “the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason,” which is at the heart of Hayek’s Fatal Conceit argument.

But the conclusion I draw is different. I don’t conclude, “Never try to fix bugs”. After all, the very next sentence from my chapter on “Managing defects” stated, “We eventually produced a proper fix several months later”. Indeed, many bugs do demand urgent fixes. Instead, my conclusion is that bug fixing in complex systems needs a great deal of careful thought, including cautious experimentation, data analysis, and peer review.

The analogy can be taken one more step. Suppose that a software engineer has a bad track record in his or her defect fixes. Despite claiming, each time, to be exercising care and attention, the results speak differently: the fixes usually make things worse. Suppose, further, that this software engineer comes from a particular company, and that fixes from that company have the same poor track record. (To make this more vivid, the name of this company might be “Technocratic solutions” or “Socialista” or “Utopia software”. You can probably see where this argument is going…) That would be a reason for especial discomfort if someone new from that company is submitting code changes in attempts to fix a given bug.

Well, something similar happens in the field of social change. History has shown, in many cases, that attempts at mental engineering and social engineering were counter-productive. For that reason, many conservatives support various “precautionary principles”. They are especially fearful of any social changes proposed by people they can tar with labels such as “technocratic” or”socialist” or “utopian”.

These precautionary principles presuppose that the ‘cure’ will be worse than the ‘disease’. However, I personally have greater confidence in the fast improving power of new fields of science, including the fields that study our mind and brain. These improvements are placing ever greater understanding in our hands – and hence, ever greater power to fix bugs without introducing nasty side-effects.

For these reasons, I do look forward (as I said in my previous posting) to these improvements

helping individuals and societies rise above cognitive biases and engrained mistakes in reasoning… and accelerating a reformation of the political and economic environment, so that the outcomes that are rationally best are pursued, instead of those which are expedient and profitable for the people who currently possess the most power and influence.

Finally, let me offer some thoughts on the observation that “the rules of morality are not conclusions of our reason”. That observation is vividly supported by the disturbing “moral dumbfounding” examples discussed by Jonathan Haidt in his excellent book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” (which I briefly reviewed here). But does that observation mean that we should stop trying to reason with people about moral choices?

MoralLandscapeHere, I’ll adapt comments from my review of “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”, by Sam Harris.

That book considers how we might go about finding answers to big questions such as “how should I live?” and “what makes some ways of life more moral than others?”  As some specific examples, how should we respond to:

  • The Taliban’s insistence that the education of girls is an abomination?
  • The stance by Jehovah’s Witnesses against blood transfusion?
  • The prohibition by the Catholic Church of the use of condoms?
  • The legalisation of same-sex relationships?
  • The use of embryonic stem cells in the search for cures of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?
  • A would-be Islamist suicide bomber who is convinced that his intended actions will propel him into a paradise of abundant mental well-being?

One response is that such questions are the province of religion. The correct answers are revealed via prophets and/or holy books.  The answers are already clear, to those with the eye of faith. It is a divine being that tells us, directly or indirectly, the difference between good and evil. There’s no need for experimental investigations here.

A second response is that the main field to study these questions is that of philosophy. It is by abstract reason, that we can determine the difference between good and evil.

But Sam Harris, instead, primarily advocates the use of the scientific method. Science enters the equation because it is increasingly able to identify:

  • Neural correlates (or other physical or social underpinnings) of sentient well-being
  • Cause-and-effect mechanisms whereby particular actions typically bring about particular changes in these neural correlates.

With the help of steadily improving scientific understanding, we can compare different actions based on their likely effects on sentient well-being. Actions which are likely to magnify sentient well-being are good, and those which are likely to diminish it are evil. That’s how we can evaluate, for example, the Taliban’s views on girls’ education.

As Harris makes clear, this is far from being an abstract, other-worldly discussion. Cultures are clashing all the time, with lots of dramatic consequences for human well-being. Seeing these clashes, are we to be moral relativists (saying “different cultures are best for different peoples, and there’s no way to objectively compare them”) or are we to be moral realists (saying “some cultures promote significantly more human flourishing than others, and are to be objectively preferred as a result”)? And if we are to be moral realists, do we resolve our moral arguments by deference to religious tradition, or by open-minded investigation of real-world connections?

In the light of these questions, here are some arguments from Harris’s book that deserve thought:

  • There’s a useful comparison between the science of human values (the project espoused by Harris), and a science of diets (what we should eat, in order to enjoy good health).  In both cases, we’re currently far from having all the facts.  And in both cases, there are frequently several right answers.  But not all diets are equally good.  Similarly, not all cultures are equally good.  And what makes one diet better than another will be determined by facts about the physical world – such as the likely effects (direct and indirect) of different kinds of fats and proteins and sugars and vitamins on our bodies and minds.  While people still legitimately disagree about diets, that’s not a reason to say that science can never answer such questions.  Likewise, present-day disagreements about specific causes of happiness, mental flourishing, and general sentient well-being, do not mean these causes fail to exist, or that we can never know them.
  • Likewise with the science of economics.  We’re still far from having a complete understanding of how different monetary and financial policies impact the long-term health of the economy.  But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and stop searching for insight about likely cause and effect.  The discipline of economics, imperfect though it is, survives in an as-yet-incomplete state.  The same goes for political science too.  And, likewise, for the science of the moral landscape.
  • Attempts to reserve some special area of “moral insight” for religion are indefensible.  As Harris says, “How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves. Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious.” That’s the conversation we need to progress.

PS I’ve written more about cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance – and how we can transcend these mistakes – in my blogpost “Our own entrenched enemies of reason”.



  1. Though not the last word on the matter surely, a brilliant and thoughtful summation of some of the issues … however, the science approach is still primarily being contrasted with revealed religion and not entirely with the insights of contemporary philosophy or of the inherent problems arising from making choices amidst ‘complexity’.

    Another problem here is almost certainly in the implicit assumption that we must ultimately be moral realists in a more absolute sense than the evidence will bear. There is still a danger here that the evidence will be ‘interpreted’ to preserve some form of moral realism where it cannot be justified philosophically. Still, a brilliant review …

    Comment by Tim Pendry — 10 February 2013 @ 4:55 pm

    • Hi Tim – Agreed, this is far from the last word on the matter. But hopefully it is a step towards a fuller understanding.

      I share your view that philosophical insight has a big role to play, alongside new insights from science and new techniques from technology. Indeed, my answer to the question How can we ensure that accelerating technological convergence enhances rather than harms humanity? was that we need more philosophy.

      Re the limits of moral realism: Harris’s comparison with the science of diets comes again to mind. There’s no one “absolute best diet”, but some diets are worse than others – even if we currently lack all the evidence to be able to definitively prefer one (e.g. one from the Low Carbs stable) over another (e.g. one from the Low Calories stable). Similarly with the science of values.

      Re the inherent problems arising from making choices amidst ‘complexity’: indeed, software engineers face these issues every day, and we have developed tools, processes, and heuristics to help us to cope. Engineers of the human consciousness (whether individual or social) will follow in their footsteps.

      Comment by David Wood — 10 February 2013 @ 5:47 pm

      • I haven’t read Harris’s book but I’ve seen him defending his thesis in debate and I have a great deal of sympathy for his pragmatic approach. But I still don’t think he is adequately addressing the arguments of Hume, Hayek and Sandel. For me, it all goes back to Aristotle and competing notions of the good life. For example, denying women education is not a conception of the good life. It may be argued that it is a means to such, but then that argument can be countered rationally, and should be. Re-visiting the issue of homosexual marriage which has been so interesting in terms of the strength of feeling it has evoked on both sides of the debate, I see that as different. People living in the UK have inherited a traditional view of marriage and the roles of husband, wife, mother and father therein, which really is fundamental to their conception of “the good life”. It is a source of happiness and pride. It is not rationally justified and nor should we ask for it to be.

        In terms of the software analogy, a marriage doesn’t have a functional spec it can be measured against; indeed it might be defined in terms of its bugs and idiosyncracies. The key is surely to embrace them, not to fix them. Of course as individuals it is probably a good thing to become more aware of our cognitive biases and to act in accordance with such insight. Our moral perception will likely be improved as a consequence also. But do we thereby earn the right to pass judgement on how others choose to find their happiness? That’s not so self-evident.

        Comment by Colin Turfus — 12 February 2013 @ 1:29 am

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