Q: What's in a Name?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A: Not much.

I ran into an example of confirmation bias that was almost flabbergasting in its blatancy the other day, courtesy of the following item from a list of bizarre family reunion stories.

The stories of identical twins' nearly identical lives are often astonishing, but perhaps none more so than those of these identical twins born in Ohio. Jim Lewis and Jim Springer first met February 9, 1979 after 39 years of being separated. They had grown to adulthood completely unaware of each other's existence. When Jim Lewis finally found his twin brother, Jim Springer, after years of searching through court records, he knew their unwed mother had put them up for adoption shortly after giving birth. When the two first met, Lewis described it as "like looking into a mirror." For starters, both had the same first name. They were physically identical. [Jumpin' Jehosophat! --ed] But when they got talking, the similarities were astounding. Both had childhood dogs named Toy. Both had been nail biters and fretful sleepers. Both had migraines. Both had married first wives names Linda, second wives named Betty. Lewis named his first son James Allen, Springer named his James Alan. For years, they both had taken holidays on the same Florida beach. They both drank Miller Lite, smoked Salem cigarettes, loved stock car racing, disliked baseball, left regular love notes to their wives, made doll furniture in their basements, and had added circular white benches around the trees in their backyards. Their IQs, habits, facial expressions, brain waves, heartbeats, and handwriting were nearly identical. The Jim twins lived apart but died on the same day, from the same illness.
Except for the fact that this set of separated twins ended up with identical first names (assuming that either both were named Jim or both were named James), this story is actually somewhat typical of accounts of identical twins raised apart. (And it would be even if we set aside similarities known to be caused by their nearly identical genetic makeups.) When such accounts appear in popular media, they will often emphasize how similar the twins are as adults, while downplaying their differences.

But what really piqued my interest was what I found at the source cited by the web site Oddee: an Internet posting from a back copy of the newsletter of a group that attaches mystical significance to names in the same fashion that astrologers do the positions of celestial bodies when we are born. That source, after providing substantially the same information as the quote above, elaborates further:
The understanding of name and its influence on our lives is a facinating [sic] study. More importantly it gives one an undersanding [sic] of the cause of many of our qualities of intelligence and the experiences we attract.

Because these twins were named almost identically, they expressed similar traits. Some would argue this was heredity given their twin status. Most of us know a set of twins where the personality differences are distinct and obvious. In this case, because they were raised separately, they developed the qualities in their names without reference to a sibling. They demonstrate the principle of names in a dramatic fashion...
The Skeptic's Dictionary say the following about confirmation bias:
Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs. For example, if you believe that during a full moon there is an increase in admissions to the emergency room where you work, you will [if you are not careful --ed] take notice of admissions during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when admissions occur during other nights of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens your belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents and other lunar effects.
As a stark example of ignoring evidence contradictory to their beliefs, kindly note that the "Kabalarians," blatantly eager to substantiate their view about the importance of names, say that the twins are, "named almost identically" -- despite the fact that they have completely different last names. And note that they home in on the differences -- but blow off the similarities -- commonly seen in identical twins raised together. There is also no mention at all of the twins' middle names (if one or both of the Jims had them), although one can be sure that if those were also the same (and were available -- I couldn't find them), the Kabalarians would have eagerly supplied those as well.

The account posted at their site -- as another post threaded in months later shows -- also left out aspects of the reunion story available in other accounts that would have cast doubts on the assertion that this story provides "evidence" that names somehow determine our lives. The additional post notes some differences between the Jims, but even it doesn't really provide all the context necessary to evaluate their claim. (Yes. It's an arbitrary claim and can be dismissed out of hand, but bear with me as I explore this line of thought, anyway.)

For one thing, there are common-sense issues, such as the following: Just consider how many twins -- raised together or apart -- possess different names -- and how many non-twins possess completely identical names. Consider further how easy it would be to find people among such groups either more -- or less -- similar to each other than these twins.

On top of that, consider how one comes up with lists of similarities (or differences) between individuals. I'm named after my father, for example. I'm sure I could come up with two lists: one of astounding similarities between the two of us, and one of equally astounding differences. (The same thing could even live on each list: We both liked to relax with a beer after work. Or: My dad liked Old Milwaukee, but I never touch the stuff.)

And then there is philosophical context. On what basis is this claim made? Do men have free will or not? Does correlation necessarily imply causation? Does this assertion fit in with everything else we know?

Confirmation bias can cloud thinking on any issue, including claims that are neither arbitrary nor absurd, and even about something that happens to be true. But a mind lapsing into confirmation bias is not engaged in cognition. Confirmation bias, while sometimes amusing, can thus be deadly to a rational animal.

-- CAV


Pinker's Blog said...

"Except for the fact that this set of separated twins ended up with identical first names (assuming that either both were named Jim or both were named James), this story is actually somewhat typical of accounts of identical twins raised apart".

I would be very interested to know what implications you think that this has for the objectivist view of free will...

Gus Van Horn said...

Considering the ample evidence one can obtain from observing other people making choices and by introspecting about choices one makes oneself, this does not have any implications one way or the other regarding whether man has free will.

Such studies may help us figure out what aspects of our behavior can be volitionally controlled or how easily. For example, some aspects of behavior, like one's type of laugh, or sexual preference may be entirely or at least practically beyond the realm of choice, and it may well be that genetic factors (like environmental, formative, or psychological factors) might result make certain types of choices more or less likely, but the fact that some things are beyond our control doesn't mean everything is.

Roberto Sarrionandia said...

Perhaps it is I who is getting confused, but I would identify this as an example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, instead of the similar confirmation bias, since we are comparing past actions without expecation

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for chiming in, since you have, in the process, taught (or reminded) me about a logical fallacy I have never heard of before (or had forgotten about, though I don't see how, with a name like that).

That said, I could be wrong here, but I'm not sure this IS an example of the fallacy. This group, I am pretty sure, already feels that names influence the personalities and even events that befall individuals.

From the description linked above, we have:

"The number of cases of disease D in city C is greater than would be expected by chance. City C has a factory which has released amounts of chemical agent A into the environment. Therefore, agent A causes disease D."

Now, do I think that if someone read this story and THEN homed in on the shared first name as a cause of all the similarities, we'd have that fallacy.

This and the rest of the description seem to imply that both the alleged causal connection and the alleged agent are taken from the data under consideration, rather than what was being "looked for" all along. (i.e., "This fallacy lives up to its striking name because the Texas sharpshooter takes a random cluster, and by drawing a target onto it makes it appear to be causally determined, as if the Texan were shooting at the target.")

Also, from Wikipedia:

"The fallacy does not apply if one had an ex ante, or prior, expectation of the particular relationship in question before examining the data."

Of course I'm open to argument...


madmax said...

Regarding free will, it seems to me that this "debate" between determinists and free-will advocates comes down to definitions. Determinists seem to be using a straw-man definition of free will; i.e. your will isn't free if you can't *completely* control every emotional impulse you have. So if sexual attraction is ultimately found to be rooted in biology, to a determinist this is proof that our will isn't free.

But Ayn Rand's definition of free will seems to me now to be unassailable. As I understand it, she argues that free will is the choice to focus your awareness and your intellect at any give time and place, and that as a consequence the outcome of your action is not determined. I don't see how this can really be challenged. So, lets say I am "hard-wired" to find medium-framed blond women attractive. Does the fact that I can't change my emotional mechanism to be responsive to brunettes or red-heads mean that I am "determined"? Yet this is the stuff you find at secular, evolutionary themed web-sites all the time. This is in essence the entire human-bio-diversity movement.

"Nonsense on stilts" does seem to apply here.

Gus Van Horn said...

You raise a valid and interesting point regarding how the way we experience emotions can lend surface credibility to determinism, but I don't think the debate boils down to just semantics. Rand's view of free will is revolutionary, and involves a conception of causality that most determinists simply don't have regarding how the mind works. They see billiard balls all the way from our constituent molecules to our highest aspirations, rather than the mind as possessing a different kind of causation, and being able to self-regulate.

But, yes. Some things being "hard-wired" (or at least as good as hard wired, given today's state of development in neuroscience and psychology) does not mean that everything is hard-wired. And even the "hard-wiring" isn't straightforward. You mention your physical "type," and yet people often end up in relationships (or even married) to someone outside their type if other things, like a highly compatible sense of life come into play.

Once, ages ago at an Objectivist event, I was astonished at the level of attraction I felt for a waifish girl with tatoos I briefly met. (I hate tatoos and prefer curvier women.) It can happen, and if it does, watch out!

Roberto Sarrionandia said...


I think you're right. The problem is that a situation can easily present both fallacies, and each is only relevant when you consider a particular observer.

Gus Van Horn said...


If, by "observer," you also mean "the one formulating the hypothesis," then, yes.

Otherwise, I'm now confused.