Thursday, September 30, 2010
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.The Skeptic's Dictionary say the following about confirmation bias:
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...
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.