Thursday, June 19, 2014

Irrational Reason

You would think that if you ask a series of questions which have either obvious correct answers or which have been designed to bring a clear response, it wouldn't matter in which order you asked them.

You would not be alone in thinking this, but you would be wrong. One of the more famous examples is a 1997 Gallup opinion poll in which people were asked whether or not they believed then-President Bill Clinton was trustworthy.  If poll respondents were first asked the same question about then-Vice President Al Gore, seven percent more of them found President Clinton honest and trustworthy. Ken Starr was presumably not among those polled.

This is called the "order effect" and it has no basis in rational thinking -- even though it happens all the time. Ohio State University professor Zheng Wang noticed the order effect was similar to a principle in quantum mechanics called "commutation." Commutation says that certain pairs of experiments will bring different results depending on which one is performed first. The properties those experiments measure are labeled "noncommuting," although there is no evidence they actually work from home.

Professor Wang says the similarity does not mean that human thinking operates as a quantum computer would, but that commutation could offer a better model for figuring out how people think than ones that do not take the order effect into account.

Although she does not say this, it could also offer an explanation for casting votes for the same utter dumb-ass in two or more successive elections despite ample evidence of said dumb-assery. If I as a voter cast such a second or third or more ballot despite the candidate in question removing all doubt as to his or her ineptitude in office, it is not because I am actually irrational. It is because I am non-commuting. And thus we can explain why Harry Reid has been in office since 1987, why Jesse Helms was in the Senate for 30 years, why there is a second Obama term and why Mary Fallin will probably win another term as Oklahoma's governor in November.

Sometimes it's good to know that there are reasons some things will never make sense.

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