Friday, January 28, 2011

Catching Up With the New Yorker


Like a lot of people who subscribe to the New Yorker, I often find it difficult to keep up with the weekly schedule of the magazine. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours with the Dec. 13th issue, which included a fascinating piece by Jonah Lehrer entitled "The Truth Wears Off." Lehrer writes about "the decline effect" -- scientists being unable to replicate the positive effects of a given trial in subsequent experiments. The key passage, at least from my perspective, appears at the end. Lehrer writes:

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

This certainly jibes with some of what we are learning through our own study of the trial and error process in the criminal justice system. Speaking of which, next month I am going to appear at Policy Exchange in London for a conversation with John Prideaux of The Economist that grows out of our new Daring to Fail book.