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December 09, 2008


Matthew Cain

Matthew Taylor's right that this public moralising is on the increase: http://www.matthewtaylorsblog.com/socialbrain/sharon-shoesmith-and-karen-matthews-not-totally-black-and-white/

Mike Woodhouse

"mightn’t I too be committing the confirmation bias"

Doesn't mean you aren't reaching the right conclusion, just that you might be reaching it for the wrong reasons. Of course, I agree pretty much 100% with your analysis on this matter, which leaves me vulnerable to confirmation bias myself. Oh dear...

Anthony T

I don't think you're affected by confirmation bias as you're not confirming or rejecting any of the things people have concluded from this case.

Ultimately we need to seek evidence free of sample bias to draw conclusions. Statistics may be viewed cynically but they can still be more robust than anecdotes!


The various police blogs that I read seem to think Matthews's behaviour is extreme but indicative of more moderate forms of the same mentality. Of course, they deal with the worst people every day and those that are blogging might be likely to be more disgruntled. Nevertheless, we can't say without further information whether we have a cognitive bias or not. But we know crime,unemployment, drug use and child abuse are correlated with a single parent family structure - so without jumping to causation conclusions - we ought to say something is going wrong, and that something is not purely to do with material prosperity.

David Heigham

The lesson is dead simple; and simple economics. When you create perverse incentives, or even the appearence of perverse incentives, you can expect them to do damage in ways that you did not expect as well as the ones that were foreseen.


"...none of us infer that working in banks... has a corrupting effect."

Oh, don't we, by jove?

Bob B

We first look to see where the head offices of the failing banks were located and draw the inevitable appropriate conclusions.

Nick Hardy

How would you fit 9/11 within this framework, then?


Bob b: very good...

Nick: fits very well; it's an availability error. People got terrified of dying in a terrorist attack because it got far more publicity than (say) 3000 people dying in car crashes over the next two months.

Bob B

As for perverse incentives and to make comparisons with Karen Matthews, try Robert Peston on: The Greed Game:

So much for John Redwood's claim that interest rates were kept too high for too long.

"almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending.

"'Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,' he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform."

No wonder some pols don't want any policy interventions - or new regulations - that could spoil the game and restrict the returns. Better to turn the spotlight on the likes of Karen Matthews to distract attention.

No surprise there.


"So, maybe there are no lessons to be learned here, except that political debate is riddled with cognitive errors."

Can you call it a lesson, when everyone knew it already?


You're a die hard empiricist (positivist) then. As a die hard Constructivist, I feel you totally misunderstand the role of examples to provide 'truth'. You are under the misconception that the truth (perhaps a Black Swan) will arise by looking at the typical, through your random-sampling. But you are wrong. The truth, in so much as you can find such a contested construct, is found in the extreme, atypical example. Look at how humans learn-- they need the basic deductive tools to get to beginner stage but they need depth to get any higher. Extreme examples provide that depth. Extreme examples are how people actually learn. Think how Galileo 'proved' Aristotle wrong. Did he widely sample looking at the typical. No, he used on extreme case. Scientists pay lip service to the notion of sampling but don't actually apply it in analysing humans.

This is such a schoolboy error. Please read:
"Five misunderstandings about case study research", Qualitative Inquiry, Vol 12, No 2, April 2006, 219-245

Bob B

"Extreme examples provide that depth"

Quite so. It's become fashionable in recent years to remake old, popular movies in a modern ambience but I somehow doubt that wonderful ol' classic: I'm all right, Jack, will make the growing list of remakes:

For a start, I think they'd have a bit of difficulty in raising the finance even with a new all star cast and featuring David Cameron and George Osborne in cameo performances. Besides, trade unionists are hardly the villains nowadays compared with bankers, financial traders and their political friends.

As reported by an impeccable source, 19 of the 29 members of the Conservative shadow cabinet are millionaires:

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