28 October 2012

Human Judgment, Uncertainty, and Madame Marie

As Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking, Fast and Slow, decades of academic research suggest we place too much confidence in human judgment.

Kahneman's thesis lays out the dichotomy between rapid, instinctive and emotional thinking, and slower, deliberative thinking. Kahneman enumerates various cognitive biases associated with instinctive and deliberative thinking. The distinctions in modes of thinking and the potential fallacies in believing in their validity make sense to me.

But what about our ability, or lack thereof, to divine the future?

Academicians don't put much stock in divination. And, rightfully so. It's the stuff of priests and boardwalk hucksters. Yet it interests me how much attention popular culture pays to predictions, prophesies, and divination.
"Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do."
- Bruce Springsteen, lyrics from "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"
Attempting to foretell the future, putting forth prophesies, practicing soothsaying, and practicing a religious faith, all strike me as testament to human kind's primal need to contain, control, or spin uncertainty into order and predictability.
Madam Marie's Temple of Knowledge.
 Asbury Park, New Jersey
Madam Marie, fortune teller and psychic reader, was the longest running tenant on the Asbury Park boardwalk (1932 – 2008). Marie Castello (1915 – 2008) allegedly told Bruce Springsteen he would be a huge success. Springsteen later joked that she told all her musician clients the same thing. 
Beach fortifications in preparation
for Hurricane Sandy
Odd coincidences and serendipitous connections continue to amuse me.

I made the photograph of Madame Marie's "Temple of Knowledge" as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on Asbury Park.

Coincidentally Sandy is a part of the title of Springsteen's song "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" - the same 1973 song with the lyric quoted above that turned Madam Marie into an icon.

The "Sandy" of Springsteen's song is, by popular accounts, a composite of girls Springsteen grew up with in New Jersey. Springsteen refers to this song as "a goodbye to my adopted hometown and the life I'd lived there before I recorded."

As it happens, I left New Jersey in the mid-1970s for college which was about the same time Springsteen was gaining national fame.

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