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Following the Science Right into the Oedipus Trap

We’ve long been told how much we can learn from our mistakes. (This week’s guest even wrote a book about it!) But what if a mistake is so awful, not only do we not learn from it, we can’t even live with it. This is the sort of mistake Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle calls an Oedipus trap. In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomes McArdle back to discuss this trap, describing some fascinating examples.

In their conversation about confronting our errors and the challenge of confirmation bias, McArdle shares the story of Dr. Walter Freeman a “pioneer” in using lobotomies to treat mental illness. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Freeman died convinced of their efficacy. He even spent the last years of his life tracking down and corresponding with his lobotomy patients, thinking he’d found “proof” of his success. How could he have been so wrong?

While I’m not going to ask if you’ve ever fallen into an Oedipus trap (as if you would know!!!), we would love to hear your reactions to this conversation. Share your responses to the prompts below in the comments, or use them to start your own conversation offline. Let’s keep the conversation going.



1- In recounting the story of Freeman, McArdle says, “One of the things that comes out of a lobotomy is a different idea about informed consent.” What does she mean? Were there “satisfied customers?” To what extent should we consider Freeman an entrepreneur?


2- McArdle cautions listeners, “…we should remember that it is easy to pass judgment when we have alternatives.” She also points to the continuing mysterious nature of health care. (Remember Semmelweis and the midwives!) While all this is true, we might still want to consider safeguards to avoid the Oedipus trap. What might such safeguards look like? Are they more internally or externally oriented?


3- Roberts changes course to consider the Oedipus trap as it relates to politicians. How often have politicians (or perhaps military leaders) made decisions that if they reconsidered they could not love with? Did Truman ever (publicly) regret dropping the atomic bomb, for example? Perhaps in many similar cases, the foregone alternative is equally unthinkable. Still. can you answer Roberts’ challenge and think of a major such event that was later- again publicly- regretted?


4-McArdle says that avoiding or getting out of the Oedipus trap is hard because the people who can resist that pull and see the thing that is true, even if it is going to be socially costly for them and psychologically costly for all of the people around them, tend not to be pleasant people. Why do you think this is? Roberts wonders about other dissenters, troublemakers, and contrarians- all pejorative terms. To what extent do those who shatter the status quo tend to be outsiders?


5- What’s wrong with “Following the Science,” according to McArdle and Roberts? To what extent do you agree that the higher the stakes, the less likely people are to follow the consensus? Explain.



Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor