Third thoughts

Source: Longwood, 2016

“We are good at being skeptical when information conflicts with our preexisting beliefs and values,” Landrum noted. “We are bad at being skeptical when information is compatible with our preexisting beliefs and values.” (Scientific American)

Evolution works with what is available in any given species at any given time. Even if a mutation is highly desirable, it is useless unless it gets passed on to new generations. Once upon a time, enough members of human ancestors broke with tradition and started walking on two legs. Environmental circumstances at that time made this mutation ideal for survival and breeding. Becoming bipedal necessitated other mutations in our bodies, including the brain, and many of the mutations have been passed on to us.

Confirmation bias is not necessarily a bad mutation when seen in light of  survival. Conscious thinking takes time, enough time that a lion might eat us or we might become exiled from our group because we begin questioning accepted truths. Automatic thinking, on the other hand, helps us make instant decisions that could save our lives. Even researchers have to use confirmation bias by presuming that their samples are randomized and representative enough for a much larger population. However, confirmation bias gets in the way when the information we need goes against what we have been taught and how we have learned. According to Miguel de Unamuno (1924)

“The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found. The one is the man who studies the problem and the other is the man who gives us a formula, correct or incorrect, as the solution of it.” (Todayinsci)

Many times confirmation bias among the general public and most scientists has stood in the way of progress. Researchers are not innoculated against confirmation bias.Take the old ideology of the West that claimed that the Sun circled the Earth. Galileo was severely punished for claiming that the Earth was NOT the center of the Universe and that it circled the Sun. Alfred Wegner was ridiculed by other scientists for his theories about continental drift. In 1972 John Yudkin warned people about the potential dangers of refined sugar, and his theory destroyed his reputation. Not until well after his death in 1995 did scientists begin research on the potential problems of refined sugar. Even people who study the way we think fall prey to inefficient confirmation bias against other psychologists. It took some time before B.F. Skinner’s theories about learning became accepted. Even now many psychologists struggle with the idea that Skinner claimed he could predict how any of us would react to a stimulus based on previous reactions to the same types of stimuli.

Once we start thinking that there could be something to what another person says or does, or we begin doubting that our culture is an optimal one, we might need to change our behaviour and risk losing social standing. Yet, by doing so, we could end up with a positive effect on ourselves and our lives. One of computer science’s starting points was in the 1840’s with Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. We should be impressed with their genius at a time when steam engines were what was available.

Neither of them, in their wildest imaginings, foresaw the possibilities of today. Not many decades in the past specialists in the field had become too comfortable in their paradigms. History of computers on the ICT Lounge has some fun information that shows how amazing and exponential developments in computer science have been.

Just as some of our ancestors decided they could stand up and walk on their hind legs, we too can ask ourselves if there might be something to what our “opponents” argue. Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t. Studying other points of view made my life better and taught me a valuable lesson. One that I still struggle to keep in mind, i.e. that my understanding of the world probably isn’t the ideal one.

Or, in the words of Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal:

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