Tuesday, 30 June 2009

How can we be Wrong? Part Three. Beliefs.

“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

-Bertrand Russell.

Beliefs control behaviour. What we believe about the world, determines not only our actions, but our emotions, they are operative, cognitively, socially, politically and scientifically. What we believe about the world, then, is immensely important. The corollary to this then, is the importance of where we get our beliefs from, and how we form them, finally, perhaps, crucially how we change or modify beliefs. I intend to deal with where we get our beliefs from during the discussion of the Shaming Code, here I will discuss only the latter two: forming beliefs and changing them.

Beliefs, if they are to be useful or informative must, as best possible, accurately reflect reality. This would entail that one attempts to get as clear and accurate a picture of reality as possible. This means that evidence is crucial to beliefs. It should be said, that even people who harbour the craziest views and occupy the lunatic fringe of political or religious discourse, still view their beliefs as eminently rational. For example, if you were to find yourself in discussion with a 9/11 “truther” he would, no doubt, have a plethora of reasons for why it was the CIA and not Al Qaeda that flew the planes into the twin towers.

Nevertheless, we find that a good deal of our neighbours believe the preposterous. How is this so? Following on from what I wrote in the last paragraph, the idea that people always look for reasons and justifications for what they believe, would suggest, that there has been a misfiring or mistake in their attempt to ascertain reality. Robert B. Cialdini in his book Influence The Psychology of Persuasion, documents all the cognitive defects and misfirings of reason that humans are susceptive too. In short, we have a complex and vast suite of cognitive abilities and procedures that we deploy to make our way in the world. For example, we are susceptible to authority figures. Now, there is plenty of good reasons why authority is important, and why it is useful to follow experts and authorities, however, we are at risk to charlatans and hucksters, or even people who are themselves deceived of their own authority.

How then can we overcome these problems? There has probably been no other human endeavour other than science, that has systematically tried, as best possible, to eliminate bias and woolly thinking. I remember, my initial reaction when reading Richard Dawkins on the difference between the thinking styles in science and politics. Dawkins, gave the warming story of a professor who had been shown to be wrong in a theory he had held in biology by a visiting American professor. Rather than being angry or critical, he said to his young challenger “my dear fellow I have been wrong all these years.” Dawkins asks us to consider what would be the likely outcome of something like this in politics. Even if, miraculously, a politician did admit to being wrong on some policy, he would be pounced on as weak (the refuted professor’s colleagues and students clapped their hands in admiration for being magnanimous.) This was to me, a truly “consciousness raising” moment, to use a favourite phrase of Dawkins.

Tools scientists use such as experimental bias, peer review, abduction, verification and falsification, meta analyses - represent our best attempts to get a clear and untainted a picture of what’s real as possiable.

In our everyday formations and modifications of beliefs, what is important is that we keep the critical mindset, that we hold our beliefs tentatively, that they are always open to the possiabilty of change. We should, furthermore, welcome every opportunity to challenge and have challenged our beliefs, so we should as Christopher Hitchens proscribes “seek out conflict and argument”.

Following on from my last post, where I linked a video of the ten questions of Michael Shermer’s baloney detection kit, they are.

1. How reliable is the source of the claim.

2. Does the source often make similar claims? Ie lots of extraordinary, unproven, miraculous claims? Or just one or two extraordinary ones alongside perfectly ordinary ones.

3. Have the claims been verified by someone else?

4. Does the claim fit with the way the world works?

5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?

6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point.

7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?

8 Is the claimant providing positive evidence? Ie not just criticizing a position or explaining away why there is no positive evidence.

9. Does the new theory account for as much phenomena as the old theory?

10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim.





No comments: