Jul 27, 2011 | By George Gantz
Cognitive Bias – The Difficulty of Judging What is True
I recently heard an economist talking about the problem of cognitive bias in the economics profession, and it occurred to me that this is a key issue in the science and spirituality discussion. A quick survey of the topic (link here) demonstrates the hugely fallible quality of human rationality. How can we get past the problem? Honest and humble introspection – and respect for those holding contrary positions.
The human mind is, as Justin Junge pointed out in his talk on June 6th, the most complex and sophisticated object in the universe. It is capable of remarkable feats of management and execution at the granular level of body control, movement, vision and speech, and it is also a platform for rational assessment and planning of a high order. No wonder, then, that it is also capable of error. The errors it is capable of are numerous (Wikipedia lists 100 cognitive biases), and in the process of working to find a center in one’s investigation of truth, it is important to be aware of what the source of error might be.
Some biases are shortcuts – we don’t have the time to go into the details – we make snap judgements – we tend to rely on what we recall, the most recent, the most obvious. But we also tend to twist the truth to suit our own ends – presuming we are more astute, more aware, more unbiased and more correct than the person standing next to us. This is more pronounced if they are strangers, or from a different group. We also, of course, will tend to affirm or disaffirm things based on whether they are positive or negative to our self-image or self-interests. We are also strongly biased by the ideas and beliefs we hold dear – to the point that we can deny the evidence of our own senses or the confirmed observation of many simply because they are inconsistent with our preconceived ideas. This is as true for the atheist scientist in his/her field of exploration as for a religious adherent.
In science we see the effects in sometimes subtle or unconscious manipulation of data – or the more egregious cases of fraud. There is also a strong intellectual bias or hubris among many scientists – they indeed have powerful intellects and in their fields are among a rarified breed. The greatest minds, pursuing the biggest ideas, sometimes have trouble changing direction. (A famous example is Albert Einstein’s intense dislike of some of the implications of quantum mechanics, and his quote “God does not play dice with the universe.”)
Among religious thinkers, the challenge of cognitive bias is obvious. If your belief is premised on revelation or scripture, reconciling conflicting information with whatever cognitive tools are available is profoundly important. Confirmation bias, the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, is an obvious risk as is self-reinforcement through constant repetition, e.g. “repeat something long enough and it will become true”. There is also an unfortunate tendancy among charismatic individuals (often found in religion or politics) to become self-inflated, with sometimes catastrophic results.
To sum it up – we tend to believe what we want to believe. That is the starting point, but history demonstrates we can do better. The human race can advance when people share their insight and perspectives in the effort to learn and grow in the process. I have three thoughts about how to help this happen. First, I go back to what Francis Bacon and Immanuel Swedenborg both had to say about the effort to learn the truth about the natural and spiritual realms (see God of the Gaps). By all means seek to perfect your understanding, but do so with humility. You are in the face of something so complex and so profound that it may be beyond the ability to grasp – and we can only wonder.
Second, I continue to hear a strong message from the most scientific and the most spiritual among us – self-knowledge, introspection, meditation and contemplation are critical. Clarity of mind, and the ability to understand one’s own motivations and inclinations does not come easily – it should be practiced, regularly and consistently.
Finally, it is a truism that we can only benefit from the ideas of others if we listen to what they have to say. Conflict and debate are not useful as they will simply add to the cognitive biases – our own and others. Listening requires that we be respectful and courteous – giving both time and focused attention to those we are in conversation with.