"One of the challenges of trying to be scientific, and an honest intellectual, is that judgment is often required in assessing a claim or topic. The problem with relying upon one’s judgment is that it is fraught, even overwhelmed, with personal bias. The “default mode” of human behavior (which means most people do this most of the time) is to construct an elaborate rationalization for what we already believe, and want to believe. The more intelligent we are, the more sophisticated and elaborate our rationalizations – giving more confidence in our conclusions, but not necessarily deserved.
The solution to this problem is to develop a specific intellectual skill set – knowledge of the many and various ways in which we bias our thinking and the constant application of this knowledge to our own beliefs. In other words, we need to be skeptical, especially of ourselves. But not just skeptical in attitude, systematically skeptical of the process of our own thought. But since this is necessarily self-referential (we can bias our assessment of our biases) it is also necessary to check your beliefs and thinking against other people, people with different perspectives – from different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and cultures. The opposite of this approach is to be insular, to have a self-contained belief system that feeds on itself but which is completely disconnected from logic and reality. Humans seem to have an unfortunate penchant for falling into such self-contained belief systems, cults being the ultimate expression of this tendency. Conspiracy theories are another manifestation.
One manifestation in particular I want to discuss today is the “demonization” of a person, belief, or system that we don’t like. You can make anything sound sinister and broken, if you exaggerate and emphasize the flaws and weaknesses of a system and ignore or downplay the virtues. For example, if you really wanted to make a case that democracy is broken, you could point out the corruption in the system, the power of lobbyists, the failures of the election system and the electoral college. The 2000 [US] election would stand as a prime example. You could then conclude that we need to reject democracy for something else – anarchy, or perhaps a benign dictator."
The excerpt above is from a Science Based Medicine blog post about Dana Ullman and his demonization of medical science from his Huffington Post article that we discussed a bit a few days ago on the comment wall.
Confirmation Bias deserves its own discussion. The SBM blog post
is well worth reading because of Steven Novella's expert dissection of Dana Ullman's ignorance, propaganda, contradictions, clear lack of knowledge about the topics he is addressing, self-serving bias, and smoke screens with intent to confuse and poison the reader.