Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Locked into error

Back in 2011, author Kathryn Schulz did a phenomenal TED Talk called "On Being Wrong."  She looks at how easy it is to slip into error, and how hard it is not only to correct it, but (often) even to recognize that it's happened.  At the end, she urges us to try to find our way out of the "tiny, terrified space of rightness" that virtually all of us live in.

Unfortunately, that's one thing that she herself gets wrong.  Because for a lot of people, their belief in their rightness about everything isn't terrified; it's proudly, often belligerently, defiant.

I'm thinking of one person in particular, here, who regularly posts stuff on social media that is objectively wrong -- I mean, hard evidence, no question about it -- and does so in a combative way that comes across as, "I dare you to contradict me."  I've thus far refrained from saying anything.  One of my faults is that I'm a conflict avoider, but I also try to be cognizant of the cost/benefit ratio.  Maybe I'm misjudging, but I think the likelihood of my eliciting a "Holy smoke, I was wrong" -- about anything -- is as close to zero as you could get.

Now, allow me to say up front that I'm not trying to imply here that I'm right about everything, nor that I don't come across as cocky or snarky at times.  Kathryn Schulz's contention (and I think she's spot-on about this one) is that we all fall into the much-too-comfortable trap of believing that our view of the world perfectly reflects reality.  One of the most startling bullseyes Schulz makes in her talk is about how it feels to be wrong:

So why do we get stuck in this feeling of being right?  One reason, actually, has to do with the feeling of being wrong.  So let me ask you guys something...  How does it feel -- emotionally -- how does it feel to be wrong?  Dreadful.  Thumbs down.  Embarrassing...  Thank you, these are great answers, but they're answers to a different question.  You guys are answering the question: How does it feel to realize you're wrong?  Realizing you're wrong can feel like all of that and a lot of other things, right?  I mean, it can be devastating, it can be revelatory, it can actually be quite funny...  But just being wrong doesn't feel like anything.

I'll give you an analogy.  Do you remember that Looney Tunes cartoon where there's this pathetic coyote who's always chasing and never catching a roadrunner?  In pretty much every episode of this cartoon, there's a moment where the coyote is chasing the roadrunner and the roadrunner runs off a cliff, which is fine -- he's a bird, he can fly.  But the thing is, the coyote runs off the cliff right after him.  And what's funny -- at least if you're six years old -- is that the coyote's totally fine too.  He just keeps running -- right up until the moment that he looks down and realizes that he's in mid-air.  That's when he falls.  When we're wrong about something -- not when we realize it, but before that -- we're like that coyote after he's gone off the cliff and before he looks down.  You know, we're already wrong, we're already in trouble, but we feel like we're on solid ground.  So I should actually correct something I said a moment ago.  It does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.
What brought this talk to mind -- and you should take fifteen minutes and watch the whole thing, because it's just that good -- is some research out of the University of California - Los Angeles published a couple of weeks ago in Psychological Review that looked at the neuroscience of these quick -- and once made, almost impossible to undo -- judgments about the world.

The study used a technique called electrocorticography to see what was going on in a part of the brain called the gestalt cortex, which is known to be involved in sensory interpretation.  In particular, the team analyzed the activity of the gestalt cortex when presented with the views of other people, some of which the test subjects agreed with, some with which they disagreed, and others about which they had yet to form an opinion.

The most interesting result had to do with the strength of the response.  The reaction of the gestalt cortex is most pronounced when we're confronted with views opposing our own, and with statements about which we've not yet decided.  In the former case, the response is to suppress the evaluative parts of the brain -- i.e., to dismiss immediately what we've read because it disagrees with what we already thought.  In the latter case, it amplifies evaluation, allowing us to make a quick judgment about what's going on, but once that's happened any subsequent evidence to the contrary elicits an immediate dismissal.  Once we've made our minds up -- and it happens fast -- we're pretty much locked in.

"We tend to have irrational confidence in our own experiences of the world, and to see others as misinformed, lazy, unreasonable or biased when they fail to see the world the way we do," said study lead author Matthew Lieberman, in an interview with Science Daily.  "We believe we have merely witnessed things as they are, which makes it more difficult to appreciate, or even consider, other perspectives.  The mind accentuates its best answer and discards the rival solutions.  The mind may initially process the world like a democracy where every alternative interpretation gets a vote, but it quickly ends up like an authoritarian regime where one interpretation rules with an iron fist and dissent is crushed.  In selecting one interpretation, the gestalt cortex literally inhibits others."

Evolutionarily, you can see how this makes perfect sense.  As a proto-hominid out on the African savanna, it was pretty critical to look at and listen to what's around you and make a quick judgment about its safety.  Stopping to ponder could be a good way to become a lion's breakfast.  The cost of making a wrong snap judgment and overestimating the danger is far lower than blithely going on your way and assuming everything is fine.  But now?  This hardwired tendency to squelch opposing ideas without consideration means we're unlikely to correct -- or even recognize -- that we've made a mistake.

I'm not sure what's to be done about this.  If anything can be done.  Perhaps it's enough to remind people -- including myself -- that our worldviews aren't flawless mirrors of reality, they're the result of our quick evaluation of what we see and hear.  And, most importantly, that we never lose by reconsidering our opinions and beliefs, weighing them against the evidence, and always keeping in mind the possibility that we might be wrong.  I'll end with another quote from Kathryn Schulz:
This attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to, and causes us to treat each other terribly.  But to me, what's most baffling and most tragic about this is that it misses the whole point of being human.  It's like we want to imagine that our minds are these perfectly translucent windows, and we just gaze out of them and describe the world as it unfolds.  And we want everybody else to gaze out of the same window and see the exact same thing.  That is not true, and if it were, life would be incredibly boring.  The miracle of your mind isn't that you can see the world as it is, it's that you can see the world as it isn't.  We can remember the past, and we can think about the future, and we can imagine what it's like to be some other person in some other place.  And we all do this a little differently...  And yeah, it is also why we get things wrong.

Twelve hundred years before Descartes said his famous thing about "I think therefore I am," this guy, St. Augustine, sat down and wrote "Fallor ergo sum" -- "I err, therefore I am."  Augustine understood that our capacity to screw up, it's not some kind of embarrassing defect in the human system, something we can eradicate or overcome.  It's totally fundamental to who we are.  Because, unlike God, we don't really know what's going on out there.  And unlike all of the other animals, we are obsessed with trying to figure it out.  To me, this obsession is the source and root of all of our productivity and creativity.


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