How motivated skepticism strengthens incorrect beliefs

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I KNEW the Denver Airport was a gateway to Hell! I always knew it!

Thanks, David!


Blogger malaise


Many people equate skepticism with science, but I think that is wrong, as this article implies.

Science is the art and practice of not fooling yourself, by being bend-over-backwards honest with yourself about what you know and don’t know, and what the evidence is saying. Being aware of your own biases is necessary for this level of honesty. Once you’ve succeeded in not fooling yourself, then regular honesty serves when dealing with others.

A scientific community can form around people who practice it thusly. But of course if one of the community members allows themselves to fool themselves, then that is the time when others need to practice skepticism in order to not be also fooled.


Ha! I always knew you were a fool, it’s so obviously the underground command center where the Bilderberg Group will use Agenda 21 to usher in the New World Order! The Antichrist is only a figurative head of state; sure they stick to Satanism for the traditions, but no-one’s really very observant anymore.


I was always sure the Earth was round, but now I will try to be more open to other possibilities. And about putting too much salt in my food. Or is it putting too little salt in my food? But that’s assuming I need food. Maybe I don’t. I want to get this right. I don’t want to be cognitively biased. Or maybe my positive reaction to cognitively biases is from a cognitively bias?


I always figured breatharianism was all hoax and delusion. Now, time to look for more data?


I’m not so sure about this theory . . .

How am I doing?


Whenever I see discussions like this on cognitive biases I like to try and think about how it looks from the other “side”, looking back at people whose beliefs I share and how we arrived at them. For example, anti-vaxers have been mentioned here because they’re clearly crazy and bull-headed and we can all laugh at them ha ha, but from their point of view, people who believe vaccines are safe are going through the exact same process of seeking out information that confirms their existing beliefs and leaving it at that, and then digging in their heels when confronted with anti-vax propaganda (or “The Truth”, as they would have it). And let’s face it, a lot of them probably are, because people are lazy, or conformist, or don’t have time, and are, well, not so smart, like the title of the podcast suggests. The mechanisms of a cognitive bias can lead you to, or keep you holding, a correct belief just as easily as an incorrect one.


So what you’re saying is we’re fucked.

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Science is the word people use to describe their method of inquiry when they believe it to be beyond reproach, nothing else. You can never let go of your own biases - in fact, if you did, you’d be summarily disarmed, since “your own biases”, i.e., the total of your existing belief set, is all you have to operate with. It is impossible to act without bias, and therefore skepticism of the kind you describe is impossible.

The main problem here is the notion that the evidence can speak for itself - it cannot. Data has no voice and no natural form. Observation is a conscious act of interpretation - the world must pass through a lens of our own construction, and we must make the decision that this-or-that form of observing is useful and meaningful in this-or-that way.

What we’re left with are modes of thought that we feel are useful to a purpose and therefore safe to use without great need for examination. When these modes are particularly refined and involve great skill in their application we term them “science” - but its practitioners are no more free of bias than any other person.

The notion of a scientist as a hard, cold, person bound by objective rules and who has learned to shed biases and pre-conceived notions is incorrect. The fundamental act of creating scientific knowledge is hypothesizing - an act of humid imagination that requires bringing to bear the whole of your mental being and applying it to the world. A mind free of “bias” is null, empty, unable to formulate the least thought, never mind being able to discriminate the good and useful from the gibberish.


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