Skepticism, Beliefs, and Cognitive Biases

Familiar topics, but worth another look, especially since if they were broadly understood it would make so many of America’s partisan controversies go away. (But conservatives will never allow concepts like skeptical thinking to be taught in schools, for precisely such reasons.)

Big Think, Jonny Thomson, 15 May 2023: Skepticism: Why critical thinking makes you smarter, subtitled: “‘In order to seek truth,’ Rene Descartes once wrote, ‘it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, all things.'”

Big Think is a science/philosophy site that features lots of mostly short articles summarizing what is now more-or-less conventional wisdom; it’s not a site to go to for breaking news in the science world. In this case, the “key takeaways” suggests something about “deeply held beliefs” that might belie the article’s title. Whatever could they mean?

Key Takeaways
  • Questioning personal beliefs is a key part of intellectual growth.
  • Various strategies like coherentism, falsification, gradualism, and pragmatism offer unique ways to scrutinize beliefs.
  • Still, it’s important to balance skepticism with an understanding of the significant, sometimes beneficial, role that deeply held beliefs can play in people’s lives.

Turns out the article consists of takes on the topics of skepticism and beliefs by four “thinkers”: Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, Bill Nye, and Derren Brown. I’m well aware of the first two, superficially aware of the third, and unaware of the fourth.

  • Krauss advocates “coherentism,” that we should believe new things that are coherent with the body of our prior beliefs, but says to reject anything that challenges our beliefs makes us a closed-minded fanatic; sometimes you have to adjust your worldview.
  • Shermer suggests that we relish challenges to our beliefs, but to beware of beliefs that cannot be falsified by any possible evidence. Those positions are “baloney.” Beliefs should be about truth, not being right despite evidence.
  • Nye acknowledges that beliefs can be deeply rooted, and not easily swayed by evidence.
  • Brown — who’s a magician, or “illusionist” — cautions us to be skeptical toward skepticism; beliefs aren’t easily changed. “Maybe those narratives around religion are useful to us psychologically.” Consider why someone believes a thing before we challenge it.

OK, fine. Nothing deep here. If I had read it before writing it up as I read it, I wouldn’t have posted it. But, I learned something new about Big Think articles…


Let’s go back to that Salon piece from a week ago, that I mentioned briefly in this post, where I listed the six key points of a new book by Daniel Stone.

Salon, Paul Rosenberg, 7 May 2023: Undoing Undue Hate: The corrosive role of common false beliefs, subtitled “Author of ‘Undue Hate’ on how a handful of universal cognitive biases exacerbate perceived divisions”

Let me expand on the six points listed earlier. As I see it, these are all flaws in conservative thinking, though of course conservatives do not realize this; that’s part of the point.

  1. Over-precision, i.e. over-confidence in what we believe and know.

    That’s a standard term for an important type of overconfidence, overconfidence in beliefs, overconfidence in how much we know. It refers to having overly precise beliefs, to think we understand something more precisely than we do.

    My comment: Conservatives *know* what is right and wrong, they just know, never mind evidence. (And *how* do they know? I’ve discussed this many times but won’t expand upon it just now.)

  2. WYSIATI: “What you see is all there is” (citing Kahneman).

    It refers to neglect of the fact that we almost always (or even always) only have partial information—so, the mistake of assuming that our information that we observe is the full story. Thinking what we see is all there is one reason that we hold overly precise beliefs and become overconfident.

  3. Naive realism. This is “naïvely thinking that we see the world more realistically or objectively than we really do,” with the example of

    thinking that when we think that a particular type of music is the best music—it might be a matter of taste, and it’s something that’s impossible to evaluate objectively, but naïve realism will make us think that our favorite music is the, realistically, objectively best music.

    My comment: You see this all the time on Facebook, in examples like ‘music sucks ever since the music I listened to in my 20s’, with the culmination of this line of thought being the MAGA idea that America is the greatest nation in the world, at least the greatest nation in some indefinite past. (How do they know? Do they know what life is like in other nations?)

  4. Motivated reasoning. “Motivated reasoning makes us come up with reasons for believing things that we wish to be true.” And the ignoring of evidence of things we wish not to be true. This is the prominent strain of thought among conservatives.
  5. Lack of intellectual humility. “Intellectual humility is pretty much what it sounds like, which is being comfortable with the fact that we were all wrong sometimes, and that we’re all uncertain about things nearly all the time.” My comment: Of course, conservatives are not intellectually humble; they are certain about what is right and wrong, to the extent that they would enforce their conclusions on others.
  6. Unmotivated confirmation bias. This is an interesting one, which I have not been particularly aware of. “Unmotivated refers to our tendency to confirm beliefs even though we don’t particularly wish them to be true.” With the example:

    I talk about examples of running into someone in the grocery store and blowing you off. Unmotivated confirmation bias would make us think “They don’t like me. Nobody likes me,” whereas a more accurate interpretation would be, “Maybe they’re just in a rush, or they didn’t see me,” or there million other reasons they might have hurried away without spending time talking.

    These are all familiar topics, about which I’ve read again and again, and have posted reviews of books about.

    I keep noting them because I think the greatest intellectual advance of the past 30 years is — not the esoteric details of new discoveries in cosmology or biological evolution — but the recognition, via hard psychology, of the range of mental biases and heuristics that humans are prone to, and the understanding of the kinds of thinking people can use to overcome them. To a large extent, the hierarchy of sciences, from physics to chemistry to biology, has been overridden, in terms of what most people actually “believe,” by psychology, and the human tendency toward tribal thinking.

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