Why you are wrong

Posted on: May 12, 2010

This post was originally released in the tert, and has been republished here for your befuddlement/enjoyment

The human brain is a wonderful thing, capable of synthesizing experience into a vastly complex web of ideas, so creative that it has inspired Jane Austen classics, zombie movies and even beautiful unities of the two. It’s not always at its best though, which is made painfully obvious whenever you talk to someone who thinks bush orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, asks our star sign or thinks that choosing a philosophy degree was a good idea. Just think for a moment about all those weird things some people believe.

To be fair, you believe a fair few ridiculous things yourself but just don’t know what and how utterly laughably ridiculous they are yet. While it can be easy to pick apart and perceive strange and silly ideas in others, we are shockingly bad at perceiving our own false beliefs. It is surprising how confident we are in the validity of our ideas despite the lack of knowledge supporting them. These ideas are created not by carefully considering evidence but instead by haphazardly piecing together related pieces of information through our lives on a subject. Take the death penalty for example; chances are you never read literature on the topic, research about its impacts or arguments by those who disagree with you. Or what about the risk of cell phone radiation, can you even remember where you heard information about that?

The sad reality is that we are awful at coming to informed opinions, even worse is that once opinions form they can be incredibly resistant to change. A study by Monica Prasad is a particularly vivid example of this. The study looked at took  a popular and  unambiguously false belief – that saddam Hussein was involved with osama in the 9/11 bombings and saw how participants reacted to disconfirming evidence. 49 republican voters who believed in the link were exposed in interviews to two news articles, one that detailed how the 9/11 report commission found no evidence linking saddam to osama and the other which directly quotes then president Bush denying any link. Of the participants 84*% resisted the new information using a number of strategies. The more politically savvy 10% counter argued claiming despite the lack of evidence the link did exist, such as saying that any evidence would have been concealed. This largest group at 34% employed attitude bolstering, they would ignore the question, not outright claiming that the link did actually exist but by switching the topic to other good reasons the Iraq war was justified. 6% refused to deal with the contradictory information at all, simply stating things like “I don’t know” and not discussing the issue with the interviewer. A group of 10% responded by disputing a rational approach to the question, clinging to their beliefs but not providing justification for doing so. They would ground their beliefs in subjectivism, for example claiming “we still can have our opinions”.

The last group of 14% who resisted belief change was described by researchers as the “inferred justification” group.  This approach involves a backwards chain of reasoning justifying a favoured opinion, instead of looking for evidence to draw a conclusion those in the group simply assumed certain evidence was true to support their belief. An example was a participant who claimed that “there must be a reason why we are still over there or we wouldn’t be over there still”, as if the situation proves that there must be justification for the invasion.

Of the 8(16%) participants who did change their opinion 7 of them surprisingly denied ever having believed the link existed, and maintained this even when interviewers showed them earlier questionnaires they had filled out claiming otherwise. Most stated that they had made a mistake when filling out the questionnaire, though thinking that current beliefs were always held is common. Only one participant changed his belief based on the new information, claiming that bush should have made the real reasons for going to war clear from the beginning.

The message to take is that very often our strongest held opinions could be based on the flimsiest of information, and that had we heard the other side of the debate first our attitudes could be very different. You might be inclined to hand wave the results away as a one off study or only valid for hardcore republicans. If so perhaps you should research the issue with a skeptical eye, which is incidentally the entire point of this article.

We cannot ever be completely unbiased in forming our opinions, or only form opinions remaining detached and looking at the evidence. We can do our best to be rational about the opinions we hold though, by taking a sceptical approach whenever we can. By being critical of our own beliefs and actively searching for evidence courter arguments and evidence we can ensure our beliefs are closer to reality, and better supported by evidence. There are times when you might end up confirming your own beliefs with further research, this is still just as important as until you actively look for counter evidence the truth of a belief can’t be honestly established. Always consider that you may be wrong, and do your best to prove this no matter how emotionally being wrong may be.

Article written by Charo Serventy, President of the Wollongong University Secular Society (WUSS)- Find us on facebook

Monica Prasad “There Must Be a Reason”: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 79, No. 2, May 2009, 142–162

*all % rounded down to the nearest one percent


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