The impossibility of learning what we already know

Those who fear scientifically demonstrable truths often hide behind the cowering shield of self professed open mindedness.

What is open minded behavior? I so often hear complaints from normal people, who are just trying to get a hold of the world around them, that are frustrated by the seemingly constant shift in what it means to be open minded. There are not many people who are consciously interested in being intellectually dishonest or close minded, but it can be very difficult to understand who to trust when you yourself are not an expert. I have written previously about why it is important to identify and trust experts, but I did not touch on the subject of so called metacognition.

I like the term metacognition if only for the fact that it forces anyone who has not heard it before to engage in bottom-up processing. One might break the word into its roots and attempt to decipher it. If this fails, the individual might look for context clues to find its meaning. Whether or not they are able to define the term internally, I like that it forces them to engage in critical reasoning and to examine their thoughts, fulfilling its very meaning.

Engaging in the awareness and understanding of one’s own thoughts and cognitive biases is crucial in maintaining an open mind. How often do we hear that a politician is failing to keep an open mind when they dismiss a hot button issue without comment? How often do we hear that a scientist is close minded for offhandedly dismissing young earth theories, or a doctor dismissing a naturopathic remedy?

Who do we believe? Who do we trust to understand a problem for us? Remember that this is what you do on a daily basis, you trust others to form opinions for you: you hear news and you hear commentary, and you don’t engage in the primary research of a topic yourself. Our media does its best to distill complex issues into two sided debates, but I think few people would argue that such a simplification is useful for anything but providing context for analysis and commentary. Not many people take the time to research primary sources and uncover the nuanced truths of an issue, whatever they may be. That deeper level of understanding takes time which we as individuals simply do not have.

I have almost a decade of education that specifically prepares me to understand human biology and health, yet I still spend hours to days researching and understanding any medical or biological science news that comes out. This involves going back to primary research publications, studying data and meta-analyses. This is how I come to a conclusion about a topic or claim I hear. There is no reason to think that every person will be able to understand every topic perfectly, instead we should focus on understanding why we believe what we believe. This is the foundation of open mindedness.

Without the ability to understand our reasoning, which gives our opinions weight and validity, we cannot trust ourselves to approach the world with any sense of rationality. Now there are plenty of people who will identify rationality only in relation to the cold emotionless visage of Mr. Spock from the classic science fiction universe of Star Trek. I can come up with any number of reasons that it might be an evolutionarily advantageous trait to immediately distrust those who appear to be highly analytical. Psychopaths tend to be unempathetic and antisocial, as well as calm and calculated. When their impulse control fails or their emotions cause them to commit crimes, especially violent ones, they tend to have very well reasoned explanations for their behavior. A normal individual might then misinterpret the correlation as causation, assuming that all highly analytical minds are also psychopathic minds. Our culture sets highly ordered minds apart from the rest of society.

We believe in the archetypal troubled genius.

While genius does tend to come with an increased incidence of some mental health disorders, it is certainly not as debilitating as we perceive it. Think Sheldon Cooper, in the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is a troubled genius, brilliant yes, but fraught with crippling antisocial personality disorder traits. Likewise, there are plenty of examples of fictional supervillains who are brilliant, but violent psychopaths (eg. The Joker from the Batman universe).

We forget that we are capable of being highly rational without sacrificing our personalities. For the things we understand, there is no issue. We are hyper rational when it comes to putting gasoline in our cars. There are no people I know of who claim that an engine does not require some kind of fuel. Likewise, when choosing between two adjacent gas stations, you engage in critical reasoning in order to decide which one to patronize. The price may differ, but so too may the convenience of each station. You make mental calculations before choosing.

This is rationality.

You are thinking through a problem using logic until you assign each choice an objective value. This value could be expressed numerically if we so desired.

Let’s say that the price difference is worth a point per penny, as is your time in minutes. The stations have a $0.50 price difference, but the cheaper station will take you five minutes out of your way. The more expensive station gets +5 points for the time saving, and -50 points for the cost. Station One gets an overall score of -45. The cheaper station gets -5 points for the detour, but +50 for the cost, a final score of +45. Most of us would go out of our way to get the cheaper gas because we have logically determined that this is the better decision. We have reason to believe so because our decision is based on a set of given information which we can analyze and follow to a conclusion using pure logic.

The variables here could be more accurate if we wanted to get at the truth behind which station is truly the cheapest. The first thing to do would be assign points for time relative to your time’s worth. That is to say a person who highly values their time would be more likely to pay the extra cost for gasoline, while a person who’s time was worth less would be more likely to drive out of their way to save money on the gas. The system here is not a complex one, but it is already starting to become boring to most people. Unless you are an economist, I bet the behavioral economists out there could tell you exactly which gas stations in their neighborhoods are the most cost effective, and show you the math to prove it.

The point of this exercise is to show how convoluted even a simple choice can be. Now try to imagine reasoning your way through the logic of a complex social issue. Should marijuana be legal like alcohol and tobacco? Should the driving age be raised to 18? What about something even more complex. Should drivers be taxed for unused seats in their vehicles?

In each case we can use math and science to make educated choices. Just as we did when choosing which gas station you ought to patronize, we can assign numeric values to any issue. These examples are obviously far more complex, but there are people who work very hard on issues like this every day. Researchers come to logical conclusions which are as free from bias as we can be, then that information is passed on to those who make decisions, generally the public.

The choice to use that information falls to you. Each individual must learn to root out the most honest and truthful source of information. Our radio and television media, generally, woefully lacks such exposure in the information they pass to you the public. Cui bono? Who stands to benefit? The for profit media is interested in maintaining their viewer base, and they are aware that viewers will leave if their beliefs are challenged. This is highly motivating, and means that the media is forced to provide what amounts to entertainment rather than journalism.

This is a key distinction. When we use the word journalism try to remember that there really are publications called journals; by definition an academic journal is a peer reviewed publication. This means that experts in the relevant fields rigorously attack anything submitted for publication. If the researcher cannot provide substantial and significant evidence that the data is both true and useful, then the journal will reject the manuscript. It is very difficult to publish a paper in an academic journal.

The alternatives are trade magazines, these are the normal media outlets that you see on a daily basis. Time Magazine, The New Yorker, Scientific American, etc. These are not peer reviewed and are only as reliable as the author of each piece, in their capacity to understand the subject matter.

That is, I think, a safe demonstration of the difference between entertainment and journalism.

When considering whether a public voice is open to evidence based reasoning, or is being swayed by bias, one may better understand where their motivation lies.

The dismissal of evidence which annoys or conflicts with one’s own sensibilities, or the sensibilities of an audience, is patently close minded. Openness and reason requires the consideration of the validity of information outside and before consideration is made for the emotional ramifications. This door swings both ways, immediate disapproval of distasteful evidence is no worse than immediately accepting pleasing evidence without regard for authenticity. Instead the critical thinker treats all incoming information as a question: “could it be true that [insert new information here]?.” Reflecting back to the simple problem of buying gas: “could it be true that it will benefit me to go to gas station B instead of station A?” This can be reasoned through as we demonstrated earlier.

Open mindedness then, is dependent on reason and the strength of our sources.

We should entertain ideas and theories so long as the merit of their reason and evidence holds out.

This presents another problem. What happens when primary sources, so called experts, disagree? How do we maintain open mindedness when we are presented with conflicting evidence?

At this point we must add another skill to our arsenal: skepticism. Without skepticism we are vulnerable to supporting, or believing, false information. There are many reasons that false information might exist: money, acclaim, influence. With the tools we have at our disposal however, it is comically easy to spot the peddlers of misinformation.

When we hear a new piece of information we must first ask ourselves what we immediately think about the news. Do we have an underlying bias? Do we truly understand what the deeper issues are? This is metacognition, thinking about our thinking. Next we must remain open minded and examine the source. If this is a media outlet take a look at the references for the article. Follow that rabbit hole as deep as it goes. This should not be more than a step or two away from a primary source, in which you can get your hands on numbers.

Real life numbers in a spreadsheet.

The world is data.

If you know how to do the math, and feel like you have the time, why not review the data that the paper presents? See for yourself if the research is misleading or is ignoring obvious flaws in its design. If you don’t know how to do this you must engage in skepticism. Where did this data come from? Who were the researchers? Who funded the research?

Cui bono? Who stands to benefit?

If the research is paid for by Coca-Cola, and the data suggests that drinking soda for breakfast is a safe alternative to brushing your teeth, you might have a problem. If the study is done at a state or federal university and funded by the National Science Foundation, you are probably reading a less obviously biased piece of information. In the end, you may have to turn to meta-analyses. These are papers written by peers of the authors’ reviewing the data for you. They often include a number of data sets from different related studies or research projects.

Being open minded means searching for the truth, and ignoring the nonsense. When Galileo was placed under house arrest, the onus was not upon him to be open minded. He provided evidence for his statements which could be reviewed by anyone. His evidence passed all of the tests that are required to judge the relative worth of a theory.

Likewise, when biologists were still mostly ignorant of genetic inheritance, we argued the merits of Lamarckism and Natural Selection. Both are theories concerning the origin of speciation and inheritance. Biologists kept open minds and entertained both theories for as long as it was prudent to do so. When Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ was published, the case for Lamarckism became substantially weaker.

Eventually, through experimentation and the gathering of evidence, we were able to determine that natural selection provides a stronger explanation for the origins of speciation. Since then we have argued over many theories within the larger umbrella topic of natural selection. With each investigation we uncover a greater level of detail. This is how science works, it is a self correcting mechanism. The ideas which have no merit are discarded and we proceed down a road only if it is proven to go somewhere. There are no wild suppositions, there are no guesses, there are no opinions. The world is data, and data is numbers.

Numbers don’t lie. Mostly…

The final trick to skeptically analyzing a piece of primary research, any review article, or any news item, is to decide whether the data is being presented truthfully. There are many ways to present data and numbers, the internet has recently developed a love affair with the infographic.

These visually rich representations of data are easy to consume, but the lack of error bars, the use of three dimensional plots, and/or the use of an incorrect scale can be difficult to pick up on. Each of these makes it easy for data to be presented in way that implies a greater conflict than truly exists, or a mountain of evidence when only a small pile really exists. This often occurs in conjunction with a provocative or polarizing subject matter. We want to agree with one side or the other, and often fail to fully analyze the evidence presented. This type of bias is pretty common. If you agree with the claims an article makes, why tear the evidence apart? What good is that going to do you? This is exactly why it is important to be truly open minded, to attack every one of your beliefs with rigorous skepticism and scientific rationality.

In this way, we can be sure to minimize the chance that we are fooling ourselves. We can avoid the traps of dogma and tradition, sidestepping them for the truth that comes in demonstrable evidence, that we are choosing the wisest path possible at that moment in time.

One thought on “The impossibility of learning what we already know”

  1. Good stuff Matthew and well written. I will try to be open minded to my own beliefs. I do try to research and question data but maybe not enough of my agreeable evidence is scrutinized that thoroughly. Plus I get emotional about certain things and that always makes me defensive and righteous. Thanks for sharing this with me and hearing my confession…

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