The next gem concerns another cognitive bias of great significance to scientists and especially philosophers.
People overestimate their ability to form coherent explanations. This paper investigates the overconfidence through 12 experiments.
The upshot of this phenomenon is that we should be extremely cautious of verbal explanations which, in their nature, tend to obscure explanatory gaps, hidden assumptions, false premises and reasoning errors.
Read on for a hubristic rant about the implications for Philosophy and Science…
Science, I think, usually gets it right in the long run by insisting on empirically testable predictions. At the level of individual papers, the interpretational argument (usually found in introduction and discussion sections) is likely to contain holes. Authors, reviewers, editors and readers may not spot these, which is why everyone involved has a duty to think critically about the methods and data; just because an idea has been published and reviewed doesn’t mean it can be taken as read (that includes my gems, of course).
Philosophy (in my untrained and rather naive view) sometimes seems to be getting it wrong by building “houses of cards” founded on potentially flawed and untested arguments. I know that Philosophy is a very varied and diverse discipline and there a plenty of examples of Philosophers working constructively with scientists, but very often Science and Philosophy seem to be working at cross purposes on related questions, and scientists are often wary or even hostile to Philosophy.
I don’t know if my experience is typical. I am happy and indeed proud to identify myself as a scientist, and I also know that philosophy (small ‘p’) is very important. For me, science is all about using evidence to develop and refine a body of useful, well-founded, testable beliefs about the natural world. Understanding what “well-founded” means is a philosophical question which is critical to the whole enterprise. However, when occasionally I get into discussion with Philosophers (big ‘P’), the conversation, if it turns to work, it tends to go in one of two ways –
i) polite and shallow
ii) intense discussion bordering on a row
I really prefer the second kind of conversation, but still it tends to get a little more heated than either party would like, and so I don’t seek out opportunities to talk to Philosophers, despite my interest and respect for subject.
I think it’s at least half my fault. At the root of the tension is my unwillingness to accept a Philosophical argument unless it’s testable and preferably supported by evidence, and a complementary unwillingness on the part of my opponent to consider that this might be a valid perspective.
Research on cognitive biases supports the scientific intuition that other people’s apparently rational arguments can be flawed. If they know about cognitive biases Philosophers may argue that their training gives them a unique capacity to avoid such flaws, but I think that this is essentially an appeal to authority, so to be persuasive they need to demonstrate (i.e., with evidence) that their case is valid in each specific case.
Maybe I just have “issues”, but if my experience is typical then it could explain why so many scientists are less than enthusiastic about Philosophy; we don’t accept that what passes for reason trumps experimental observation and prediction. The growing schism is problematic, because Philosophy has contributed hugely to scientific thought and clearly still has a lot to contribute. Perhaps Scientists need to become more philosophical and Philosophers need to become more scientific.