How to Convince Me

In an earlier post, I explained why I sometimes feel that reason is greatly overrated; people often leave unnoticed gaps in an explanation and are not good at spotting these. In addition we are all prone to various cognitive biases which incline us to believe things when we shouldn’t and not to believe things when we should.

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Hidden Gem III: What’s Wrong with Science?

The final hidden gem is this article on reforming science. Although it appears in the journal Infection and Immunity it is concerned with the culture of science as a whole and will be of interest to all scientists. The authors Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang diagnose some serious systemic problems with 21st century science and prescribe some reforms by way of treatment. At the bottom of this article there is a survey for you to express your views.
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Hidden Gems II: Reason is Greatly Overrated

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 misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth (Rozenblit & Keil, 2002, Cognitive Science)

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…

Continue reading “Hidden Gems II: Reason is Greatly Overrated”

Hidden Gems I: Dr Know

I have been hoarding some gems. All three relate to science and the foundations of belief and knowledge, so they should be of interest to all scientists. This is the first: how do our cognitive biases lead us to the wrong conclusions? The CIA explain.

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How to change other people’s minds.

Scientists are involved in finding out how nature works by looking at and generating new evidence. The idea is to build up a set of well-founded, testable beliefs about the natural world. This system seems to work pretty well – our everyday existence, quality of life and indeed lifespan has benefitted hugely from scientific advances and the technologies which flow from them from: antibiotics, brain scans, the internet, television, transport, contraception. It’s easy to think of less positive examples, like nuclear weapons, but none of this stuff would work unless the underlying scientific beliefs had some truth in them. Continue reading “How to change other people’s minds.”

Resisting the Dark Side

This post was stimulated by Stephen Curry’s excellent article on the angry response to pseudoscience on his blog at Occam’s Typewriter. I originally posted this as a comment on that post. I’ll edit this post to add some links and more background shortly.


“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

It is always tempting to escalate the argument when you disagree with someone, and that’s often when reasoning starts to go out of the window. You start by attacking the speaker, rather than what they’re saying. You distort their argument, creating a straw man etc. We’ve all been in the receiving end of this, and if we’re honest we’ve all felt at least the urge to go on the attack this way. It is a human failing, and science gives us the tools to resist it – using evidence instead. But apart from the reasoning errors the angry approach leads to, it is very unpersuasive. Whoever changed their mind in this kind of argument? I suppose ad hominem attacks and straw men are useful for persuading on lookers, but if you actually want to change the mind of the person your debating, then Carl Sagan’s approach (discussed in Stephen’s post) is the only way.

Carl Sagan: so many clips to choose from. This one explains why Science has to persuade other people. He is not immune to the urge to deride others beliefs, but he does understand the danger: “Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice”.

One more point. What we call pseudoscience and superstition are beliefs founded on an imaginative urge to make sense of the world, leading us to see patterns and meaning sometimes where there is none. This imagination, while it can be misleading, also plays a vital role in science, because only by imagining the possible (i.e., possible alternatives to what we now think) can we look for and perhaps find it. It must have taken an enormous leap of imagination to go from classical to quantum mechanics, and the newer ideas must at the time have seemed crazy. Likewise evolution was an extremely challenging idea when it was first put forward. Sagan himself was an enthusiastic supporter of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at a time when most scientists thought the idea of aliens crackers. Although there’s been little new evidence* to change our mind since then, the idea that we are alone in the universe is now regarded as implausible. So one generation’s pseudoscience can become the next generation’s science, and we need to resist the temptation to reject the very idea that our current understanding is the only way to think.

*People will point to the discovery of new extremophiles and earth-based eco-systems as evidence – these discoveries shouldn’t have been too earth-shattering, but the preconception that (effectively) life would only exist where we had already looked was unimaginative, in my view.