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Archive for June, 2017

A long time ago I wrote The Confirmation Bias – Or Why None of Us are Really Skeptics, with a small insight from Nassim Taleb. Right now I’m rereading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

This is truly a great book if you want to understand more about how we think and how we delude ourselves. Through experiments cognitive psychologists demonstrate that once our “moral machinery” has clicked in, which happens very easily, our reasoning is just an after-the-fact rationalization of what we already believe.

Haidt gives the analogy of a rider on an elephant. The elephant starts going one way rather than another, and the rider, unaware of why, starts coming up with invented reasons for the new direction. It’s like the rider is the PR guy for the elephant. In Haidt’s analogy, the rider is our reasoning, and the elephant is our moral machinery. The elephant is in charge. The rider thinks he is.

An an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion..

..The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.

As they put it, “skilled arguers ..are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful and so ineradicable. How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favored view? Yet it’s very hard, and nobody has yet found a way to do it. It’s hard because the confirmation bias is a built-in feature (of an argumentative mind), not a bug that can be removed (from a platonic mind)..

..In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons..

..I have tried to make a reasoned case that our moral capacities are best described from an intuitionist perspective. I do not claim to have examined the question from all sides, nor to have offered irrefutable proof.

Because of the insurmountable power of the confirmation bias, counterarguments will have to be produced by those who disagree with me.

Haidt also highlights some research showing that more intelligence and education makes you better at generating more arguments for your side of the argument, but not for finding reasons on the other side. “Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries.. people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and evenhandedly.”

The whole book is very readable and full of studies and explanations.

If you fancy a bucket of ice cold water thrown over the rationalist delusion then this is a good way to get it.

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