Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.
There are, in fact, two things, science and opinion;
the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.
Hippocrates, the “father” of medicine
You’ve done your research with Canadian Driver, Consumers Reports, and Edmunds, and are now heading to the car dealership to buy a new car. According to the best data you have read, your car of choice has a great safety record, excellent reliability with low maintenance costs, and a good resale value. Although you are worried about getting the best deal you can, you are also excited about your upcoming purchase.
Just as you are heading to your front door, a friend, with whom you connect occasionally, calls. You decide to take the call but plan to mention that you are just on your way to buy a car and arrange to call your friend back later. You get out the part about being on the way to buy a new car when your friend interrupts you to ask, “So what kind of car are you getting?”
You tell your friend and there is an instant response, “Oh you don’t want to do that! My brother bought one of those last year and it’s been nothing but trouble. That car has spent more time in the shop than on the road.”
If you are like most of us, that one comment will likely undo all the meticulous research you have done. You may well tell yourself that you are SO lucky that your friend called at just the right time to save you untold grief.
And you are almost surely wrong.
In my reading over the last few years, I have come across numerous books and articles that explain the many ways in which we easily fool ourselves and end up making bad decisions. Most of the mechanisms that cause this make very good sense from an evolutionary point of view. Consider, for example, the one referred to above – the tendency to trust anecdotal evidence over statistical evidence.
For most of our species’ history, statistical analysis was unheard of. It is an extremely recent phenomenon. For our survival, it was important to pay attention to the lessons learned from others. (“Don’t eat that plant, it will kill you. My brother Ork did and he was dead by next day”). Such anecdotal advice would often have been crucial for survival. Thus our brains have been primed by evolution to pay strong attention to the stories of others, especially those in our “tribe”.
Meaning, a good story will usually trump statistical analysis.
Most of the time, heeding these stories causes no great harm. But often it leads to less than optimal decisions, and sometimes it’s downright harmful.
Consider the impact of Jenny McCarthy and her followers (including her partner JimCarey) promulgating stories linking autism to vaccination. The science is solid that disproves any such link (see Dr. Steven Novella’s blog, Neurologica for an excellent discussion of the evidence). But because Jenny tells a great story, a growing number of parents are choosing to discount the scientific evidence and have stopped having their children vaccinated. The results have been discouraging as measles — a potentially fatal disease — makes a comeback (here are links to two articles that highlight this, one for Britain and one from the United States).
This is one example of the possible dangers of not using scientific thinking.
In the next few weeks, I am going to be posting my reflections on the benefits of “scientific thinking” for everyone.
In this first posting, let me end by clarifying what I mean by scientific thinking.
Science is a methodology more than it is a field of study. It is an attempt to get at the truth of something by using an impartial, objective, unbiased methodology for investigating and/or evaluating reality. That at least is the goal.
Scientific thinking acknowledges that all truth is provisional. One of the great thing about scientific thinking is that it is always open to revision as new facts are discovered.
Essentially, scientific thinking is an attempt not to fool oneself (as Richard Feynman said in the quote above).
I am not a scientist. I have no degrees in science. I have read a lot of science in the last decade, but I make no claims to being an expert in any area of science.
But I have found scientific thinking immensely beneficial in a wide number of areas of life, and over the next few weeks, I will share some of my experiences for you to evaluate — scientifically!