Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

11.05.2012

A Pre-Election Thought: Skepticism As a Habit of Thought

I've written about confirmation bias a few times in the past:
 - Objectivity: A Concept That Only Exists As Truthiness
 - I'm Going to Change Your Mind About Politics Through Facebook
 - America, Know Thyself (Part 3 of 3)

And I just came across a really nice, election-focused article about the concept that I'd like to share: Moderating Political Opinions

After reading my post--the top one above--about the book You Are Not So Smart, where I first referenced confirmation bias, a colleague/friend said she was depressed, that reading it made her cynical and hopeless about ever being able to truly communicate with another person.  I even said something similar in my review of the book:

I'm left feeling more than a little cynical, that there might be no point in ever trying to dialogue with another ever again because each person is trapped in his or her own island of delusions,

That was just the first half of the sentence, though.  Here's the rest:

but I more powerfully feel that this is essential self-knowledge that makes us more likely to be less entrenched in our stubborn convictions and give each other a fair listen.

This article makes the case how that can be so.  Some excerpts:

Moderating Political Opinions

For me political campaigns are a massive exercise in confirmation bias – watching both sides spin the same data in completely opposite directions.

There is no shortage of theories as to why this is the case, but there is also the separate question of what can be done to break, or at least moderate, this polarization. In a series of experiments psychologists have found that slowing down the process of evaluating a political question, and engaging people’s abstract thinking, moderates their political views. . . .

Confirmation bias is the default mode of human thinking – the cognitive pathway of least resistance that we will tend to follow. If you force people to slow down and think harder, even in a manner tangential to the question at hand, confirmation bias is moderated by deeper evaluation. . . .

These experiments . . . demonstrate very interesting principles – that many people are capable of thinking more deeply and objectively about topics, even those that are highly emotional and political. In these studies external factors were used to increase abstract thinking and reduce confirmation bias in the short term. What if we can internalize these effects in the long term? . . .

This, in essence, is scientific skepticism. Skeptics are those who do not simply flow down the path of least resistance, giving in to the lowest energy state of thought, surrendering to cognitive entropy. Skepticism is about understanding the nature of cognitive biases and then doing the hard mental work of thinking complexly and abstractly about important questions.

The trigger for skeptical evaluation needs to be internal. In this way being a skeptic is partly just a habit of thought. The skeptic stops and asks, “wait a minute, is this really true?” When confronting an opposing opinion or interpretation of the evidence, the skeptic tries to understand the various points of view and will at least try to fairly assess each point, recognizing that many topics are complex, with good and bad points on all sides.

Being a skeptic is also about applying the findings of decades of psychological research to our everyday lives. . . .

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