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article imageOp-Ed: Scientists discover why we tend to be know-it-alls

By Glen Olives     Dec 5, 2014 in Science
Recent studies give insight into why we believe things so strongly without evidence — it's an evolutionary trait hard-wired into our brain. And it has troubling implications.
Last month David Dunning, a Cornell University psychology professor, published a fascinating summary of his research in The Pacific Standard, concluding that we are all confident idiots. Indeed, this is one of the reasons we watch talent shows — to laugh and marvel at the intransigent surprise and disappointment of contestants when they are told by judges that they have no talent. Dunning calls this cognitive bias the Dunning-Kruger effect: for substandard performers to understand their own ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack.
Dunning's work builds on earlier work by neuroscientists, which has even wider implications. We are compelled to make things up and pretend it is knowledge, and when we do this, most of the time as it turns out we are not actually being consciously dishonest with ourselves. David Rock’s article “A Hunger for Certainty” in Psychology Today is instructive in this regard. As it turns out, our brains are hard-wired to crave certainty like a drug and avoid uncertainty like pain. As Robert Burton, another expert on the subject, writes in a piece for Salon, “[M]odern biology…tells us that despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty...arises out of primary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of rationality or reason. Feeling correct or certain isn't a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice. It is a mental sensation that happens to us." And now back to Rock: "It turns out your brain craves certainty...and using similar circuits, for how we crave food, sex and other primary rewards. Information is rewarding."
There is little doubt, for example, that the late Reverand Jerry Falwell really believed that the 9/11 attacks were God's punishment for America's sins, or the Tinky Winky Teletubby was gay, or that if you weren't a Christian you were a failure as a person, leading Christopher Hitchens to quip of the plus-sized pundit, "If you gave [Falwell] an enema he could be buried in a matchbox."
As a specialist in law and public policy, I am constantly presented with an embarrassingly lavish feast of asinine laws on which to comment, most of them based on the sincerely-held beliefs of often well-meaning legislators which are also often, frankly, bullshit. (Bullshit being defined here as belief in the truth of a particular proposition with no evidence, either historical, empirical or otherwise.) For example, many people are certain that god created the universe and want creationism taught in U.S. public schools, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support this (although many local school boards are often willing to comply). Social conservatives are certain that the key to reducing illegal drug use lies in strict drug enforcement and harsh punishments for casual drug users, although the historical evidence and social science data convincingly tell us that this approach is so stupid it borders on moronic. For most of human history we knew that the Earth was the center of the universe, and anyone who said otherwise was subject to the harshest state-sanctioned persecution (just ask Copernicus). We knew that homosexuality was aberrant behavior unique to humans, and passed laws to punish homosexual acts, until recently, even in the privacy of one’s own home.
A snapshot taken of Earth by a Russian satellite 36 000 kilometres away.
A snapshot taken of Earth by a Russian satellite 36,000 kilometres away.
GigaPan/Russian Space Agency
Even quite rational, scientifically-tested concepts have failed the test of time, which only seems to amplify the seriousness of the problem of certainty. We knew under the dogma of Newtonian physics, for example, that two objects could not occupy the same space at the same time.
Of course, as it turns out, none of these things are true. Cosmologists have taught us that our planet is, by way of analogy, a speck of dust on the leaf of a tree on an enormous forested continent. Biologists have observed that homosexuality occurs within the human species at roughly the same rate as in almost all other mammal species (bats are the gayest of all mammals — my doubts about Batman finally confirmed. Particle physicists and string theorists have proven not only that some things can exist in the same place at the same time, but also that we may not live in a universe but rather a multiverse — alternative realities existing simultaneously in different dimensions.
Like most of our genetically inherited irrational cognitive biases (there are hundreds), the hunger for certainty has its basis deeply rooted in our evolutionary biology. And getting addicted to knowledge has served the human race well within the sciences and technology especially, except, of course, when we come up against an epistemological wall. To avoid the discomfort and pain of uncertainty, we’re willing to believe the most irrational, ridiculous things. Like the natural order of the universe can be suspended at the whim of a god, giving humankind the wonderful gift of healing miracles. (What does god have against amputees, anyway?) Or that our birth dates determine our personalities. Or we can predict our future by reading the stars. (This just into the newsroom — the stars don’t give a fuck about you). Or that we should be imprisoned for things that we do to our own bodies in the privacy of our own homes, harming no other person, let alone any other living thing (talking about using illegal drugs here, not sexual acts). Again, to our brains, if it feels like knowledge then it must be knowledge. Now that we know better, we really ought to start weaning ourselves from this bad, and lazy, habit.
When we make shit up, we make shitty mistakes. Sadly, in my own field of research there is no shortage of examples of horrific public policies based on mistaken knowledge, and this applies equally to democracies, theocracies, totalitarian dictatorships, monarchies, and all forms of government in between. Children learn at some point to stop believing in fairy tales and Santa. We too should follow their lead, and shed the only slightly-more-sophisticated yet equally ridiculous comforting raiment of adult fairy tales.
If we reduce the age of the earth to our own familiar 24-hour day, the time that elapsed prior to the appearance of humans is 23 hours and 58 minutes. And of the two remaining minutes, which represents the time of humans on earth, the period of civilization is less than the last ½ second. Given this time scale, is should be no surprise that we know almost nothing; certainly what we don’t know vastly dwarfs what knowledge we have sown from science so far in our still brief awakening to sentient existence. So what are we to do if we don’t know? Live with the unpleasantness of not knowing, while making an honest effort to learn. In the meantime, our political policies should be based on pragmatism instead of dogmatism. Let's take off the dunce cap once and for all.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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