Friday, August 5, 2011

Belief-Dependent Reality versus Scientific Method

The review of the book "The Believing Brain" is entitled A Trick Of the Mind.

The author describes what he calls "belief-dependent reality". Some call it simply confirmation bias. The point is that we tend to seek out information and patterns which confirm our existing beliefs. We also often choose to ignore any information which is contrary to those established beliefs. Unfortunately, this tendency to confirm our biases prevents us from acquiring new knowledge, or arriving at a better reality. If we don't make an ongoing objective effort to get to a better reality, our knowledge will stagnate.

The scientific method is a disciplined approach to reinforcing or acquiring knowledge. The objective method of inquiry is centuries old and works well. It works like this. First we formulate a hypothesis or theory (plan) about what we expect to happen as a result of conducting the test. Next we perform the test (do), and then we review test results to see to what extent our expectations were met (check). If what we thought would happen in fact happened, our prediction was confirmed and our existing knowledge base was reinforced. However, if our inquiry didn't produce the expected outcome (expectation failure), we have an opportunity for attaining new knowledge. In that case, we take remedial action (act), and then repeat the process. Plan, do, check and act is another way of describing the scientific method. As is predict, track, act. It's also sometimes referred to as the learning wheel.

Whatever we choose to call it, it's a disciplined method which furthers our knowledge of reality. And it does so continuously as we predict, track and then act again. The habit of continuous and rapid improvement, if you will.

The key to all this is starting with reality, or as close thereto as possible. Taking the time and making the effort to see things as they really are and not as we would prefer them to be. If we can learn to process facts objectively, the rest will be easy. And our reality and knowledge will continually improve.

After getting that initial look at reality, we proceed through testing and improvement to arrive at an even better reality. The initial "expectation failure" leads to new knowledge. Stated another way, true learning results from our failings. Some call that experience or the school of hard knocks, but it's really much more than that. It's a disciplined approach to learning.

When we predict something to occur and something else happens, expectation failure occurs. And we learn that we didn't know what we thought we knew. We then have an opportunity to increase our real knowledge by using the time tested process called the scientific method.

As Will Rogers said long ago, "It's not what we know that hurts. It's what we know that ain't so."

Later the comic Richard Pryor put it this way, "Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?"

All this may seem to be pretty easy and straightforward. But in reality it's not so simple. In fact, it's hard. Here's why.

Our beliefs shape or influence our reality. Different people often experience the exact same things and see them in entirely different ways. That's due to belief-dependent reality or confirmation bias. We are inclined to confirm our initial views by only seeking "friendly" information or patterns which reinforce our existing beliefs. We simply misinterpret relevant facts and events.

In other words, the human tendency is not to see things as they are. And as a result, any two of us generally don't share the same reality. As the crowd gets bigger, the shared reality becomes harder to achieve. But that just means we must try harder and communicate better.

Since an early age, many of us have been told the wrong thing about "seeing is believing". All too often we don't believe what others see; to the contrary, we see based on what we believe, and that is what often makes life difficult for us.

What do we do about it? Well, all we can do is resist the always present tendency to confirm our biases. Knowing we have such a tendency will help us to deal with it, if not to overcome it. Keeping an open mind is absolutely essential.

Enjoy the journey to continuously acquiring new knowledge and working toward a better reality. Then work hard to improve that reality by acquiring more knowledge. Knowledge is the key.

Thanks. Bob.

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