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How To Learn - The Essential Knowledge Your Parents Never Taught You

How To Learn - The Essential Knowledge Your Parents Never Taught You

Do you like to learn? Me, too. Most people do.

The problem is that we don't like to unlearn. When we're presented with new information that contradicts what we already know we usually find ways to deny the new knowledge and reinforce our old knowledge. This trick we play on ourselves is known as confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is, as Dr. Michael Shermer describes it, "the tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence. The confirmation bias is best captured in the biblical wisdom Seek and ye shall find." Let me give you an example.

There will be no sunrise tomorrow. Really. No, this isn't some doomsday prophecy. The Sun does not, in fact, rise. Sure, dawn comes each day, the sky fills with sunlight and the hours pass through noon, and until nightfall, when darkness once again returns to our personal slice of Earth.

The term sunrise is a pre-Copernican contraction (15th c.) based on the geocentric model of the heavens of Ptolemy. The physical act of the sun rising is something we don't observe here on Earth.

What we do observe, and what gave Galileo Galilei, who was able to prove Copernicus right, no end of grief, is the Earth rotating such that our position on the sphere is once again facing the Sun. Dawn is a better term. Based on Copernicus' superior description of the heavens, sunrise simply doesn't happen.

Perhaps you feel I'm being a bit of a sophist. You knew, of course, that the sun doesn't really 'rise' but that wasn't how things were when Copernicus' revolutionary theory was publicly confirmed by Galileo in 1610. Interestingly, it wasn't the discoverer of heliocentrism, Copernicus, who had problems. It seems that his hypothesis was just that, a hypothesis, unproven through testing and observation, and thus no threat to the status quo, though the Lutheran Church was no fan of Copernicus' ideas:

Martin Luther himself called Copernicus a Sarmatic fool ("Sarmatian" at that time was a term for a nobleman of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. ) who "wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside down," and quoted the appropriate biblical verses from the Book of Joshua (Jos. 10, 12-13):

"Then spoke Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, 'Sun, stand thou still at Gibeon and thou Moon in the valley of Ai'jalon.' And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The Sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day." (Bible, Revised Standard Version). Source.

Once the Catholic Church had proof of Copernicus' theory via the work of Galileo, they quickly found their confirmation bias kicked into high gear. Two thousand of years of 'knowledge' was, as Martin Luther observed, being turned upside down. The truth, that the Sun is at the center of our solar system and that the heavens do not revolve around the Earth, was just too much for the Church to handle. As a result they imprisoned Galileo, banned the reading of both Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and Copernicus' De revolutionibus. Galileo's primary crime was being the bearer of a simple piece of bad news: you're wrong.

Of course, the Catholic Church does grow, learn, and change. After a couple of hundred years, in 1835, both books were removed from the Index of Prohibited Books. Two hundred years to acknowledge the truth, that might be considered a 'slow learner' in some camps but actually it shows the strength of our confirmation biases.

This effect, to confirm what we already 'know', is a key piece of human nature and perhaps the greatest single barrier to the advancement of individual knowledge. It is for this reason that that I mention it in this, the first article on WisdomWebsite. Somehow, and I think awareness is the first step, we must learn to overcome our biases, confirmation and otherwise, to begin to form better knowledge.

Doubling-Down On Our Biases

Ever go into a business negotiation and discuss politics? No? Why not? I think we all know the answer. If your negotiation partner doesn't see things just as you do you're setting a hostile tone that will affect the negotiations, and not in a good way.

Whenever we discuss politics, or religion, or anything else that is largely a matter of faith or opinion, we tend to defend our beliefs. It's rare that someone coming from a different perspective is going to convince us that we're wrong and that they're right. What usually happens is that we become even more entrenched in our current beliefs.

Often such conversations end with both parties walking away muttering to themselves, "He just doesn't get it." Oddly enough, we probably don't. There might just be some wisdom in what the other is saying, only it's not in accord with our current biases. As soon as words are spoken that challenge our beliefs we double-down, reaffirming what we 'know' is true and right.

Where Does The Confirmation Bias Come From?

Many theories have been put forth as to the source of our mental biases but most are somewhat circular, we think this way because we think this way, but the more recent science emerging from evolutionary psychology resonates strongly with me as having at least a plausible cause and doesn't suffer from the circularity of many other arguments.

Previous research into confirmation bias has been focused on the idea that people are interested in figuring out whether or not an idea is true or false. What evolutionary psychology tells us is that the truth and falsity of an idea aren't necessarily the only, or even the primary objectives we might have.

In particular, when it comes to making choices about things that make a difference in our lives, we are particularly attuned to not making mistakes. Incorrectly judging a truth as false might be much worse than judging a falsity as true. In other words, some ways of being wrong are worse than others. Let me give an example: Location: South African grasslands. You: Your ancient ancestor. You're out walking and hear a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or is it a lion? Here your choices are clear, run or ignore it. If it's the wind and you run, you are wrong but it's no big deal. If it is a lion and you ignore it, you're lunch. Like I said, some ways of being wrong are worse than others.

It helped our species to survive if we made choices that didn't get us killed, even if those choices weren't exactly correct. It is through this evolutionary process that we built our brain mechanisms. Those who ran, those who learned from their parents, they are our ancestors. The ones who stopped to find out if it was wind or lion, well, they were just plain tasty.

Our evolutionary needs, focused as they are on reproductive success, pay little heed to our modern way of living. This conflict between traits evolved for our ancient survival and the needs of modern life are the source of many of our troubles.

It's All About Being Wrong

It is my hypothesis that the emotion of being wrong evolved in us as the feedback mechanism that motivates us not to repeat mistakes. Let's say you and your friend are walking along on the savannah. Your friend hears something and says, "What's that?" You brush it off, "Ahh, it's nothing." A moment later, the lion pounces, just missing you but catching your friend. You survive. How do you feel? Really stupid, right? That's the emotion of being wrong. Without the emotion you might not survive the second time. That's what I'd call evolutionary pressure. You pass this wisdom along to your children, both genetically and socially, they to theirs and so on.

Being wrong might get you killed (no genes to pass along). That's why being wrong evolved as such a strong emotion in us. Our evolved visceral response to wrongness mostly just holds us back in our modern, non-savannah-based, life. Unfortunately, unlike the emotion of anger, we are never taught as children to control our emotions of being wrong.

What You Can Do To Reduce Your Biases

It seems to me that we can use what we have learned about controlling other emotions when we try to control our feelings of 'being wrong' when confronted by information that challenges our current view. What do you do when you're angry at someone? What about taking that extra cookie you know you shouldn't eat? Here are some ideas to try to allow the emotion to pass and give your rational brain a chance to get engaged:

  • Stop, take a deep breath
  • Count to ten
  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes
  • Ask yourself why you think you are right
  • Consider your sources - where did you learn what you know?
  • When did you learn what you know? As a child? Should you reconsider?
  • Meditate on the idea that you are sometimes wrong
  • Think about times when you were wrong, relive the feeling, then let it pass
  • Most importantly, being aware of your biases is a great place to start

One thing I can tell you about me, I don't know much and I'm wrong all the time but, then who isn't? The hard part is getting used to that fact so you can truly open your mind to reason and learning.

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