Being Right is Not Enough

Perhaps you’ve experienced this… you’re talking to someone who believes in ESP, or homeopathy, or some other irrational woo. You lay out a logical argument, complete with evidence, that deconstructs their belief and exposes it to be irrational and unscientific.

Then your friend says, “You’re right, I was wrong. Thanks for showing me the error in my ways.”

No?! Why is it that logic and evidence aren’t enough to penetrate someone’s belief system?

In a talk I presented at SkeptiCamp Toronto, entitled Being Right is Not Enough, I point out that our beliefs are not the result of logical and rational dliberation, but rather emotional responses based on our experiences. It’s possible — even easy — to be 100% certain about a belief that is totally false.

We have a number of cognitive deficiencies that systematically warp the truth. Let me demonstrate how three different mechanisms can lead us astray: the popularity of a belief, our perceptions, and our emotions.

A paper by Tanaka et al. models the spread of medical treatments by non-scientific means; essentially, a person undergoing a treatment acts as a trial (datapoint) for an implicit experiment. Other people observe the “demonstrator”, and might decide to try the same treatment themselves. The paper shows that in some scenarios, the less effective treatment spreads more readily.

We can’t trust our senses. Any optical illusion will teach you that. But the degree to which our perceptions taint our understanding of the world runs deeper than most people realize. The book The Invisible Gorilla goes over some of the common myths of cognition.

Certainty is an emotion, according to Robert A. Burton, author of On Being Certain. One might say that our beliefs are encoded in our emotions. Many religions package their dogma inside emotion-laden rituals, making it particularly difficult for adherents to accept a more objective view of the world.

Take-Home Message

We use our brains to try to understand the world; logic is a fundamental part of understanding the world. But logic is not intrinsically part of our brains. We must learn to think logically. Thus, a logical deduction will not satisfy most believers. In that sense, being right is not enough.

Missed the talk?  It can be viewed on YouTube:

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  • Jeff Orchard

    Jeff Orchard is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He has degrees in mathematical nerdism from Waterloo and UBC, and got his PhD in computing science from Simon Fraser University in 2003. Jeff is 99% atheist, 1% agnostic, and is passionate about teaching critical thinking. One of his research goals is to understand how the brain works (and then use that knowledge to take over the world). He has published academic papers in image processing, and is also an evolution buff.