by Hans-Christian Zaun PhD. 2018

If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted. Carl Popper, 1957

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

Iconic physicist and Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman, (If you are a fan of the Big Bang Theory, will have heard his name on numerous occasions) once said that science lives in three stages; Ignorance, uncertainty and doubt. When we first wonder about something, we are in a state of ignorance. As we begin to learn about the subject and develop a hypothesis, we are in a state of uncertainty. This is followed by testing the hypothesis through observations or experiments to draw conclusions and once we have those conclusions, we are in a state of doubt.

This final state of doubt is the essence of the scientific principle and an important step in overcoming our belief system in regards information we may accept as factual. We must always remain in a state of doubt about the conclusion we have and think about other possibilities to explain them. Because if we don't, someone else will. Just like one of the principles of scientific theory, accepting conclusions will depend on their ability to withstand challenges.

Over the years, a lot of research has been done to understand why we hold on to a belief system, even when the overwhelming evidence suggests that we are wrong. This includes understanding of what is termed the confirmation bias. This is the tendency to accept and interpret as fact, information that conforms to our existing beliefs and rejecting information that does not, regardless of the evidence. This is developed early in life as a defence against anxiety and stress in an uncertain world.  The concept has been a part of the psychological discussion and goes as far back as English Philosopher Francis Bacon who is credited with developing the concept of the scientific method.


The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Another misconception we have is what is termed the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, a concept put forth by Yale Psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil*. The Illusion of Explanatory Depth, or IOED, states that we believe we understand complex objects and phenomenon in a much greater detail than we actually do.  If asked whether we understand how something work, we may give a confident reply in the affirmative. Yet if asked to give a detailed explanation of something that is outside our field of expertise and knowledge, we may end up either giving a stammering response or silence with a deer in the headlights look. (Many years of experience and practice has allowed me to perfect this look).

In this study, participants were asked to rate their knowledge on a variety of objects and phenomenon. Participants where then tasked to give a clear and concise explanation on the subject followed by a re-evaluation of how they originally rated themselves. The study demonstrated that when subjected to a self-test of the knowledge, the ratings actually dropped significantly compared to the first evaluation. 

The Internet and the information age have resulted in an unprecedented ability to share information. However, it has also resulted in an unprecedented ability to share misinformation and disinformation--particularly propaganda issued by a governments and organizations to rival or trivialize the media. Unfortunately, mis- and disinformation can spread much more quickly and to wider audience the information. Disinformation tends to metastasize and like the cells of a spreading tumor that are not inhibited by normal cellular controls--disinformation is not subject to the constraints of critical thought.


Being Informed is Time Well Spent

As the information age continues to dole out disinformation, fake news and alternate facts faster than we can process, it becomes all too easy to accept and even pass off this information as fact. Now more then ever, it is important that we develop a critical media literacy to combat such false information. Realizing that the confirmation bias and IOED are ingrained in our psyche and influence our processing and understanding information is a clear first step. We need to step out of comfort zone and regard information with skepticism regardless whether it abides or contrasts our preconceived beliefs.

By acknowledging confirmation bias and IOED, and by exposing ourselves to alternate points of view, we are able foster and open mind to combat the disinformation that seems to surround us. Furthermore, as Steven Sloman and his colleagues demonstrated in a 2013 publication, it comes with the added bonus of moderating our emotions and making them less extreme.

As a scientist I am not immune to the biases, misconceptions and beliefs that are a part of human nature. However, as a scientist, I am more aware of them. This is something I've said on numerous occasions, either when teaching at the or in discussion with friends and acquaintances over lattes at the local coffee shop or beers at the local pub. We must all be aware of these biases, particularly when we are making decisions the may have negative effect on our well being♦.

I love this interview with Richard Feynman. He really exposes what scientific thought is all about, and explains so well how living with doubt opens us to new discovery.


*Rozenblit L. and Keil F. (2002) The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth, Cogn Sci. 26(5): 521–562.

**Fernbach PM, Rogers T, Fox CR, Sloman SA. (2013). Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science24 (6), 939-945.

Hans-Christian Zaun is a molecular biologist, lecturer and scientific communicator.