Science is like spell-check for your reasoning

The Boston Globe has an article that explains why people often reason to the wrong answer. They raise an interesting point, but I think they may have reasoned to the wrong conclusion about how to proceed.

You use inductive reasoning when you hear a strange noise in your house at 3 a.m. and call the cops; when your left arm throbs and you go to the emergency room; when you spot your spouse’s migraine medicine on the table and immediately turn on the coffee, turn off the TV, and hustle your tantrumming toddler out of the house. In situations like these, we don’t hang around trying to compile bulletproof evidence for our beliefs — because we don’t need to. Thanks to inductive reasoning, we are able to form nearly instantaneous beliefs and take action accordingly.

The human mind is a pattern recognizing machine. Indeed, this is the machine that helps us deal with the vast amounts of sensory data that we are constantly enjoying. Without this machine, the world would be a chaos of photons, sound waves, odors, and sensations and we would have no framework to understand it. But, this machine makes reasoning errors.

Our entire cognitive operating system is fundamentally, unavoidably fallible. The distinctive thing about inductive reasoning is that it generates conclusions that aren’t necessarily true. They are, instead, probabilistically true — which means they are possibly false. Because we reason inductively, we will sometimes get things wrong.

The article concludes that we should be more forgiving of our own mistakes and the mistakes of others, because they are an inevitable part of our cognition:

Recognizing that error is an inevitable part of our lives frees us from despising ourselves — and forbids us from looking down on others — for getting things wrong. Once we recognize that we do not err out of laziness, stupidity, or evil intent, we can liberate ourselves from the impossible burden of trying to be permanently right. We can take seriously the proposition that we could be in error, without deeming ourselves idiotic or unworthy. We can respond to the mistakes (or putative mistakes) of those around us with empathy and generosity. We can demand that our business and political leaders acknowledge and redress their errors rather than ignoring or denying them. In short, a better relationship with wrongness can lead to better relationships in general — whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors, or nations.

This article is missing an important point: Humans have invented a machine for overcoming the weaknesses in our reasoning. It’s broadly called science and it involves taking the things we think are true, as well as as many other guesses we can think of, and testing them through careful experimentation to see if they might be wrong.

In missing this point, the article paints a picture that we should just be content to be slaves to the inductive reasoning that comes naturally to us and that we can’t do any better. This makes about as much sense as saying that people should be content to make spelling errors because it is natural for humans to do so. Making this conclusion undermines all the great technology we have created to avoid making mistakes: spell check, dictionaries, and proof readers in the case of spelling errors, and science in the case of reasoning errors. Of course, the tools will never eliminate mistakes entirely. The point is to teach people that mistakes will happen, and empower them to use the tools that will minimize the frequency of mistakes.

People feel terrible when they make mistakes. This is unfortunate because they really are quite natural, and everyone makes them.

Being wrong, we feel, signals something terrible about us. The Italian cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini summed up this sentiment nicely. We err, he wrote, because of “inattention, distraction, lack of interest, poor preparation, genuine stupidity, timidity, braggadocio, emotional imbalance,…ideological, racial, social or chauvinistic prejudices, as well as aggressive or prevaricatory instincts.” In this view — and it is the common one — our errors are evidence of our gravest social, intellectual, and moral failings.

If only we could have the same attitude toward reasoning errors that we have with spelling errors: yes, mistakes will happen so be careful, learn to use the error-prevention tools effectively, and get others to check over your work.

As the article says, we should be aware that mistakes happen, but we should also work toward a culture where everyone has excellent tools for evaluating their own mistakes and proceeding carefully. However, the power of science needs to be understood culture-wide. Unfortunately, for many people, science is merely about learning facts about nature and the application to their jobs and their lives is not easily seen.


3 thoughts on “Science is like spell-check for your reasoning

  1. Above, you say:

    “The point is to teach people that mistakes will happen, and empower them to use the tools that will minimize the frequency of mistakes.”

    I would beg to differ – Give people tools to reduce the Consequence of mistakes.

    Think of the bumps on the side of highways – the “rumble strips”. People do make the common mistake of driving slightly off the roadways – for whatever reason… The Consequence of the mistake made is reduced as the “rumble strips” quickly brings the drivers attention to the fact that they’re going off the road – so they can avoid a crash (consequence).

    It’s not the mistake that’s the issue, but the consequence of the mistake.


    • Well put, Roy. Rumble strips, spell-check, and science don’t really prevent mistakes, but help you catch the mistakes early so they can be corrected when the consequences are less severe.

  2. […] Actually, the link between people thinking like a scientist and democracy is quite strong. After all, an election is a type of measurement. Given all the complexities of the real world, we are asked to figure out what is actually true and make quality decisions that will affect everyone in our communities. But, what we discover is that we aren’t very good at doing this. We often come to the wrong conclusions because our mental wiring isn’t up to the task. Too many people are unfamiliar with the tools for ensuring our reasoning has turned up the right solutions. […]

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