Biases and Beliefs / by Callum Lamont

Prior to the development of the scientific method, humans were largely guided in their actions by customs, traditions and intuitions. The initial inception of ritualistic practices within hunter-gatherer societies provided a means through which knowledge and understanding of the land could be passed forward through generations. As societies grew in size and complexity, so too did these forms of teachings, culminating in some of the more well known theologies of today: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Less focused on the land itself, the lessons contained within these holy documents put more consideration towards interactions with neighbours and a general framework for the community. It is unfair to uniformly condemn religion as without intellectual rigour, however, the interpretive nature of the material, in conjunction with the zealous following it entails, clearly can be an incendiary combination. The prescription of religion has provided a mixed result for humanity, offering both the enlightenment of the Islamic Golden Age and the brutal ignorance of the Dark Ages.

Emerging from this darkness, a more formal description of the scientific method arose, allowing an accelerated bootstrapping of knowledge, repeatedly yielding technologies considered magic or science fiction only a generation before. The presence of two such distinct philosophies in the quest for truth (Religion vs. Science) has certainly yielded friction along tribal lines, though much of this turbulence settled over the 19th and 20th century. Now where do we stand today? Somewhat paradoxically, it would appear that many, within western civilisation at least, identify truly with neither of these camps. Societies have become increasingly secularised, with mainstream religion being watered down and adapted to accommodate our improving recognition of social rights. And what of science? Yes, more individuals than ever before are entering science as a career, however this is likely similar for white-collar professions as a whole, and there are still large swaths of the population not accessing tertiary education to begin with. Despite the direct, tangible impact of so many technological breakthroughs in our lives, there has been an increasing degree of ambivalence, if not scepticism, towards science as a philosophy. So, in such an era, how does one establish their ideas and beliefs, if not through the teachings of theology or evidence driven induction? As we did millennia ago, it appears we still largely rely on our intuitions, our gut instincts, our reflexive determinations. And this is because critical thought is hard. It requires extensively more energy to weigh up the varying considerations revolving around a point of concern than to simply side with what feels right

Unfortunately, such reflexive thought is not suited to many of the matters we need to handle in a modern society. Marketing prays upon this by fabricating an idea of product superiority through made up acronyms and meaningless jargon. Be it fashion, food or pharmaceuticals, this invisible hand guides our decisions. Though marketing is not the concern here, it illustrates how susceptible we are to the underlying processes of our minds. Indeed we are greatly affected through our mind’s prism of preconceptions and biases, insidiously distorting our conscious perception. It would be hoped that the age of information and science could help combat this nature of ourselves. Conversely, it appears to have emboldened it. While the facts necessary to correct our mistaken beliefs can be uncovered through a few keywords in a search bar, so too can equally convincing misinformation. And, unfortunately, the keywords you select are probably weighted to reveal the evidence you wish to see. It has become exponentially easier to re-enforce ones belief than to challenge them, which was already a much more confronting and less desirable task to begin with. The result of such systems allows for the more rapid cementation of “facts” from, at best, only a handful of scientific studies, with any considered ambiguities originally present in the literature evolving into certainties. Considered debate is also falling by the wayside, where the collection of such “evidence” fortifies one’s beliefs to the point where it is simply preposterous to consider any arguments to the contrary. 

The more ambiguous a topic is, the more maleable one’s convictions become in the face of biased evidence. For example, our concept of nutrition and a healthy diet is particularly fertile land for misinformation. The field is complex and it is difficult to separate causation from correlation. The significant number of confounding factors means that, occasionally, erroneous conclusions can be drawn, as can be observed from the transient dietary recommendations of nutritionists regarding macronutrients and their respective sources. A consequence is the introduction and popularisation of dietary trends with no firm scientific grounding. We have seen a re-emergence of coconut oil as a health food, with a quick search for “coconut oil benefits” yielding pages of click-bait loaded links including “20 Coconut Oil Benefits (#5 is Life-Saving)”, “Eat 2 Tablespoons of Coconut Oil Daily for These Amazing Health Benefits!” and “28 Science-Verified Health Benefits of Coconut Oil (#13 is WOW)”. Wow, but, unfortunately, there is actually a lack of notable studies examining its effects in humans. In fact there exists more evidence denouncing these claims, and we haven’t even begun to consider the literature on the deleterious effects of saturated fats in general (of which coconut oil is extremely high in content). Today, even more established science, such as the concept of vaccinations, can find itself having to debate an endless source of skepticism, despite clear evidence of efficacy and renowned benefit to humanity. Again, the words one selects to source information will directly impact the results obtained. Googling “are vaccines dangerous”  instead of “are vaccines effective” increases the number of first page anti-vaccination links from to three to seven out of ten (i.e. from a minority of results to a majority). These are fairly non-leading questions, so one can imagine how an inherent interest and bias of an individual will greatly alter the information brought forth. 

Cherry picking single scientific studies to bolster an argument demonstrates a lack of understanding of the scientific method. Indeed, theories are not formed on the basis of a single result. A theory, which is the highest form of knowledge we can hope to achieve in science, is crafted upon a hypothesis of realistic causal relationships and a mass of reproducible evidence. Furthermore, any theory is ever shifting in the light of new data, impartial to the stubborn and biased views of those who came before. Of course, we are discussing science in an abstract and idealised form (the great physicist Max Planck himself noted that science advances one funeral at a time). It should too be considered that evidence supporting an incorrect hypothesis can occur simply by chance. Of course this is generally appreciated and the concept of statistical significance helps to buffer against its effects. But it is imperative to understand that, still, a statistically significant result will occur purely by chance and not causation some of the time. In fact, the current application of these statistical checks make this more likely than you would originally think. Let us assume any proposed hypothesis from a scientist is actually correct 10% of the time. That means that, out of 1000 studies, only 100 should show a positive result supporting said hypothesis (assuming no false negatives). However, out of the remaining 900 studies, if using a statistically significant p value of 0.05, we will still get 45 false positives, in which the results “support” an incorrect hypothesis. As such, out of the original set of 1000 studies, approximately one third of the positive results (45 out of 145) are sadly supporting a false hypothesis. It is this point why reproduction of results and agreement among the wider scientific community is a cornerstone when we assert truths about our world. 

If topics such as immunology and climate change, which are laden in data, empirical evidence and a clear scientific consensus on the matter, can’t get past the biased and unscrupulous preconceptions of a not-insignificant proportion of the population, how can we expect anything better than a coin-toss when debating policy focused on economics and sociology. Particularly when many of these choices may also come with lobbyists proselytising on behalf of those with a vested interest in the decision. We are at a tipping point. Due to the wealth of power at our fingertips, we can dramatically accelerate the progress seen over the past century, or we can deepen the divide between opinions, ripping our communities, countries and democracies in twain. To some, 2016 has pressed this issue in quite an unforgiving manner. To remove this entrenched echo chamber we are increasingly isolating our beliefs in, we must be more open to the counter points of the debate and treat those spruiking them as equals, not as adversaries. Let’s use our critical thought, together, to come to a resolution.