Cognitive bias while reading

Recently I read Steven Pinker’s book The blank slate, where he claims that genetics is responsible for a large part of a person’s personality and abilities. Since I disagree with this position, I found myself picking many holes in Pinker’s arguments and generally trying to discredit it.

I do think that the right way of reading a book advancing a controversial viewpoint is to look at it with a critical eye and to try to notice its errors (as well as its convincing arguments). However, I do that less when I read books whose conclusions agree with my prior beliefs. Naturally, I still try to find holes in the arguments, and I tend to notice when things don’t make sense. But surely I put in much less effort when I already agree with the author, for example when I read Delusions of gender, which roughly takes the opposite viewpoint, and which I found much better thought out. Presumably, Cordelia Fine also made many unjustified or false claims in her book (it’s hard to avoid doing this when writing a book!), but since I was on her side to begin with, I only found a few of them, and I have since forgotten what they were.

It is essential that we have mechanisms for changing our beliefs when presented by strong evidence that discredits our prior beliefs, or else we can never improve our opinions and will thus be wrong frequently. However, we’re frequently going to be presented with weak evidence against our priors, and we’d like to have good defenses against changing our opinions too readily when presented with an argument that doesn’t quite work or that might be flawed for subtle reasons. (But there seem not to be many people who change their minds too quickly, and at any rate, I’m definitely not one of them.)

It is sensible, then, for us to analyze arguments whose conclusions we disagree with very carefully so that we can reject them when they are flawed and accept them only if we are quite certain that they are not.

What would be good, though, would be to learn how to be more critical when judging arguments whose conclusions I already agree with.  This can be tricky because we might have a tendency of throwing away the conclusion when an argument in support of it fails, even though that’s unnecessary. But once we realize this is unnecessary, we have little to lose by carefully analyzing arguments whose conclusions we already agree with, dismissing those that are unconvincing while keeping and strengthening those that make sense.

Careful analysis of arguments whose conclusions we already agree with is also good practice for another reason: doing so helps us make solid arguments when talking to others. Those of us who have strong opinions (hi there!) frequently want to share them with others, and ideally, we’d like other people to adopt similar opinions. Getting better at analyzing possible objections to our arguments allows us to present solid arguments to others when the opportunity arises.

So, how do I teach myself to attack arguments whose conclusions I already agree with more thoroughly? What techniques do other people have for doing so? I’d be delighted to hear any suggestions!


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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One Response to Cognitive bias while reading

  1. RR says:

    I don’t think I can recommend any particular strategies, but I can offer a way to know that you’ve succeeded. You’ll either have considerably less confidence in the veracity of your worldview, or at least understand that it is a personal preference rather than a rational position that follows from universal axioms.

    I’ve come to accept that most of my beliefs regard the type of world I think I would like to live in. Note that this is an even weaker statement than, “the type of world I would like to live in.”

    Of course, this doesn’t prevent me from stating my positions much more strongly than I actually believe them…

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