If you have strong opinions and want to test them scientifically, drill down to their roots and check them against the following list of unscientific justifications:
- That’s the way I was raised
- I work in a union and all my friends feel the same way
- I work in a corporate office and all my friends feel the same way
- Oprah feels the same way
- I read it in a best-selling book
- I saw a “based on a true story” movie
- Because that’s the way things should be
If your opinions are based on unscientific justifications, that doesn’t mean you are wrong. It does mean that you will probably have a very hard time defending your opinions when discussing them with others. And if those others also use fallacy-laden arguments, everyone will experience a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing (my apologies to William Shakespeare).
“But Ed,” you protest, “I don’t use unscientific justifications; I’m on guard against those. I base my opinions on facts, not emotion.”
Sounds good, but do you, really? Take a look at the following list of possibly unscientific justifications:
Possibly Unscientific Justifications
- It happened to me once
- I read it in a magazine
- I learned it in a seminar
- I read it in a textbook
- I watched a documentary
- It was reported in the newspaper
- My doctor told me
- A scientist said so on TV
- I read it on a “fact check” Internet site
- Some reviews on an Internet site said it was great
Because the principle of objectivity is so vital in the decision-making process, we’ll review the above list in more detail. Let’s start with “It happened to me once.”
Learning from An Experience
A personal experience can be a wonderful teacher. However, as real and powerful as an experience is, it is a sample of one. It’s only one experiment, if you will.
“What are you taking about, Ed?” you exclaim loudly. “If it happened to me — if I experienced it myself, saw it with my own eyes — then it’s got to be true!”
Not necessarily. Human perceptions are imperfect, and unless we’re careful we tend to jam our experiences into preconceived boxes that fit our expectations. Our memories are likewise imperfect, and tend to adapt to what we want to remember, rather than retain the reality of what really happened.
Nonetheless, for simple phenomena, one experiment is sometimes sufficient to reach an important conclusion. If you put your hand on a hot stove and get burned, a valid conclusion is — don’t do that again!
The Single-Event Fallacy (Am I Psychic?)
For complex phenomena, however, deriving a firm conclusion from a sole personal experience is an example of the single-event fallacy. For example, what if you dreamed that you were going to have a fight with your spouse in the morning, and sure enough, you did. Can you conclude that you’re psychic? Not really, because in this instance there are many variables involved. Dreams, for example, often mirror common events such as arguments with spouses, and there are billions of us dreaming such dreams every night. According to the laws of probability it’s quite likely that some folks will, on rare occasion, have a dream that coincidentally matches upcoming reality.
True psychic ability would be indicated by predictive dreams or visions that cannot be explained by coincidence; e.g. dreams of improbable events with very specific details (“On Tuesday I dreamed that on Thursday afternoon I would be in an auto accident involving a red sedan driven by a stocky man wearing a gray turtleneck sweater, and it happened!”) If you have such dreams, the next step would be to demonstrate your psychic predictive power to an objective independent observer; i.e. be tested. If you pass you will not only make history, you will make a lot of money — a one-million dollar prize is available to anyone who can prove, under scientific conditions, that they are psychic, or have any other paranormal ability (see JREF). (This prize has been offered for many, many years and there have been no successful applicants.)
Conclusion: When multiple variables are involved, engineering thinking requires the use of numerous samples (experiences) to fashion a reasonable hypothesis for the cause of an event.
Single Experiences Of Complex Events
Do Not Lead To Reliable Conclusions
We’ll continue our review of possibly unscientific justifications in the following posts.
Books, Magazines, and Seminars: Who Do You Trust?
p.s. If you are curious to learn more about the engineering mind, please check out the DACI Newsletter; you may find the Sightings and News Bullet sections interesting.