Monday, November 15, 2010

Unidirectional skepticism

I thought I had coined that phrase. I have used it to refer to our tendency to examine ideas that are not aligned with our views of reality with less rigor than those that confirm it. It turns out that I am not the first to notice this phenomenon. In this Harper's article, Gary Greenberg uses the following quote from Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, writing about the seat of the "self":
The culture of popular science is one of unidirectional skepticism... It is skeptical of any idea that spirituality corresponds to something outside ourselves, but surprisingly gullible about any reductionist explanation for it.
Still, I think that my use of the term is somewhat broader, not simply alluding to the popular science, but also to professional science, and not only to the neurobiology of self. This idea goes hand in hand with the cognitive biases we are subject to.

This has got me thinking about a couple of things. Now, I am a big fan of neurobiology and the burgeoning field of research that it represents. We understand what goes on in the brain so much better now at the molecular level than we did, say, even 20 years ago. But what I am struck by is the comfort that this knowledge gives us about ideas of human behavior we had understood with lesser granularity in the prior era. For example, all parents have appreciated for millennia that teenage behavior is characterized by disinhibition of the higher self, if you will. Now we can say this in scientific lingo, that the area of the prefrontal cortex responsible for executive function lags in development behind other areas of the brain, as demonstrated in fMRI studies. Or how about the evidence from advanced neuroimaging that doing stuff that benefits our community lights up areas that correspond to happiness? We knew this before, only not in these words: we just had an idea that being a part of a community made us feel good. And those of us who subscribe to evolution can even come up with an explanation for why we should have developed this way.

Yet, aside from just gaining fascinating knowledge, we derive an odd sense of satisfaction from having our prior ideas, arrived through experience, observation and philosophical ruminations, confirmed by what we consider to be a more bona fide technique of science. The corollary to this is that, because we are so committed to the scientific method above all other possible ways of knowing, we may also be all too willing to discard rapidly closely-held notions that are not supported by science. But since science is ever-evolving and rather imprecise, in some areas more so than in others, are we always justified in such  prompt disposal of prior beliefs?

In the clinical world we often cite examples of when our intuition was wrong about some disease or another, and only after doing well controlled research studies were we able to arrive at the real understanding of the situation. But how often is it just our willingness to yield to what we think is scientifically sound at the moment? Is it possible that this unidirectional skepticism fueled by the cognitive bias in favor of new science, may not turn out to be the most efficient way to accumulate knowledge?

I do not know the answer to this question, as I am as guilty as my peers of falling in love with new scientific knowledge. But I also enjoy thinking about the nature of knowledge in general, and the many different ways of knowing. Are the materialism of science and other epistemologies mutually exclusive? I hope not.

No comments:

Post a Comment