How the Pre-Scientific Mind Can Fall into Dogmatism

There is snow at the North Pole. Where there is snow, bears are white. What color are bears at the North Pole?

You probably knew how to navigate that logic before you were 10 years old. However, when researcher Alexander Luria asked Russian peasants to complete that syllogism in the 1930s, a typical response was, “Well, I’ve only seen brown bears. And only if a person came from the North Pole with testimony would I believe that the bears there are white.”

I was reminded of that story when I heard a similar one on the radio, this time about a fisherman in Louisiana who was asked what he thought of scientific studies that show climate change is real and that humans have contributed to it. His take was, “It doesn’t concern me. What is science? Science is an educated guess. What if they guess wrong? There’s just as much chance [for] them to be wrong as there is for them to be right.”

The fisherman refused to make any conclusions based on science because it is not 100% certain. The Russian refused to entertain hypotheticals. You would think that both men would be wonderfully free of dogma, refraining from taking any stand whenever they could not be certain.

In fact, the opposite is true. The fisherman is a firm climate-change denier. Asked what could change his mind, he said, “If [a man] was 500 years old, and he told me it’s changed, I would probably believe him. But in my lifetime, I didn’t see any change.”

He took a firm stand based on little information and only an impossible level of proof could change his mind.

A better stand would have been, “In my lifetime, in the area where I’ve lived, I haven’t noticed a change. However, climate change could be happening elsewhere, or over a longer period of time. And I haven’t taken any actual measurements so maybe it has happened here but I haven’t noticed. I don’t think the climate has changed, but I don’t really know.”

Even climate scientists, who have studied the issue systematically for their entire careers, only express their conclusions in terms of probability, saying things like, “It’s 95% certain that humans have contributed significantly to climate change.”

The fisherman can’t do that because he has a faulty grasp of the notion of probability. He equates “educated guess” with “as much be wrong as…to be right.” This is called the balance fallacy. In fact, if a guess is educated, then almost by definition it is more likely to be right.

Pair humans’ natural discomfort with uncertainty, with a fallacy that holds all opinions to be equal, and you’re in dangerous waters.

If we’re going to make the right decisions for ourselves and for the planet, we have to realize that even when the evidence is not 100% conclusive, it is not true that one opinion is as good as another. It is not true that personal experience is the only way to uncover the truth. We must learn how to study issues in ways that remove personal bias, favoring systematic, scientific study over personal testimony.

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