I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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Oops, I fell into the prejudice trap (again)

I recently wrote a post about the way we let our prejudices prevent us from honestly considering new ideas and alternate opinions; about how we assess potentially new information based on what we want to believe, rather than simply looking at the facts.

Lest you think I’m being preachy and just pointing out flaws in other people, I’d like to share an example of this type of biased and prejudicial thinking in my own life.

I watched a TED talk last week about the evolution of human sexuality which was really excellent and worth at least one post of its own, so I won’t go into details about it now. The speaker was very engaging, well-spoken and humorous. He said some things that chimed well with beliefs and ideas I’d already formed, and I very much agreed with his open-minded approach to the whole topic.

In fact, I found it all so interesting, I immediately had a look on Amazon for his book, so I could read more extensively about his theories and research findings. While checking out some reviews I came across another book by a different author, written as a direct refutation of the first guy’s work and proposing some different views and conclusions.  By further investigating on the internet, it seems these two thinkers have a personal dislike of each other as well as conflicting views on human sexuality.

What I found most interesting in all this was how strongly I reacted in favour of one author and how ready I was to dismiss the other. When browsing on Amazon, I read numerous positive reviews and a few negative ones about each of the books, so in this respect, they looked about even. However, because I’d had an enjoyable 14 minutes watching the first author present his ideas, and maybe even just because I actually came across him and his ideas first, I had already formed a prejudice in his favour. He was clearly ‘more right’ than the other author, and I also felt that I liked her a bit less, because she clearly had it out for this intelligent, funny man I had heard speak. Seriously, what was her problem?

All of this happened in the space of about 20 minutes.

(1) I had been introduced to an idea, (2) learned there was some controversy about it, (3) decided which anthropological study was more valid based on my judgement of the presenters perceived likeability, (4) discounted the opposition as irrelevant and false without actually knowing what her position was, and (5) was eager to share my new ‘expert’ knowledge and new ‘correct’ understanding of an incredibly complex topic with the rest of the world. My oh my, the brain works quickly!

What!? She came to overly hasty and irrationally biased conclusions again? Nooooo! Make it stop!

What!? She came to overly hasty, irrational and biased conclusions again? Nooooo! Make it stop!

Fortunately for me, almost as quickly as I formed all those thoughts and prejudices, I realised what I was doing, and could have a bit of a laugh at how hasty and unreasonable I was being. At least by recognising the conclusions my brain was jumping to, I could take a step back from my initial reaction and try to look at things more rationally. 

To cut myself some slack, I think we, as humans, are hard-wired to make hasty judgements about many things. I mean, if a lion is running towards you, you do NOT want to take a deep breath and try to make a slow and deliberate assessment of the situation, draw a chart outlining your options and the pros and cons of each, or sit and ponder whether or not you are judging the actions and motivations of this particular lion unfairly. You want to make a hasty judgement and get the hell away from that lion!

Even in non-life-or-death situations, if we really thought deeply and logically analysed every bit of information and every experience we went through in life, we’d have no time for actually eating, sleeping, performing a job, just living! It would be complete overkill and ‘ain’t nobody got time for that’ (as the saying goes)!

So, I’m saying it isn’t surprising that we do this. It’s no shock at all that we want to take mental short cuts, make hasty judgements based on what we already know and believe, and just want to get on with our lives. There are many situations where this tendency doesn’t matter too much, or can even be helpful.

However, there are certainly times when it is detrimental to making wise decisions. I know that in my own life it means I can be a bit (or sometimes very!) judgemental towards people who think differently than I do. It also means that during conversation I sometimes don’t truly listen to what others are saying because I’m not really interested in their opinions; I’m just waiting to say what I think and ‘save’ them from the error of their ways!

At the end of the day, I think that developing an awareness of our prejudices and the way our minds work is a necessary first step towards becoming more balanced and fair when seeking out facts and listening to the views of others. It’s a key move towards better communication and deeper understanding with our fellow humans.

One has to start somewhere, after all!

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Is science truly objective?

Here’s a thought-provoking post from Intentio Lectoris.

The author discusses some of the practical limitations of scientific inquiry that effect objectivity (finances, countless variables in the natural world that complicate things, outdated methods or equipment, etc.), but perhaps more importantly, the ways in which value judgements do come into the interpretation of data. This isn’t to say that if science isn’t perfectly objective, the whole thing is a big conspiracy and we should all forget about this whole science thing. I certainly wouldn’t advocate that stance!

Instead, it seems to me (as a non-scientist) that it is a call for scientists, and those interested in science, to be aware that scientists, like everyone else, are products of culture, particular organizations and institutions, their particular time and place in history, etc.,  and as such, carry cultural baggage, make assumptions, take certain things about the world for granted, and make value judgements based on their own prejudices.

Of course, the idea that true objectivity doesn’t (and perhaps, shouldn’t) exist isn’t only relevant for scientists. This little blog here is my personal attempt at challenging my own assumptions about the world. I try to seek out new information that gives me a more ‘objective’ view of reality, but at the same time, it is unrealistic to believe that I can ever actually be completely free of biases and certain cultural values, no matter how hard I try. I also wouldn’t really want to give up all of my cultural values because they do serve a useful purpose in life. Humans live with other humans, and as a way to communicate and create social bonds and cohesion, it is necessary to have some common ground with others, a sort of default setting of background information so we don’t have to be explaining ourselves to death all the time!

What do we really mean when we talk about objectivity anyway? What does it mean to be ‘objective’ and why does modern Western culture value this trait so highly? In what situations might it be undesirable to try for objectivity? How can we strike a balance between objectivity and the inescapable reality of personal and cultural biases and assumptions? 

For more on this topic, there is also a follow-up post here discussing why, in fact, it isn’t desirable for science to be completely objective, which is also worth reading.