Scientific Preconceptions, Confirmation Bias, and the Hard Problem

July 11, 2014 § 3 Comments

It is a well-known, and experimentally demonstrated, psychological phenomenon that humans are able to simply ignore all evidence which contradicts a world-view in which they have invested. It is what skeptics charge everyone that doesn’t agree with them with. Funnily enough, though, this never seems to apply to them. They like to suggest that they base their position on scientific ‘fact’. And presumably Science resides in some lofty sphere untainted by human foibles and interests – and pre-existing convictions and theoretical assumptions. To demonstrate the fallacy of this conviction, I’ll briefly pop back to the 17th century. William Harvey was the first to describe in detail the systemic circulation of blood round the body, being pumped by the heart. 1 It didn’t catch on immediately. The prevailing, mainstream view of circulation at the time was based on Galen’s description, which relied on blood passing between the ventricles by means of invisible pores. There was no messing with Galen and the underlying theoretical assumptions on which Galenic medicine relied.

This is what the Venetian physician Parisano wrote about Harvey’s systemic circulation.

We have no problem to admit that if a horse swallows water, we can perceive a movement and we can hear sound. But that a pulse should arise in the breast that can be heard, when the blood is transported from the veins to the arteries, this we certainly can’t perceive and we do not believe that this will ever happen, except Harvey lend us his hearing aid. But above all, we do not admit such a transport of the blood … If blood is transported from the veins of the lung … into the branches of the arteries, how could a pulse be felt in the breast, how a sound? I am completely innocent of such subtle speculations. Above all, Harvey has it that the pulse should arise from the movement of the blood from the heart into the aorta – no matter from which ventricle. He also claims that this movement produces a pulse, and, moreover, a sound: that sound, however, we deaf people cannot hear, and there is no one in Venice who can. If he can, in London, we wish him all the best. But we are writing in Venice.2

Don’t be tempted to think that this only happened because people in the 17th century were somehow more naïve and less sophisticated than they are now. It would be monstrously arrogant, and, in any case, experimental evidence says this isn’t the case and we are still just as susceptible to selective blindness and deafness as Dottore Parisano.

Besides, we rely on our theoretical assumptions to be able to do any science at all, and on these same assumptions to interpret all our data. What skeptics (and sometimes scientists) say is scientific fact is very often nothing more than an interpretation, often based on questionable data. Questionable because anyone doing science is always filtering and adjusting his/her experiments based on theoretical assumptions, constantly rejecting ‘anomalous data’, and selecting data that agrees with these theoretical assumptions. For example, the idea that constants are constant actually relies on a philosophical assumption. Gods forbid you publicly question that idea! You’ll have the full force of the (anonymous) scientific establishment come down on you like a tonne of bricks, like they did last year on Rupert Sheldrake who gave a – now famous – TEDx talk in a round of talks dedicated explicitly to “Challenging Existing Paradigms”. TED bowed to the instruction of their (anonymous) scientific advisory board and relegated Sheldrake’s talk to the naughty corner of their website, with what amounts to a viewer discretion notice, because their board said there is dodgy science in the talk. Sheldrake responded to the (anonymous) scientific board’s accusations, and they were forced to retract their comments. You can see them, retracted, along with Sheldrake’s responses, here.  The talk of course is still in the naughty corner, with a viewer caution notice attached. (If you want to watch just the portion of the talk discussing constants, go to 9:50 min.)

And yet, just the other day, this paper came out: ‘Apparent correction to the speed of light in a gravitational potential’.  And, of course, just a quick search on New Scientist’s website yields these results on the subject.

Now, you might say that it’s in the naughty corner not because of him challenging the idea of constants, but because of his wacky morphic resonance theory. Fine. If you’ve actually read his book, you’ll see that he proposes specific testable predictions, which is what any proper scientific theory must offer. Predictions that can be tested experimentally and falsified. So, you don’t like his theory? You think it’s rubbish? No problem at all. Do the (extremely cheap and easy) experiments and blow it out of the water. That’s what a scientist is supposed to do. Not reject it out of hand because it contradicts mainstream, long-accepted ways of thinking about things. The history of science has shown us that these have always been proved either completely or partially wrong. And we don’t have to go back to the 17th century again to show that.

Until very recently, and I mean very recently, if you had the terrible idea to publicly express a suggestion that maybe, just maybe, quantum mechanics could indeed function in biological systems (and hence explain all sorts of anomalous data not easily explainable otherwise) and that the Copenhagen Interpretation and the ever beloved instrumentalist interpretation – which we can nicely summarize as ‘Shut up and calculate!’ – didn’t quite cut the mustard, you’d be branded a kook, a heretic, and a pseudoscientist, and you’d be marginalized and reviled. Well, guess what

This, obviously, isn’t the only 180 degree turn scientists have been forced to make on previous, unshakeably held convictions, nor is it going to be the last one.

Just this month, we have had these articles appear in the bastion of mainstream popular science magazine, New Scientist, this one, as a summary/editorial on this one, which is behind a paywall.

There are two bottom lines: The first is that we’re basing all our science on philosophical assumptions which in turn determine both the way we do science, and the results we get – and it is absolutely normal and inevitable that we do so. We just need to always remember that that’s how we do science. The second is that we are here:


and we still don’t really know what the fuck is going on. And it’s worth remembering that too. Because all we have are models. Models that seem to work, under certain conditions.

Also, everything we grasp, everything we purport to understand, we do with our poor little human minds and our consciousness. Which makes it quite ironic that the dominant paradigm amongst mainstream science on consciousness is that it’s an illusion. Unfortunately, this is the only way consciousness can be explained by philosophical materialism without leaving logical gaps big enough to drive a tractor through. According to this position, you are effectively an amoeba with an illusion of consciousness, personal experience, and free will; these things arise as an epiphenomenological illusion out of the matter that constitutes your brain. Why the hell that should happen in the first place, of course, no one has managed to explain yet. Amoebas, bacteria and viruses get along swimmingly without any. Or maybe they too have consciousness, or some form thereof. How would we know? Also, there are all sorts of further philosophical – and scientific – problems with consciousness as an emergent property (of complex systems, as it’s usually considered).

Consider emergence itself, for one. There’s weak emergence: for example, the ripples that arise on the surface of sand dunes from sand and wind. They can be deduced from their basic component parts, i.e. grains of sand and wind, and can be produced using computer simulations. Then there’s strong emergence, which is an effect or phenomenon that can’t be deduced from its constituent parts. You cannot deduce consciousness from subatomic particles, from spin, or mass, or potential. Subjective experience, the ‘what it’s like to be in pain’, the ‘what red is like’, the ‘what it’s like to grieve’, the ‘what seeing is like’ (the phenomenal visual field) cannot be deduced from fundamental physics. And that is a problem. Simply asserting that it isn’t, or shifting perspective to the third-person, and hence avoiding the entire problem of the first-person perspective that needs explaining, like Dennet does, doesn’t quite cut it.

So, I have rejected philosophical materialism and I’m now with David Chalmers on this one. (If you’re interested, on his website you can find a great deal more on both sides of the philosophical argument between materialism and panpsychism. ) Funnily enough, my new position (which is actually reverting to a revised older one, before the materialist rhetoric convinced me that I can only reject reductionist materialism if I am stupid) tallies much better with my experience of the world. So I encourage you, if nothing else, to consider it. If after due consideration you reject it, that’s fair enough, and we can engage in philosophical debate about it until the cows come home. But remember, you are only rejecting a philosophical position and espousing another philosophical position. Either position will affect, if not determine, the way you approach reality, and hence the way you approach any scientific endeavour, and of course any interpretation you attempt of experimental data of any description. Everything we do passes through our minds and hence our consciousness. We simply cannot consider the world and reality without first addressing the problem of consciousness. And it is a Hard Problem

1Actually, the first to do so was Ibn al-Nafis in the 13th century. That didn’t catch on, either.

2Quoted in Hyland, Michael E., The Origins of Health and Disease, Cambridge University Press: 2011, p. 6.


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§ 3 Responses to Scientific Preconceptions, Confirmation Bias, and the Hard Problem

  • Matt Brady says:

    The economist carried an interesting article a while back: How Science Goes Wrong –

    Do you think science and modern skepticism is becoming increasingly intellectually corrupt or are we witnessing continuing issues that are getting more attention? I’m interested to hear your perspective on this.

    • I think the article you linked to covers very accurately a large part of the problem. It has to do with human nature, it has to do with money, it has to do with both careers that people have invested in, and belief systems. I know a very large number of scientists and they all bemoan “the system”. The one that is described in the article above, which doesn’t let them do the science they want to do, but forces them to “publish or perish” and to do the science that is likely to attract funding. And the science that is likely to attract funding is the science that is likely in turn to make money for someone in the future. Of course, all science can potentially make money for someone at some point in the future, but of course people are interested in potentials they can foresee.

      The other thing I think it has to do with is the fact that scientists not only are no longer taught any philosophy whatsoever, and hence don’t have any understanding of the theoretical framework that underpins what they engage in every day — but we now have an even more alarming trend, as exemplified by the ludicrous, inane comments recently expressed by such public scientific figures as Neil de Grasse Tyson most recently, and at other times by that other famous public face of science, Stephen Hawking, whereby they not only scornfully dismiss the value of philosophy, but they go so far as to advise students not to study philosophy. Tyson, because he says “it can really mess you up” (I am not making this up), Hawking because, apparently, “philosophy is dead”. All these statements prove are that a) neither one has the slightest inkling what they’re talking about, and b) they don’t understand that there is no such as not having a philosophy, and that refusing to philosophise only means that they engage with their philosophies unconsciously and unthinkingly, following where they lead implicitly, in exactly the same way that most people follow the religion they were born to. THIS is what I think is the biggest problem with science today, itself leading to all the other various symptoms I list in the original post, and the article you link to recounts.

      Philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci’s wonderful response to de Grass Tyson can be read here, and I do most strongly recommend reading it. It include Tyson’s original comments in full.

      Another post on the subject I think is worth reading is this one.

      • Matt Brady says:

        Thank you very much for your insight! I’m from a background in intelligence analysis and critical thinking skills and logic are the foundation of our work. There is no certainty; we deal with filling in the gaps by making educated guesses.

        I’ve been looking at some of the scientific bias and I’m amazed that some who advocate for the importance of critical thinking seem to have no concept of how to put them into application. I thought I was crazy but I am finding that there are others active in the scientific community who understand these issues. That is refreshing.

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