on being wrong as a scholar

I mentioned this in an earlier post, but I’m promoting it to a post of its own because I believe it’s important.

It is important for scholars to admit when they are wrong.

Whether it is a mistake in their data collection, or a misreading of the data in their analysis, or a conclusion that is later refuted by stronger evidence or more recent discoveries, or a claim regarding evidence that is better explained by another scholar’s theory – it is important for scholars to concede when they come to believe the evidence has led to some other conclusion.

This can serve as a quick lesson to students both in the sciences and in the humanities, but I’m especially thinking about students in religious studies. The beauty of science and the scientific method is that scholars are free to admit they were wrong when better evidence and arguments come along. In fact, we are encouraged to do so. Rather than dig in our heels and argue until our dying breath for interpretations that have long been disproved by new evidence, critical scholars celebrate peer-review and the discussion of ideas among learned individuals, who offer new proposals and bring knowledge and familiarity with evidence from their respective specialized fields to the discussion.

Through the scientific process, a consensus is often reached that is based upon a consideration of all of the latest evidence, and not just the claims of those who made them first or the loudest, or worse yet, who bypassed the scholarly process altogether to take their sensational claim directly to the public for the purposes of selling a popular book.

This is difficult to do for the proud, or for those who have invested much time and money in arguing for one interpretation. But when new data comes along, a scholar must be willing to set aside what he or she previously held to be true and interpret the data according to the new evidence.

Now, I fully acknowledge that this is particularly difficult for those in religious studies, especially for those who hold to a personal religious belief. However, it is essential that critical scholars be objective enough to follow the evidence where it leads, and if that evidence leads to a conflict with one’s personal faith claims, the scholar must have the courage to amend his or her personal beliefs, that is, if one wants to remain a critical scholar.

The field of religious studies is full of apologists who claim to operate within the critical method of science, but who are quick to abandon a critical method when it conflicts with their personal religious beliefs. These individuals are constantly seeking ways to explain away evidence that contradicts their claims, or to attempt to reconcile what they believe with the facts and evidence before them, however twisted that outcome might be. A true scholar must have the humility and the courage to admit that new evidence has caused the scholar to rethink his or her position, concede that the old interpretation was wrong, and move forward in the pursuit of truth.

As a scholar, I am humbled, and yet pleased when I can admit when an interpretation I previously held was wrong, because it means I am still learning from my colleagues and peers, who have taken the time to engage me in academic debate.

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michael shermer on how and why we are wired to believe

Michael Shermer has given an excellent talk at TED offering an explanation as to why we believe. Shermer argues that belief is based upon our nature as a pattern-seeking animals. Our brains have evolved to seek out patterns and relationships between objects and events.

Specifically, Shermer argues that animals make two types of errors in cognition. A Type I error is a false positive, that is, when we believe a pattern is real when it is actually not. A Type I error is when we find a nonexistent pattern. A Type II error is a false negative, that is, when we don’t believe a pattern is real when it actually is. A Type II error is when we don’t recognize a real pattern.

Humans tend to make more Type I errors because they are less costly. His example is that of standing in the jungle and hearing a rustle in the grass. If we believe the rustle in the grass is something that is going to jump out and eat us, then we are cautious and move away. If it turns out that the rustle was just the wind, then there is really no cost to us except for the time we spent moving out of the way and being cautious.

However, if we make a Type II error and we don’t believe that the rustle in the grass will harm us, and it actually was something that can do us harm, we’re dead. Those individuals that gravitate towards the Type II errors tend to die out over time, while those that trend toward the Type I error survive to pass on their genes. Over time, this process results in a species of animals that are more likely to see patterns that are not there (Type I error) because it is selectively safer.

The cost of making a Type I error is less than making a Type II error. Or, to put it another way, it is safer to believe in something that doesn’t exist than it is to not believe in something that does.

Shermer argues that this is why so many people are still very religious, or at least believe in a god, despite our movement towards a scientific world that is regularly disproving many of the myths contained in accepted religious literature. He argues that ‘agenticity,” or the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency, often from the top down with invisible agents or beings is responsible for the development of religion. This explains angels, demons, and gods, but also a belief in aliens and in government conspiracies.

This conclusion should also speak to scholars, who tend to look for patterns in texts or archaeological evidence that simply aren’t there.

I like Shermer’s explanation. It explains the single most prevalent, yet least-spoken reason why so many people are religious: they’d rather live a religious life and be wrong about hell’s existence than not live a religious live and be wrong about hell. The Type I error results in a life that believed in a superstition, and perhaps that loss of a little “fun.” The Type II error, however, results in eternal damnation.

That is to say, many people believe in a god and follow a religion just in case

This reasoning does not make for good people of faith and explains why so many people are looking to do the bare minimum “to be saved” instead of living a life of service to their fellow humans.

Of course, the next appropriate question is: what is driving us to do good for one another if there is no god? Attempts to explain this question are at the heart of the secular humanist movement and others like it.

Shermer makes some other very interesting comments about cognitive priming and other psychological phenomena. My personal favorite is when he states:

I want to believe and you do too. And in fact, I think my thesis here is that belief is the natural state of things. It is the default option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural; disbelief, skepticism, science is not natural. It’s more difficult. It’s uncomfortable to not believe things.

Regardless of your point of view, this is a fascinating lecture and is worth a listen.

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