Thursday, September 6, 2012

Le Monde 100: The Name of the Rose

"You are more like me than you realize."

In the insatiable quest for certainty,  humans have to negotiate with reality as well as what we tell ourselves is reality.

              The obvious boggle in this chain of interaction is the fact that ALL reality must pass through the filter of what we tell ourselves, making it quite easy for us to interpret things through the further filters of our biases. This is the main tool used by the "treacherous heart."

             Take skepticism. Skepticism is not a position one takes in the world, but rather a methodology. Skeptics pride themselves on being completely objective and without bias in evaluating claims about "reality." The group of people primarily associated with skepticism are scientists as they apply scientific method to their belief systems in order to determine a objectivity without the use of presumptions and "common sense." However, there is a trap to wearing the mantle of skepticism in the fact that it can bring credibility to hidden biases through "selective skepticism."

             In the article "The Myth of Consistent Skepticism: The Cautionary Case of Albert Einstein," Todd C. Riniolo and Lee Nisbet discuss the ways that our hidden natures may cause us to make claims in the face of strong evidence to the contrary: "We all look for evidence that is consistent with our beliefs. In short, we tend to believe what we wish to be true, but we do so 'objectively.' Specifically, we typically do not seek out discrediting evidence for our current beliefs with the same vigor that we look for supportive evidence . Psychologists call this a confirmation bias."

              This is when conservatives only watch Fox News and liberals only listen to NPR. The article writes that a true skeptic would  "would apply the methods of skepticism to all claims consistently and evaluate the evidence in an unbiased manner (i.e., without double standards)" and "should obviously use discrediting information to modify beliefs."

               One would think that Albert Einstein as the most famous scientist that ever lived would be a walking testament to consistent skepticism. However, outside of theoretical physics, he allowed his sympathies and feelings to intrude on his beliefs. Under Nazism, Einstein ignored the political propaganda of the state and harshly criticized the actions of the regime, namely the oppression of liberty. He supported Socialism, specifically the model created by the Soviet Union and trumpeted their virtues. 

               However, as time passed, the reports of human rights being smashed by the Soviet empire started to trickle west. Did Einstein maintain his objective attitude toward this political system that he held dear? The article continues:

               "Einstein refused to join or endorse an international commission headed by John Dewey to investigate the Moscow Show Trials (a consistent skeptic would seek both confirmatory and discrediting evidence) and would subsequently write to Max Born that “there are increasing signs the Russian trials are not faked, but that there is a plot among those who look upon Stalin as a stupid reactionary who has betrayed the ideas of the revolution” (quoted in Born 1971, p. 130). Born would later comment that most people in the West at the time believed the trials “to be the arbitrary acts of a cruel dictator.” Einstein, however, relied upon information from people he described as “those who know Russia best.”

               As painful as the commission might have been for Einstein, as a scientist he should of known that the same methods he used to examine particles and waveforms apply just as effectively to political systems. Yet, he was perfectly fine to allow his confirmation bias dictate reality for him. 

               This is what happens when we think of intellectual things with our emotions. In The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, the Catholic monks that cared for the greatest library in Christendom went to great lengths to prevent access to of one of Aristotle's books. The reason was quite succinnct:

"the work of our order and in particular the work of this monastery, a part- indeed, the substance - is study, and the preservation of knowledge. . . Preservation of, I say, not search for, because it is property of knowledge, as a human thing, that it has been defined and completed over the course of centuries, from the preaching of the prophets to the interpretations of the fathers of the church." 

              Confirmation bias is a preservation of knowledge, not a search for it. 

              To truly search for the knowledge of reality, one must search inside themselves to find the will to face it.