O perigo do viés de confirmação e das certezas absolutas

Robert Burton em entrevista à Scientific American:

BURTON: A personal confession: I have always been puzzled by those who seem utterly confident in their knowledge. Perhaps this is a constitutional defect on my part, but I seldom have the sense of knowing unequivocally that I am right. Consequently I have looked upon those who ooze self-confidence and certainty with a combination of envy and suspicion. At a professional level, I have long wondered why so many physicians will recommend unproven, even risky therapies simply because they “know” that these treatments work.


LEHRER: To what extent do these mechanisms come into play during a presidential election? It seems like we all turn into such partisan hacks every four years, completely certain that our side is right.

BURTON: The present presidential debates and associated media commentary feel like laboratory confirmation that the involuntary feeling of certainty plays a greater role in decision-making than conscious contemplation and reason.

I suspect that retreat into absolute ideologies is accentuated during periods of confusion, lack of governmental direction, economic chaos and information overload. At bottom, we are pattern recognizers who seek escape from ambiguity and indecision. If a major brain function is to maintain mental homeostasis, it is understandable how stances of certainty can counteract anxiety and apprehension. Even though I know better, I find myself somewhat reassured (albeit temporarily) by absolute comments such as, “the stock market always recovers,” even when I realize that this may be only wishful thinking.

Sadly, my cynical side also suspects that political advisors use this knowledge of the biology of certainty to actively manipulate public opinion. Nuance is abandoned in favor of absolutes.

LEHRER: How can people avoid the certainty bias?

BURTON: I don’t believe that we can avoid certainty bias, but we can mitigate its effect by becoming aware of how our mind assesses itself. As you may know from my book, I’ve taken strong exception to the popular notion that we can rely upon hunches and gut feelings as though they reflect the accuracy of a thought.

My hope is the converse; we need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions. Intuitions, gut feelings and hunches are neither right nor wrong but tentative ideas that must then be submitted to empirical testing. If such testing isn’t possible (such as in deciding whether or not to pull out of Iraq), then we must accept that any absolute stance is merely a personal vision, not a statement of fact.

Perhaps one of my favorite examples of how certainty is often misleading is the great mathematician Srinivasava Ramanujan. At his death, his notebook was filled with theorems that he was certain were correct. Some were subsequently proven correct; others turned out to be dead wrong. Ramanujan’s lines of reasoning lead to correct and incorrect answers, but he couldn’t tell the difference. Only the resultant theorems were testable.

In short, please run, do not walk, to the nearest exit when you hear so-called leaders being certain of any particular policy. Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.

Sobre a diferença entre a política e a ciência política

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”, in Max Weber’s Complete Writings on Academic and Political Vocations, ed. John Dreijmanis (New York: Algora Publishing, 2008), 41-43:

Let us now focus our attention on the disciplines with which I am most closely concerned; that is, sociology, history, political economy and political science and those varieties of cultural philosophy whose function is to interpret them. It has been said, and I support this, that politics has no place in the lecture hall. It is out of place there when students introduce it. I would, for example, find it deplorable if, say, pacifist students surrounded my former colleague Dietrich Schäfer in Berlin in one of his lectures and created a disturbance, and I would find it equally deplorable if, as is said to have occurred, anti-pacifist students behaved in the same way toward Professor [Friedrich W.] Förster, although my views are in many respects as far from his as it is possible to be. But neither does politics have any place in the lecture hall when the lecturer introduces it. Least of all, when his own particular subject is political science. Views regarding issues of practical politics and scientific analysis of political structures and party positions are two quite different matters. If someone speaks about democracy in a public meeting, he should make no secret of his personal point of view. It is his confounded duty and obligation to take a clear partisan position. The words used are then not a means of scientific analysis, but of political campaigning to win over others to his point of view. They are not plowshares to break up the soil of contemplative thought, but swords to use against the adversary. They are weapons in the struggle.

In a lecture or in a lecture hall, on the other hand, it would be an outrage to use words in this way. In that situation, where the topic is “democracy,” for example, one will take the different forms of democracy and analyze them to establish how they function, and what particular consequences each has for the conditions of life, and then contrast them with other, non-democratic, forms of political order and attempt to reach the point at which the listener himself can adopt a stance in the light of his ultimate ideals. But the genuine teacher, speaking from the lectern, will take great care not to force any point of view on him, whether explicitly or by suggestion, while claiming to “let the facts speak for themselves,” which would naturally be a most underhand tactic.

But why should we not do this? I admit that many highly esteemed colleagues are of the opinion that such self-denial is not feasible, and if it were practiced it would be a mere eccentricity and should be avoided. Now, one cannot demonstrate scientifically what the duty of an academic teacher should be. One can only demand from him the intellectual integrity to be clear about the difference between, on the one hand, establishing facts, mathematical or logical states of affairs, or establishing the internal structure of cultural values, and on the other hand, answering the question of the value of culture and of its individual contents, followed by the question of how one should act within the cultural community and political associations. These are two entirely heterogeneous problems. If he goes on to ask why he should not deal with both in the lecture hall, the answer is because the prophet and the demagogue have no place at the lectern in the lecture hall. The message to both the prophet and the demagogue is: “Go out on the streets and speak publicly,” which is to say, go where criticism is possible. In the lecture hall the teacher sits facing an audience who are obliged to attend his lectures for the sake of their careers and remain silent while he speaks. I regard it as irresponsible if instead of giving his listeners the benefit of his knowledge and scientific experience, which is his duty, he takes advantage of a situation where there is no one there who can criticize him and attempts to impose his political views on them. No doubt, it may be impossible for the individual to disregard his subjective sympathies entirely, but he must then face the severest criticism in the forum of his own conscience. Promoting his own views confirms nothing, as purely factual errors are also possible. Yet, they attest nothing against his duty to seek the truth. I am therefore against this approach, not least in the interests of science. I am prepared to demonstrate, from the works of our historians, that whenever the man of science puts forward his own value judgment, full understanding of the facts ceases. But this subject is beyond the scope of this evening’s topic and would call for lengthy discussion.

Sobre o futuro da ideia de inteligência

Stephen Cave, “Intelligence: a history”:

So when we reflect upon how the idea of intelligence has been used to justify privilege and domination throughout more than 2,000 years of history, is it any wonder that the imminent prospect of super-smart robots fills us with dread?

From 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Terminator films, writers have fantasised about machines rising up against us. Now we can see why. If we’re used to believing that the top spots in society should go to the brainiest, then of course we should expect to be made redundant by bigger-brained robots and sent to the bottom of the heap. If we’ve absorbed the idea that the more intelligent can colonise the less intelligent as of right, then it’s natural that we’d fear enslavement by our super-smart creations. If we justify our own positions of power and prosperity by virtue of our intellect, it’s understandable that we see superior AI as an existential threat.


We would do better to worry about what humans might do with AI, rather than what it might do by itself. We humans are far more likely to deploy intelligent systems against each other, or to become over-reliant on them. As in the fable of the sorcerer’s apprentice, if AIs do cause harm, it’s more likely to be because we give them well-meaning but ill-thought-through goals – not because they wish to conquer us. Natural stupidity, rather than artificial intelligence, remains the greatest risk.

It’s interesting to speculate about how we’d view the rise of AI if we had a different view of intelligence. Plato believed that philosophers would need to be cajoled into becoming kings, since they naturally prefer contemplation to mastery over men. Other traditions, especially those from the East, see the intelligent person as one who scorns the trappings of power as mere vanity, and who removes him or herself from the trivialities and tribulations of quotidian affairs.

Imagine if such views were widespread: if we all thought that the most intelligent people were not those who claimed the right to rule, but those who went to meditate in remote places, to free themselves of worldly desires; or if the cleverest of all were those who returned to spread peace and enlightenment. Would we still fear robots smarter than ourselves?

Do dogmatismo da ideologia de género

Camille Paglia, “Liberdade vs. politicamente correcto,” Ler, no. 144 (Inverno de 2016): 67:

Mantenho, de acordo com a minha desalentada observação na época, que esses novos programas suplementares raramente, ou mesmo nunca, se alicerçavam em princípios académicos autênticos: eram gestos de relações públicas destinados a abafar críticas de um passado intolerante. Na concepção de qualquer programa de estudos femininos, por exemplo, devia ser obrigatório para as alunas fazerem pelo menos uma cadeira de biologia básica, para que o papel das hormonas no desenvolvimento humano pudesse ser investigado – e rejeitado, se necessário. Mas não, tanto os estudos femininos como, mais tarde, os estudos de género evoluíram sem referência à ciência, garantindo desse modo que a sua ideologia permaneceria partidária e unidimensional, a sublinhar a construção social do género. Qualquer ponto de vista diferente é considerado uma heresia e praticamente nunca foi sequer apresentado aos estudantes como hipótese alternativa.

Ideologia como vocação

Daniel Johnson, “Ideology as a vocation”:

Scholarship requires one to follow the evidence, the logic, and above all one’s conscience. Ideology promises a release from all three, into a gravitas-free zone where all that matters is commitment to a cause. Once a scholar has made ideology rather than integrity his or her vocation, it is almost irrelevant which ideology it is.