Science and the Questioning of Our Biases

You never know when an article will catch your attention. I ran across this article concerning how individuals will not change their mind even when facing information that directly contradicts their argument. Our presuppositions are so strong that even when we receive evidence that they are wrong, we hold onto those assumptions. This tendency has been called confirmation bias and it is a part of our human nature. Understanding this bias is important to fully understand how science works.

Confirmation bias is so strong that often we do not recognize when it affects us. We just think that our beliefs are the way things are without seriously questioning if we are wrong. Thus, we have to make a conscious effort to combat confirmation bias to engage in critical thinking. I have learned how hard it is to question one’s beliefs. Even though I grew up going to church, I remember a time when I was struggling with my faith. Things had not worked out the way I thought they should and I questioned whether following God was what I wanted to do. But I did not want to make an emotional decision based on my life’s current circumstances. So I thought deeply about the apologetic information I had collected and the arguments against theism I had heard over the last few years. I was in graduate school at the time so I had learned a lot of anti-theistic arguments by then. After a lot of thinking and questioning of my faith, I came to the conclusion that theism was the most logical alternative. Once I made that decision then some more thinking led me to reaffirm that Christianity was the most logical decision. I came to those decisions but for a time was emotionally spent because of how difficult it was to look at those issues.

Although that was a very painful time for me, I am glad that I went through that period of questioning. Going through it allowed me to at least temporarily test the presuppositions I had developed. This questioning is not a guarantee that I overcame confirmation bias. I am responsible for continuing to seek out new information that may alter the previous conclusions I have drawn. But the emotional pain I experienced from reconsidering my religious beliefs showed me just how hard it is to confront our personal assumptions about reality. That difficulty goes a long way to explain the findings in the linked article about individuals holding on to beliefs even when confronted with disconfirming evidence.

This gets us back to thinking about the institution of science. What is true for the individual can be even truer in a community that reinforces previously accepted corporate assumptions. Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists develop paradigms based on previous ideas. This paradigm is accepted and defended until it reaches a point when there is so much disconfirming evidence that it becomes nearly logically impossible to believe in the paradigm. But usually the paradigm goes relatively unchallenged and scientists attempt to defend it against all attacks. According to Kuhn, the normal state of affairs is scientists fighting to maintain the paradigm against all attacks instead of looking for all possible answers to research questions. We like to think of scientists as individuals open to all possible answers. But the result of the article reinforces the reality that scientists, like others, when looking for answers to research questions tend to look for those that fit their presuppositions.

There is no easy way to deal with confirmation bias. The best we can do is to struggle to make sure that our ideas are driven by evidence and not merely what we want to find to be true. I have seen this occur in my life in more than in dealing with my faith but also in looking at the results of research. One of the topics I used to study was interracial romantic relationships. Being interracially married, I was eager to disprove the myths some of my Christian brothers and sisters had about interracial couples. One of the “myths” was that interracial marriages are more likely to end up in divorce. However, as I looked at the research I saw evidence that interracial marriages are indeed slightly less stable than same-race marriages. I could look at the enduring racism in our society as a reason for this relative instability, but more than one study indicated that this instability was real. The only honest approach was to alter my message to accept what science was telling me.
Not all of us are scientists or scholars. But all of us have opportunities to deal with confirmation bias in our lives. It may be in how we approach our politics, how we think about our interpersonal relationships, or how we consider our beliefs about the supernatural. I fear that most individuals will not take advantage of our opportunities to deal with this bias since it is painful and difficult to confront our presuppositions. The advent of the internet allows us to read only the ideas that reinforce our own ideas. So instead of the internet exposing us to philosophies that differ from our own, it merely allows us to remain sheltered in our own ideological cocoon. And when we do encounter those we disagree with, we do so in comment sections of web articles, or on Facebook we engage in “debates” that provide more heat than light. On the internet we do not have to show any common respect to individuals who remain anonymous to us and so discussions with others in online forums often prove to be unfruitful.

When I was in graduate school I was taught many different skills. I was taught statistics and social science methodology. I learned how to read the classic sociological theorists and contemporary academic literature. I was trained in how to construct a research question and organize an empirical project to study that question. But there were no lessons on controlling my confirmation bias and making sure it does not get in the way of my work. Professors did talk about critical thinking but much of that training merely reinforced the ideas professors had previously accepted as the results of his/her “critical thinking.” Most scholars are not any more prepared to deal with their presuppositions about reality than anyone else.

In an ideal world science would be what we expect it to be. It would be an open search for truth. But given the reality we have today, it is a mistake to expect scientists to be able to consistently overcome their confirmation bias. It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss instances where it was clear that this bias played a major role in how science is done. However, I have seen enough in my chosen field of sociology to know that scientific results can be the outcome of presuppositions rather than rigorous study. Given that I know this to be true in sociology, I have to wonder how much this is also true in other scientific disciplines. Given the power of confirmation bias, I must wonder what our limits are in accumulating scientific knowledge.

Atheists in America – Part 2

This is a continuation of my series on atheists which is based on a book I have coming out, co-written with David Williamson, titled There is no God: Atheists in America (Rowman and Littlefield). In the first blog I discussed how I collected data on atheists. Now I can dive into the findings. The first finding I want to explore is how atheists perceive science.
In the first blog, I noted that atheists tend to use science to legitimate their beliefs. I am not just talking about their beliefs about the possible existence of the supernatural, but also their beliefs about themselves and what is important in life. This is reasonable given that atheists, for obvious reasons, cannot use religion to justify their concerns. Atheists tend to see science as the way to create a better world and religion as the barrier to that better world.
In contemporary society there is a tension between science and religion. While there may have always been a tension between science and religion, it is not clear that science and religion have to be seen in conflict with each other. In fact, there is solid philosophical work arguing that science and religion do not contradict. Perhaps most famous is the argument of “non-overlapping magisterial” by Gould which suggests that there are areas where science reigns supreme and areas where religion reigns supreme but that those two areas are distinct from each other. Regardless of arguments such as this one, it is clear that science-religion conflict is seen as normative today. In that conflict atheists envision themselves on the side of science. The image of science as a rational methodology for understanding reality appeals to the average atheist’s own sense that he/she bases his/her actions on rationality instead of on emotionalism.
It is not surprising that atheists see religion as incompatible with science. For example, one of the atheists we interviewed, let’s call him Ralph, is especially confused at the idea that scientists can be religious. For Ralph science and religion do not mix as he sees science as “based on the idea of experimentation involving knowledge and change of knowledge” while religion is “fundamentally based on faith and I don’t see particularly how they (science and religion) can coexist.” Accordingly, Ralph contends that for individuals to have religious beliefs they must be ignorant of science. When the topic of religious scientists came up he made it clear that he had a hard time understanding how a highly educated scientist is able to retain religious faith. In fact, one of the last statements he made at the end of the interview was “ …it would be an interesting conversation to have somebody highly intelligent, you know well educated person that has a religious belief that might be a conversation I will undertake, it is going to be really curious to see how they can reconcile that.”
In Ralph we see the belief of the incompatibility of religion and science. His interpretation of this conflict is religion being conflated with ignorance and irrationality while science is connected to a rational approach to life. Another one of our interviewees reinforces this perspective:
Science is about finding the best way of doing things, the best knowledge that we can acquire. Religion has nothing to do with either of those, absolutely nothing. They’re not compatible ‘cause they’re going to ignore the facts. You can’t be a scientist. If you wanna be a scientist you can’t be religious. They don’t fit together. Oil and water.

This was a common theme in both the interviews and online responses. This perception establishes the relationship of religion to science in the eyes of the atheists. It also plays an important role in the social identity atheists have developed. Atheists clearly define themselves as not religious and since they do not see themselves as religious, they perceive themselves as not having the problems they associate with religion, such as the inability of the religious to understand scientific truth. For many respondents, being an atheist is akin to being a lover of science and a lover of truth.
For many atheists, science is the way to discover truth. Our atheist respondents were rarely nihilists who state that there is no truth. Perhaps the belief that truth cannot be discovered is more common among agnostics or those who are spiritual but not religious. But atheists contend that truth can be discovered with the proper application of science. They see people of faith as afraid to seek out truth since finding that truth may mean the end of their faith. In the example below, note how this respondent is sympathetic to her friend but envisions her friend as hiding from the truth through religion:
For some people, they may not be willing to question things or are happy where they’re at. I know someone who’s very, very strongly a Christian, mostly because she has found happiness in religion, so to her, why upset that? Because she doesn’t feel that truth has its own intrinsic value. She feels that the search for happiness has its own intrinsic value, and so it has a lot to do with your values, your personality, of course your upbringing and how you’re been taught to question things and think about things.

Atheists see themselves as clear thinkers in comparison to their religious peers. They do not limit this perception to their ideas about social and political activism, but also envision their decisions in their everyday lives as the products of clear thinking.
Humans have a need to create a social identity that supports their self-esteem and one which they believe leads to the right values. This is true across different cultures and sub-cultures so it is not a surprise that atheists create a social identity that meets such social needs. In light of their need for a social identity that builds esteem, we can make more sense of the atheist claims of understanding reality in a superior manner to religious individuals. This confidence leads to the development of an atheist social identity based on the perception that their personal and social decisions are centered in “rational” science as opposed to “irrational” religion. For some atheists it is not just that religion is illogical. Religion is also problematic to society. This is particularity the case when religion threatens to interfere with government. Because atheists tend to have a dichotomous vision of science being logical and religion illogical, they tend to see the intrusion of “illogical” religion into government as troublesome. In a future blog I will look more at the sort of solutions atheists suggest for our society, but obviously those solutions will include less religious influence in the government and our general society.
Atheists envision the priority of science as a key component of their social identity. Science is not merely a social tool to many atheists, but it is also an important way they conceptualize a vision of their place in our society. Understanding an atheist social identity is important for comprehending why certain individuals become atheists. Given the centrality of science in the creation of the atheist social identity, there is little wonder that atheists are overrepresented in elite positions in scientific fields. But it is not the only element of an atheist social identity. In my next blog I will look closely at another important element of that social identity.

Interdisciplinary Science Research – the Japanese Way

While attending the American Sociological Association annual meetings are a humbling experience when you hear and see scholars asking super-big questions, there’s something perhaps even more humbling when attending an interdisciplinary science mini-conference like the one I attended last week. Up until the invitation to present I had never heard of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). This organization has been around since 1932 according to their website. It was initiated by the Japanese emperor Showa to support scientific research, and from what I witnessed, it looks like the research is not exclusively practical or theoretical. From my American perspective, this sounded like great science! The JSPS has a long line of funded graduate, post-doctoral and I think some early professor awards and grants over the decades. As such the JSPS has a rich collection of alumni in universities all over the world, a few of whom are positioned at Chapman University. The aims of the JSPS are not only national interest, but also global cooperation. This seems “natural” in the sense that Japanese culture is collective and while Japanese scientists may prioritize helping their own people, they are well aware that many of today’s problems in Japan extend to other countries and the problems of other countries reach back to Japan. Hopefully more American leaders are thinking the same way.

The conference was a blitz from 8:30pm on Thursday night through 8:30pm the following night. I am not exaggerating; the full day of the conference went from 8:30am to 8:30pm and talks proceeded throughout the entire period, including lunch. Hosted by alumni Dr. Andrea Molle (an Italian sociologist of religion), and his current institution Chapman University, the arrangements were fairly typical of a conference. Some of the professors spoke in Japanese (at least 4 flew directly to the US just for this conference), and I had my first opportunity to participate in meishi, a Japanese business practice of trading business cards. It’s apparently less formal among academics compared to the “real deal” of big business exchanges.

Rather than use my sociological lens to interpret the relations of scholars around me, my post will focus more on the content of the talks, which as I mentioned earlier were phenomenal and humbling.

The presentations were led by Dr. Menas Kafatos (Chapman University), a professor of physics, and if his specialization area was not enough to make one’s research interests seem insignificant, his talk was about how the scientific community has come to accept the real possibility of multiple universes, and its implications for scientific knowledge and what spirituality and consciousness might mean. I thought I had stepped into an episode of Fringe. Here are some brief reflections and questions of the other presentations as I listened in:

Dr. Stephanie Ohshita (Univ. San Francisco), presented on her work with the Chinese government on creating low-carbon cities – how will America adapt to keep pace with the footprint that China wants to shrink?

Dr. Yoshihiko Kadoya (Osaka U.) compared the long-term care of the elderly in Japan compared to other countries – did you know that Japanese elder care workers are required to work 1000 hours before being licensed. Expectations vary within the US but the nearest number of hours was not even half that of the Japanese. Apparently Japan is quite unique even compared to other nations that adhere to a stronger link across generations.

Dr. Andrea DeAntoni (Ritsumeikan U.) briefly shared his explorations into haunted houses in Kyoto and the tourism that is built on this phenomenon. It reminded me of work on the American front by Drs. Christopher Bader, Carson Mencken and Joseph Baker. Even in nations where the majority profess no religious adherence, belief in the paranormal can be quite evident.

Dr. Rosalee Hellberg (Chapman U.) explained the pervasiveness of mislabeling fish in US food production and the societal consequences. I wondered whether sociologists can somehow incorporate this sort of research and perhaps identify the unequal distribution of mislabeled food product and the health consequences.

Dr. Longjian Liu (Drexel U.) presented his recent work on the prevalence of hypertension. This immediately had me thinking about racial and economic group disparities in identifying and addressing this condition and its implications for healthcare across the US.

Dr. Jingbo Louise Liu (Texas A & M Kingsville) talked about fuel cell efficiency; I was reminded of Ohshita’s talk about the need for reducing our energy usage and our carbon footprint. New technologies and the science behind them will hopefully solve some of these pressing problems.

Dr. Kenji Kajiwara (Kyushu U.) gave a spirited talk about the ever-persisting problems left unsolved in mathematics, despite what students flippantly think. I had few notes on this as I had to focus intently on his visual demonstrations. I think I understand basic trigonometry better now.

Dr. Minoru Yoneda (Kyoto U.) updated us on the radioactivity of the soil around the Fukushima nuclear plant and the plans underway on how to contain it. We’ve come a long way from Chernobyl but when these problems arise, the consequences run deep. Contaminated soil could result in contaminated vegetables and animals that consume those vegetables.

Dr. Yoshihiro Kawahara (U. of Tokyo) presented his latest work on using inkjet (yes inkjet) to create sensors that can work on detecting water in soil as well as (I would think) make even smaller chips for microprocessors that run the next generation of computers. His business card exemplified this new tech. How will our computing look like in the next decade?

Dr. Rebeka Sultana (Cal State U.) illustrated the difficulties in identifying snow water levels in the western part of the US. This joins Ohshita, Liu and Yoneda’s work on environmental changes and our response to it. Given the notable climate changes, snow water estimates are important in planning for a state like California where populated area might require irrigation or transportation of water to the city.

Dr. Ramesh Singh (Chapman U.) gave us startling images of the highly unusual dust waves that blanket the northern part of India affecting hundreds of millions of people. As with the other environment-focused topics, science has been employed to identify massive changes in the environment and the need for governments to take action. It’s hard to imagine the toxicity with which millions are living in given these conditions.

Dr. Greg Durgin (Georgia Tech) shared his teaching experiments in science courses on solar power harvesting tools. I told myself that I need to work on engaging my students like this; on the other hand solar power experiments are probably a fast IRB compared to many social science student-led projects.

Dr. Shamim Mirza (PK Corporation) presented an engineering feat that even he was unsure was possible: nanoimprinting. Using the “moth-eye” science used in some of today’s televisions, he has developed similar, and even smaller renderings of this technology that can be applied not only to popular consumer electronics but also medical and biological instruments.

I had wanted to take pictures of all of these but given the possible patent and copyrights involved, I opted to just watch and listen. This post would have been more visually appealing had you seen some of the slides of thousand-mile dust clouds, and micro-technology that makes the science geek buzz.

All told, these presentations drew me out of the world of surveys and interviews and into the fields that use delicate (and expensive) instruments to investigate issues that can possibly affect public policy all around the world. The scholars and their diverse backgrounds reminded me that while America is still the land of immigrants, we’re not the only nation capable of bringing scholars from around the world into the same organization. Some American sociologists are doing more transnational research (our own Margarita Mooney is one), and perhaps those like myself who seem content with the American scene can benefit from an occasional attendance at a conference like this. It helps us better understand the importance of context (understood as environmental and technological terms), and raises questions about how to integrate environmental and technological change with our studies of cognition/ attitudes, groups, social structures, politics, and culture.

Faith as Small as a Peanut: What One Black Christian Scientist Taught Me About My Work

At the school where I teach and research we just finished our second week of the semester, and this past Monday we (as a nation) remembered Martin Luther King Jr. and the vision that he and the Civil Rights Movement leaders imparted to the rest of the nation. When confronted with great figures whose lives end prematurely, especially at the beginning of a new semester sets my mind to the question of calling: why do we do what we do?

This question is particularly salient as I am teaching a new grad seminar on how to write in the social sciences. As I prepped for the course over the winter break it was clear to me that calling has to be at the root of what we researchers do, and maybe a little bit of madness or possibly ineptitude at most other kinds of work. But really, as I enter into conversations with the new graduate students about why research is so important not only for society but also for their careers, the obstacles to accomplishing good research in the ever-changing rules of higher education seriously lead me to ask reflectively: why would you do this? [Read more…]