Belief-generating machines

I’ve read this fascinating article today, which starts out about dowsing, but ends up being about so much more. I did learn that you can dowse for anything, not just water – lost keys, landmines, gold, anything – and that it goes back to 6000 BCE. But this is my favorite bit (emphasis is mine):

When Richard Dawkins investigated dowsing in 2007, he concluded that humans were no different than B F Skinner’s pigeons. In a classic psychology experiment in the 1940s, Skinner put hungry birds in a cage with a machine that provided food sporadically. He found that the pigeons soon associated whatever actions they happened to be making, like turning clockwise, with the food’s arrival. The birds would later perform the same actions in hopes of receiving more.

Skinner speculated this was the basis of superstition, like wearing lucky socks. We act as if our behaviour has an outsized impact on the world because it’s discouraging to believe that things just happen: that good fortune is undeserved, that tragedy might have no meaning.

So true. This is one of my pet hates – looking for rhyme or reason where there isn’t any. It leads to people talking in circles for hours on end, speculating round and round. “Why have they suffered so?” “Why have they benefited so?” Usually, it causes the speaker to moralize every last thing the subject has ever done in their life until they find something suitably good or bad on which to hang the outcome, just so that the speaker ends up feeling better to have created rhyme and reason in the end.

Obviously, 45-year-old Johnny deserved to fall into poverty and become homeless because he once dipped Jenny’s hair in the inkwell when they were at school, as 8-year-olds. Clearly that’s what tipped the hand of fate against him.

The article continues:

In our increasingly literate and technological society, this kind of superstition still has a surprising amount of power. James Alcock, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, says that’s because we’re fundamentally “belief-generating machine[s]” with a “yearning unit”. We yearn to reduce fear, and develop our beliefs accordingly. “Rationality and scientific truth have little to offer most people as remedies for existential anxiety.”

“I think we’re all seekers,” says Shirley Runco, another dowser in California. “Even if we don’t realise it. Everybody wants the truth and everybody wants to be happy. So they search.”

If you’re looking for meaning, believing in divinity might simply be more helpful than understanding entropy. But water, unlike God, is a tangible thing. So how can dowsers be so sure about something that can be proven false?

Some of their confidence could stem from a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, humans’ tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that proves one’s preconceptions. “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,” wrote the psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1940s. “Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” Small wonder there’s a large gap between what the general population thinks about science-related topics and what scientists think. The Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society (2015), published by the Pew Research Center, shows an alarming disparity – as much as 40 per cent – in views on many important issues such as climate change and vaccines. We’re wired to find the sources we agree with and to ignore the ones we don’t. So when dowsers don’t find water, they’re inclined to blame the test conditions or the situation rather than their ability.

Where this gets tricky is that scientists aren’t immune to confirmation bias either. In theory, the scientific method asks questions – how does dowsing work? – and then attempts to test them empirically. Repeatable results are fundamental to truth. But in practice, perhaps because of confirmation bias, scientific results are not nearly as consistent as we’d like to believe: a report in Science this summer found that nearly two-thirds of the published experiments they considered could not be replicated. Brian Nosek, one of the researchers, explained to NPR: “Our best methodologies to try to figure out truth mostly reveal to us that figuring out truth is really hard.”

Science has been turned into a religion by many, and that’s not right. Challenging the received wisdom of science has become nigh impossible – your results will automatically be labelled pseudoscience if they don’t fit within the current paradigm. That’s not what science should be. It’s supposed to be a method for questioning the world until we find what’s really there – until we figure out the truth. It’s supposed to be a superior method to what it replaced of clinging onto beliefs dogmatically … or did it replace those? Hm.

And what we do know is that results are mixed, on just about any subject you might care to name. There are a few biggies that have been extensively studied so that there’s a consensus – climate change is happening, smoking is bad – but most of the studies out there make a lot of assumptions that may or may not be true. They have to; it’s the nature of the beast. So you try it again, making different assumptions, and see if you come up with a similar answer. At least that’s what I’d do; the official method is to try it again making the same assumptions, but that seems a bit silly to me.

They also cut corners: they can’t afford to follow a bunch of people all the way to death – that takes decades and lots of money – so they find a shorter way. They measure, say, their cholesterol, and then they say that X leads to more death – because X led to higher cholesterol, and higher cholesterol usually leads to more death. But that’s not what fits in the headline or soundbite, and it’s not always entirely accurate – after all, we have drugs to lower cholesterol, so is X such a problem, after all? And was it X, anyway, or was it some unknown other thing they didn’t think to ask about – perhaps all of those people who did X also did Y (perhaps lived within a block of each other, next to a chemical plant, for example).

People are using the soundbites that the media generates from scientific research – which themselves are a distortion of the research – as gospel, when in fact they’re only provisional pieces of the puzzle. It irritates me. I wish they’d just use their common sense instead. If doing X or Y gives them some personal benefit that they can feel, then they should do it. Otherwise, they shouldn’t.