One way in which psychology has come to my rescue is by reminding me of a crucial point: scientific thinking does not come naturally to the human species. Much like a foreign language, scientific thinking needs to be taught, mastered, and continually practiced. In many respects, science is “uncommon sense” (as Alan Cromer, Lewis Wolpert, and my Emory colleague bob McCauley have noted) because it requires us to override our natural propensities toward confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out evidence consistent with our hypotheses and to deny, dismiss, or distort evidence that is not), naïve realism (the erroneous belief that the world is exactly as we see it), and allied biases. Without scientific thinking tools as safeguards against these errors, even educated people can be fooled.
I can attest to this principle using an “N of 1” personal example. As a young teenager, I eagerly read books about ghosts, flying saucers, and ancient astronauts, and was taken in by many of the claims. It was not until college, and especially graduate school, that I learned to think scientifically and to question many of the assertions I had accepted uncritically.
This lesson regarding the unnatural nature of scientific thinking has come in handy to me as an educator on more than one occasion. From time to time, I encounter bright and intellectually curious psychology students who hold poorly supported or even downright bizarre beliefs. Several years ago, a student in a critical thinking seminar I was teaching admitted to being a devout believer in crystal healing, ghosts, and astrology; another confessed to me that she was a dyed-in-the-wool creationist. In my darker moments, I must confess to occasionally experiencing exasperation with such students. Yet reminding myself that scientific thinking is deeply unnatural – and that I too had once fallen prey to unsubstantiated beliefs – has been a valuable antidote to my hopelessness. It has made me more patient with such students and helped to me appreciate their perspectives, even as I disagree with them. I have come to recognize that most of them are every bit as intelligent as other students, but that they have not learned how to evaluate evidence scientifically. As Keith Stanovich’s work shows, scientific thinking is surprisingly independent of general intelligence.
In the case of both students, psychology came to the rescue, because I spent much of the semester hearing them out, attempting to address their concerns open-mindedly, and providing them with scientific thinking skills for sorting out well supported from poorly supported claims. Both students emerged from my course as profoundly changed individuals: the first became an ardent skeptic of paranormal claims, and the second abandoned her creationism in favor of natural selection. I like to believe, although I do not know for certain, that my course played some role in their intellectual transformation. Of course, not all of my stories have been unqualified successes; but as an educator, one learns to savor such modest victories. I credit these triumphs in no small measure to psychology.
Scott O. Lilienfeld, is a Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. His primary interests include personality disorders, psychiatric classification and diagnosis, and the application of scientific thinking to psychology.