A few posts back, explored the role Confirmation Bias, or You Find What You’re Looking For, plays in panics, such as the ones (1) we’re experiencing now.
Many thanks to reader Martin Shotzberger, who kindly sent me a link to a transcription of a talk by Irving Langmuir, titled Pathological Science, delivered at the Colloquium at the Knolls Research Laboratory, December 18, 1953, as transcribed and edited by R. N. Hall
Irving Langmuir, according to Wikipedia, was an American chemist, physicist, and engineer, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, and wide ranging inventor and just all around brilliant dude. The audience, I presume, are other elite physicists and other scientists, so it took a little time and effort for me to understand a few of the examples, but they’re not too hard to get. Chiefly, Langmuir is noting the insidious and persistent nature of confirmation bias. He give examples where honest, dedicated, even brilliant scientists worked themselves into a state of utter conviction that they’d seen or discovered something, such that any new observations were reflexively explained away – nothing could be seen except for phenomena that confirmed their theories or discoveries. He labels this Pathological Science.
Langmuir goes to some length to say (usually) that he has no reason to doubt the honesty of the researcher, and that the main problem is overreliance on edge cases, observations right at the edge of perception, where it’s oh so easy to see what you want to see. Honest, bright-to-brilliant men letting their legitimate desire to know overwhelm their prudence.
Most telling, perhaps, is Langmuir’s observations that sometimes up to 50% of the specialists who examined the experiments were convinced, and that it sometimes took decades for the skeptics to win out. There was no one moment where everybody went: no, that doesn’t work. Instead, in a manner eerily parallel to the cult described in When Prophecy Fails (4th bullet at the link), people double down at first, then slowly drift away as evidence, or lack thereof, mounts. The theory or claims just sort of die out.
Highly recommended read.
Keep in mind that scientists are supposedly trained to anticipate and take measures against confirmation bias – and, in these examples, despite intelligence and education, fell to it anyway. If education and intelligence are no barrier, if men such as these can fall to it, what hope do we peons have? This brings us back to the Salem witch hunts, and, indeed, the COVID panic and, terrifyingly, the effectiveness of the “insurrection” propaganda campaign. Take confirmation bias, add fear, then stir briskly with a campaign to silence critics and demonize all opposition, and we are so, so screwed.
Prediction: there will never be a general public acknowledgement in our lifetimes that the lockdowns and masks were based on out-of-control confirmation bias fanned by fear-mongering and fraud. Nope, the Doom, if it ever is allowed to go away, will simply fizzle out over many years, and, with any luck, our progeny in a generation or two will stare back at it in wonder and horror at what we did to ourselves.
God help us.
- Plural. Not only is every death assumed to be corona-doom until proven otherwise, every act or word by anyone not on board the Blue Train to Paradise is assumed to be a call for bloody insurrection, any dissent from Critical Theory catechism is hate speech, any pushback at all on any point, any failure to accept without question whatever is being promulgated at the moment is eeeevil incarnate. Even noticing the story has changed is condemned. We have always been at war with Eastasia.