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How to Think About Weird Things 5: Looking for Truth in Personal Experience

05/18/2013

A survey of personal experience and its many shortcomings. Very useful section on the idea of perception as constructive. It feels like we’re directly experiencing the world as it is, but the raw data that our senses give us is heavily processed to spit out a model of the world, which errs in systematic ways.

Colors look the same in light and shadow for example, a shadowed red may be the exact objective shade as a purple, but depending on context it’ll seem one way or another. Small things “look” far away, but our minds have to interpret that depth, which is why drawings can so easily imitate depth perception. Expectation of experiences also influences how we interpret the data, which helps explain ghost experiences in dark abandoned places.

Memory is the next thing questioned, and just like our models of the world, our memories are constructed, not reproduced like a saved computer file. What we expect or believe can affect what we remember. A scene with a white and black man together, the white man holding a knife, is likely to be remembered as the black man holding the knife.

And lastly, the authors call into question people’s own judgments about reality, pointing to confirmation bias, the tenacity of previously held beliefs, the availability and representativeness heuristic, the anthropomorphic bias, and the general weakness of anecdotal evidence.

What occurred to me while reading this chapter is how the weight of certain evidence that people accept or reject is exactly opposite of how it ought to be. Scientific or statistical evidence is much less convincing on a gut level than anecdotal evidence, which humans find especially convincing. It’s pretty disturbing to think of how powerfully the odds are stacked against humanity to figure things out, and what makes it worse is that the reasoning that can fix it is often dismissed or criticized (like that Fox news guest linking reason and the holocaust). Maddening. The world is hard enough to figure out without people actively disrupting our search for reality.

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