The greatest barrier to scientific thinking:


If one were to ask me, what I am afraid of as an Engineer, I will unequivocally declare “Confirmation Bias”.

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

– Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620

Confirmation bias is part of everybody’s thinking process. When confronted with a problem, one has to determine how to solve it. The first step is to analyze the problem, and this requires looking inward and finding the mental model that might explain the problem at hand. If one such pattern is available, then he tries to fit the problem into the model, as if it is a suit tailored to fit the body of the problem. This is a form of deductive thinking.

In the absence of a pattern, he tries to gather further information to form a mental model. The newly created model may fit the problem much better. This is a form of inductive thinking.

Sometimes, in the absence of a pattern, one might try to find multiple mental models and see which model fits the problem the best. This is a form of abductive thinking.

No matter what form of thinking is used, the problem occurs when one tries to find evidence to prove the model, and ignores any evidence that might otherwise prove it wrong. This is the curse of confirmation bias. It can create blind spot that sometimes is large enough to hide an elephant!

“When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!”

John Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1852

This creates quite a challenge for any form of activity involving brain functioning like problem solving or decision making. I have attempted to create a list of steps that one can use to minimize the impact of confirmation bias. I will be the first person to tell you that this is a daily struggle for me.

  • Be aware that confirmation bias exists:

The first step is to be aware that confirmation bias is part of what we are. Just being aware of this can help us in asking the right questions.

  • Walk the process:

Walking the process allows us to understand the big picture, and helps us in seeing the problem from other people’s perspective. If a problem is identified on the floor during assembly, it helps to walk the process with the component starting at the receiving dock all the way to the assembly on the floor. This helps to slow us down, and we may see things counter to our initial hypothesis that we may have missed otherwise.

  • Can you turn the problem on and off?:

When a problem occurs, either in the field or on the production floor, I always try to see if I can turn the problem on and off. This helps to clarify my mental model and validate my thinking. The cause alone does not result in the effect. The cause, in the presence of enabling conditions creates the effect. Understanding the enabling conditions help us to turn the problem on and off.

  • Challenge yourself to disprove your model:

Challenging yourself to disprove your own model is probably the most challenging yet most effective way to combat confirmation bias. It is after all, easier to disprove a theory than prove it. This helps to purify one’s thinking.

In a recent conversation with my brother-in-law, he talked about the “tenth man” scene from the movie “World War Z”. In the movie, the whole world is under attack from a zombie virus. Israel had built a wall around the nation that prevented the outbreak up to a certain point in the movie. This was achieved through a policy referred to as “tenth man”. It basically states that if 9 out of 10 people in a council agree on something, the tenth person has to take the opposite side, no matter how improbable it might seem.

  • Understanding the void:

My first blog post here was about understanding the void. This is similar to the negative space idea in designing. The information that is not there or not obvious can sometimes be valuable. Looking for the negative space again helps us in looking at the big picture.

In the short story “Silver Blaze”, Sherlock Holmes talks about the “curious incident about the dog.” Holmes was able to solve the mystery that the crime was committed by somebody that the dog knew.

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

I will finish this post off with a Zen story.

There was a great Zen teacher. Some of his disciples came to him one day to complain about the villagers.

They told him that the villagers were spreading rumors that the teacher was immoral, and that his followers were not good people. They asked him what they should do.

“First, my friends,” he responded, “you should definitely consider whether what they say is true or not.”

Always keep on learning…

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