I'm Just Asking...

In 1972 Peter Watson and Philip Johnson-Laird designed a test that used the cards above. They asked 128 college-educated people to imagine that these cards had a letter on one side and a number on the other. Then they asked their subjects which two cards do you have to flip over to show that the following sentence is false: if a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other? The most frequent answers were "A" and "4 "(46 percent), with "only A" the second most popular at 33 percent.

Only five percent of the subjects gave the correct answer of "A" and "9." Indeed, the most logical move is to turn over the "A" card and look for the odd number. If it's there, you've proven the statement is false. Most people, however, first turn over the 4-card to see if there is a vowel on the other side, but the statement doesn't say that an even-numbered card can't have a consonant. And turning over the S-card is a non-starter because the statement makes no claims about cards with consonants. On the other hand, turning over the 9-card and finding a vowel proves the statement false.

Okay, what does this test show? Basically, it shows people generally prefer confirming things rather than finding them wrong. Indeed, most people tend to look for confirming evidence even when the task explicitly calls for them to prove something is false. Our default mode just seems to be confirmation, which means we spend a lot of time casting about for evidence that we are right, but not much trying to discover if we are wrong. As the economist and world class curmudgeon John Kenneth Galbraith once put it, "Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."

And welcome to my first-year honors seminar on nature and human nature. The students wrote an initial paper at the start of the course that laid out their views on human nature. There was remarkable consensus (as there is almost every year):
  1. Thanks to our superior reason and technological inventiveness human beings are the most well-developed creature on the planet.
  2. The universe we inhabit is more or less set up to meet human needs and is centered upon us.
  3. There is a universal plan and humanity plays a vital part in its unfolding.
  4. We are clearly distinct from all other living creatures on this planet.
Over the next few weeks I will be posing some critical questions about all of these assumptions. I'll ask what happens when we stop casting around for confirmation of the views we prefer. After all, what evidence is there that the universe is designed with a purpose? Take a good look around? Does it seem like there's a plan here? How is it part of the plan, for example, that you're a well-fed college freshmen and some other kid is lying under the rubble in Haiti?

And are we really the most well-developed and rational creature on the planet as you wrote in your initial paper? If so, then why are we consuming resources (and increasingly fighting brutal wars over resources) when logic dictates we ought to change our over-consuming ways? What's rational about that? While we're at it, what physical evidence is there that shows we're any different from other animals? Indeed, how do we explain the fact that all of the evidence seems to point to the opposite conclusion?

I'm going to get a lot of blow back from students, a lot of furrowed brows and exasperated sighs. Some will get mad at me and somebody at some point is sure to invoke the authority of scripture. I'll get an angry glare in return when I kindly suggest that playing theological slap jack with the Bible doesn't really carry a lot of rhetorical weight with Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Animists, Buddhists, Free Thinkers, or even a lot of everyday Christians (not to mention the majority percentage of the world's population).

Yes-sireee, my students are going to be pretty upset with me over the next few weeks. They'll complain about my arguments, but if they were really listening closely they would notice that I haven't actually argued anything. I've just been asking variants of the same question over and over: What if we're wrong?


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