The Science of Misunderstanding

Just over a week ago, I gave a public lecture for Cork Skeptics at the magnificent Blackrock Castle Observatory. Subject to technological issues (i.e., assuming it worked), a video of the talk will be available online soon. In the meantime you can view the full slideshow above.

The evening was very well attended and I think the talk was a success. Also speaking was Síle Lane of Sense About Science, who presented a terrific briefing about their Ask For Evidence campaign.

That's me in the corner
(Photo: Alan B.)

Just to remind you, my lecture looked at the ways in which the human tendency toward faulty reasoning can be seen as a protective adaptation (for example, it helps us stave off depression). I also asked whether rectifying poor reasoning may thus carry certain costs for human welfare. Or, if you prefer, the stuff in this abstract:

For centuries it was believed that human reasoning was distinguished by logicality, clarity, and general accuracy. More recently, empirical research in behavioural sciences such as economics and psychology has shown how human reasoning is in fact characterised by systematic biases and errors. A commonly discussed literature in this regard relates to the role of cognitive heuristics, where it is argued that reasoning errors are often side-effects of otherwise useful mental shortcuts that have been erroneously deployed. However, while such concepts help explain why people are susceptible to reasoning errors, they do not quite explain how audiences often find erroneous information to be more attractive than accurate information. Rather than being incidental side-effects of the evolution of cognition (i.e., spandrels), erroneous reasoning strategies may in fact serve protective effects that make them independently adaptive in evolutionary terms. This talk will look at biological, evolutionary, and socio-cultural research on how our tendency to misunderstand can promote both individual and inclusive fitness. We will also look at research which suggests some unexpectedly negative effects of enhanced logical reasoning, on both mental and physical health.

During the lecture I showed this advertisement for antidepressant medication, as part of an explanation of how aggressively these drugs are marketed in some countries. It was one of a series of very pushy ads I showed, and did seem to be a particularly over-the-top example. Joyously, it turns out that the ad was not actually genuine, but rather a satirical version produced by the funny guys at The Onion. A spotter’s badge, therefore, to the member of the Cork Skeptics audience whose post-lecture investigations revealed the ad’s true provenance (as relayed to me via @HybridVigour). [I’ve added an Onion logo to the appropriate slide, and posted a comment to the article that I had sourced it from.]

Everyday’s a school day!

Some photographs of the evening’s activities have been posted to the Cork Skeptics f***b**k page (rather kindly, the usual tariffs and security checks have been disabled so that those of us who are free from f***b**k can still view them). Remember also to check out the Cork Skeptics website for news about forthcoming events and activities. The next one involves wine.

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  1. The lecture sounds fascinating! Do you have a podcast of it? I’d love to listen! ~Samara

  2. Brian Hughes

    Thank you. Actually, the organizers of Cork Skeptics video-recorded the lecture on the evening. Assuming all went smoothly, the video will be posted online at some stage in the coming months. You can assume that I will announce that here as soon as it happens!

  3. Excellent.

    Chris Mooney also reports on research in that area, the science of compelling rhetoric.

    Hopefully the detractors of science turn out to be using persuasive techiques that are possible for science communicators to adopt ethically.

  4. Pingback: Wine myths « Blake Creedon's Wine Cork

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