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Thinking scientifically in a 'post-truth' world

We should adopt as rigorous a process as we can to find the 'truth', but be open to the possibility that we could be wrong

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IT SEEMS that we have lost the ability to process information. Or perhaps most of us weren't taught how to do it in school to begin with.

Now that social media is so prevalent, anyone can post anything - facts and misinformation, our inadequacy in this department is showing up. We have people who acted on made-up stories, leading to violence and loss of lives. We have people who are willingly manipulated by others with selfish and malevolent intents to do their bidding for them. We have parents administering poison to their own kids, believing that it is a cure. And we have people who refuse to accept facts when shown, preferring instead to dismiss facts that contradict their views as "fake news". It seems such behaviour is more commonplace now, thanks to the example set by the leader of world's richest country.

The importance of factual information cannot be over-emphasised. Having access to good information, having the mental capacity to differentiate what's true and what's improbable, being able to see what the facts mean in the real world, tremendously enhances our ability to make good decisions.

As we all know, for major decisions, a right or wrong turn taken at an important fork road can send one's life or world history down completely different trajectories.

A world which disregards facts, logic and rationality is a dangerous place.

In a recent issue of Harvard Gazette, part-time associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences Mona Weissmark, with whom I took a summer programme Psychology of Diversity from in 2012, was interviewed on her advice to students. Her answer: Learn to think scientifically.

Scientific thinking and better society

Prof Weissmark said great scientists, including Nobel Prize winners Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Richard Feynman, have stressed that scientific thinking is the key to developing peoples' moral and intellectual strengths, and that this would lead to a better society.

Curie, Einstein, and Feynman were concerned about the rise in militarism, fascism, and authoritarianism. Because of such concerns, they stressed the humanising power of scientific thinking and its vital role in a democratic society, she said. "Today, once again we are witnessing worries about the rise of militarism, fascism, and authoritarianism," said Prof Weissmark.

Because of the current political environment, many scientists, like the famous physicist the late Stephen Hawking, have been galvanised by what has been dubbed the "post-truth" era to speak out on the importance of scientific thinking.

According to Prof Weissmark, to date, most efforts have centred on providing facts to counter misinformation. However, evidence suggests such efforts often fail. Providing people with more information, telling them they are wrong, uninformed, and that their religious or personal beliefs do not align with facts often winds up backfiring, she said.

But as responsible members of communities, because we know that by dismissing science, we put all of us in danger; and secondly, for our own benefit, so we make better decisions, we should learn to think scientifically and learn to evaluate information.

First and foremost, scientific thinking involves independently seeking out empirical evidence from all available sources. All opinions should be viewed as hypotheses to be tested empirically rather than as appeals to emotion. The strength of one's political conviction or personal opinion doesn't make one right. We should all strive to the standard set by American Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, who reportedly said: "When my information changes, I alter my conclusions."

Second, have scientific integrity or honesty. When researchers conduct a study, they are expected to report everything that might make it invalid and unreliable, not just what they think is right about it. "I would emphasise to students the importance of being open to being wrong," said Prof Weissmark. As British economist John Kay noted: "To admit doubt, to recognise that one may sometimes be wrong, is a mark not of stupidity but of intelligence."

Third, always examine our own assumptions and to be honest with ourselves. When we are presenting facts, what's our intention of presenting these set of facts and not those other set? Similarly, when reading or researching, ask if the report has presented all the facts? But even if it did, we are most likely to pick up facts that confirm our entrenched views. So it's back to being self-aware about our own biases and being honest with ourselves. Further, if we, or we see others presenting "alternative facts" or refusing to accept facts, think, is ego at stake? Is personal interest at stake?

Fourth, scientific thinking remains always tentative, subject to challenge and possible refutation. We should be mindful of the errors in research and the limitations of all human understanding.

Related to that is the fifth point, that all scientific thinking is subject to error. It is better for us to be aware of this, to study the causes and assess the importance of the errors rather than to be unaware of the errors concealed in the data and in the mind of the scientist.

To try to adopt scientific thinking in managing our fund, we base our decisions on empirical evidence we gathered on the behaviour of the markets and stocks. Decisions are not based on how we feel, how we think the stocks or market should behave without any backing of data. And we accommodate room for doubts and uncertainties by widely diversifying our positions.

The world is becoming a very confusing place. Numerous parties are fighting to get their narratives across. As humans, we all have conditioned minds which are prone to biases.

Structured thinking

But it will help if we have a structured way to think through the confusion. For me, it starts with having a clear idea of what makes a deed right or wrong. For example, you may decide that a deed done out of greed or hatred, for personal gains and to the detriment of the wider community, is wrong. Once you have decided on that, then seek out facts or evidence, and apply the same yardstick of right or wrong to everyone. Be consistent in your logic.

Still, none of us can claim to have the ultimate truth. As Harvard professor of psychology Brendan Maher had told his students, if you're convinced you have the final truth, there is a great danger that you will close your mind to the possibility that you are in error. The main lesson, he'd say, is that "we must learn to live in doubt, yet act based on scientific thinking". It is his course "Conceptions of Human Nature" which inspired Prof Weissmark's piece.

So in short, go through as rigorous a process as we can to find the "truth", but be open to the possibility that we could still be wrong. It is that openness that will allow us to learn, grow and improve.

  • Hooi Ling is the portfolio manager of a no-management fee Asia fund, Inclusif Value Fund (www.inclusif.com.sg)

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