Uncommon Common Sense – Leapfrogging Past the Evidence

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Leapfrogging Past the Evidence



When George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003, he used the argument that Iraq was a danger to the United States and its allies. He made the case that Sadaam Hussein had a stockpile of dangerous weapons which he could unleash on the world if we failed to act. He used a secondary argument, which he only made indirectly (because he knew it could not be proven) that Sadaam Hussein was complicit in the September 11 terrorist attacks. The United States Congress authorized use of force, and the invasion of Iraq, and its subsequent problems, was launched.  

Of course, after the invasion, it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction; Sadaam had no such capability, and the invasion was shown to have been based on a false conclusion. Bush had help in this thinking error. Judith Miller, of the New York Times, supposedly an expert in WMD’s, wrote a series of articles supporting Bush’s position. Many experts supported Bush’s assertions.  How could he have been so wrong?

Actually, jumping to conclusions based on insufficient evidence is very easy to do; we do it all the time.  Here’s how it happens: When we are trying to decide what to believe, ideally, we examine the evidence.  Then, based on the evidence available, we draw a conclusion. The only problem is: How do we really know if we have enough evidence?  The short answer is, we don’t. We can’t ever be certain about this. Good thinkers understand this.  

For example, when you visit your doctor with particular symptoms, she will examine you and possibly order tests.  Once she has examined the test results, she will make a diagnosis. Of course, if she’s a good physician, she will make the diagnosis provisional.  She may prescribe a medication, but add “If you don’t start feeling better in five days, give me a call.” She knows that she cannot always have all the evidence she needs to make an accurate diagnosis. She is speculating based on the evidence she has. If it proves incorrect, she knows she will need to gather more evidence.  

Think about our own lives for a moment. We are always trying to make sense of the world. Every day we draw conclusions based on the evidence we see. The problem is, we often only have a little bit of evidence. We can run into this problem if we try to diagnose ourselves by searching medical sites on the internet. This can be dangerous because we usually only have a little bit of information, unlike our physician. We may alarm ourselves with drastic conclusions!

We may also jump to premature conclusions when we are dealing with people. For example, if someone is late getting home, we may fear there has been a terrible accident.  If something we need is not where we thought we left it, we can blame another person for taking it. We may jump to a conclusion about hiring an auto mechanic based solely on what a friend tells us. That may be insufficient evidence upon which to base a decision. And how often have we formed an opinion of a person based on first impressions only to find out later that your initial empirical evidence was incomplete? 

So, as good thinkers, how do we handle this problem? The most important thing to keep in mind is that when we make decisions, we will necessarily have to make them based on insufficient evidence. However, we should be aware of the fact that this evidence may lead us to an incorrect conclusion. Just like the physician, we should make our conclusions provisional when we can.  

Instead of thinking, “This must be true,” try, “Based on what I know now, I think this is likely to be true, but I may change my conclusion later based on new evidence. If we have intellectual humility, we realize that our decisions cannot always be correct, because, by definition, they are often based on only partial evidence. So, we have to be willing to reconsider our conclusions.

In my view, the reluctance of the Bush Administration to admit that they might not know all there was to know about WMD’s in Iraq led to the hubris for which it will be remembered. History is full of such examples, of course.  

(Next month I will continue to look at common thinking errors with a look at stereotyping.)

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Ojo Del Lago
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