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Kelvin Clayton

he question asked at this month’s meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group was, “Is cognitive bias avoidable?” We like to believe that the brain (particularly our own) is rational and totally capable of processing and interpreting the information it receives, providing us with an accurate understanding of our world. And, up to a point, it is but, because it is not totally up to the job of grasping the full complexity of this world, it has evolved a number of ways to simplify the information it receives. In evolutionary terms this is not a problem, providing it is correct, or nearly correct, most of the time. Occasionally, however, it trips us up and, the more complex our lives become, the more prone we are to error and the greater the implications of that error. One of the many forms this bias takes is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Because we struggle to cope with complexity and uncertainty, we have evolved the tendency to over-estimate our own ability to understand, and so have become over-confident in our own ideas and beliefs. The paradox here is that experts, despite their recent ‘dismissal’ by certain politicians, tend to be the ones who know just how much they don’t know. This was neatly summed up by the philosopher Bertrand Russell when he commented, ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves, yet wiser people so full of doubts.’ Another bias that affects us all is confirmation bias. This describes our tendency to look for ways to justify or reinforce our existing beliefs. We all have a strong tendency to buy and read the newspaper that we believe is talking to ‘people like us’ - in other words, the newspaper that confirms rather than challenges our existing world view. We also seek out and socially mix with ‘like-minded’ people. We appear to be primed to seek out and agree with people who think like us and avoid and dismiss those who do not. The question is, are these (and many other) biases avoidable? Are they a problem? If they are, how much of a problem are they? And what can we do about it? Well, I don’t think that they can be avoided, not totally, and, as the world, particularly the social world, becomes more and more complex, we need to recognise the problems they can cause. One response would be to adopt elements of ‘the scientific method’. Since Sir Karl Popper, scientists have sought to actively falsify our current understanding of the world rather than confirm it, to seek evidence of error rather that evidence of correctness. Perhaps we should all consider following suit. Philosophy in Pubs is a grass-roots community organisation promoting and practising community philosophy in the UK. Discussions take place regularly in venues around the country. Anyone can attend and anyone can propose a topic for discussion. The Bridport group meets on the fourth Wednesday of the month in The George Hotel, South Street at 7.30pm. Attending the discussion is free and there is no need for any background knowledge of philosophy. All that’s required is an open mind and a desire to examine issues more closely than usual. For further details, email Kelvin Clayton at

90 | Bridport Times | June 2019

Profile for Sherborne & Bridport Times

Bridport Times June 2019