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The Enchanted Glass

published May 2004
Francis Bacon and experimental psychologists show why the facts in science never just speak for themselves
magazine cover

In the first trimester of the gestation of science, one of science’s midwives, Francis Bacon, penned an immodest work entitled Novum Organum (“new tool,” after Aristotle’s Organon) that would open the gates to the “Great Instauration” he hoped to inaugurate through the scientific method. Rejecting both the unempirical tradition of scholasticism and the Renaissance quest to recover and preserve ancient wisdom, Bacon sought a blend of sensory data and reasoned theory.

Cognitive barriers that color clear judgment presented a major impediment to Bacon’s goal. He identified four: idols of the cave (individual peculiarities), idols of the marketplace (limits of language), idols of the theater (preexisting beliefs) and idols of the tribe (inherited foibles of human thought).

Experimental psychologists have recently corroborated Bacon’s idols, particularly those of the tribe, in the form of numerous cognitive biases. The self-serving bias, for example, dictates that we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light than others see us: national surveys show that most businesspeople believe that they are more moral than other businesspeople, and psychologists who study moral intuition think they are more moral than other such psychologists. In one College Entrance Examination Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, less than 1 percent rated themselves below average in “ability to get along with others,” and 60 percent put themselves in the top 10 percent. And according to a 1997 U.S. News and World Report study on who Americans believe are most likely to go to heaven, 52 percent said Bill Clinton, 60 percent thought Princess Diana, 65 percent chose Michael Jordan and 79 percent selected Mother Teresa. Fully 87 percent decided that the person most likely to see paradise was the survey taker!

Princeton University psychology professor Emily Pronin and her colleagues tested an idol called bias blind spot, in which subjects recognized the existence and influence of eight different cognitive biases in other people but failed to see those same biases in themselves. In one study on Stanford University students, when asked to compare themselves with their peers on such personal qualities as friendliness and selfishness, they predictably rated themselves higher. Even when the subjects were warned about the “better than average” bias and asked to reconsider their original assessments, 63 percent claimed that their initial evaluations were objective, and 13 percent even claimed to be too modest.

In a second study, Pronin randomly assigned subjects high or low scores on a “social intelligence” test. Unsurprisingly, those who were given high marks rated the test as being fairer and more useful than those receiving low marks. When the subjects were then asked if it was possible that they had been influenced by the score on the test, they responded that other participants had been far more biased than they were. In a third study, in which Pronin queried subjects about what method they used to assess their own biases and those of others, she found that people tend to use general theories of behavior when evaluating others but use introspection when appraising themselves. In what is called the introspection illusion, people do not believe that others can be trusted to do the same: okay for me but not for thee.

Psychologist Frank J. Sulloway of the University of California at Berkeley and I made a similar discovery of an attribution bias in a study we conducted on why people say they believe in God and why they think other people do so. In general, most individuals attribute their own faith to such intellectual
reasons as the good design and complexity of the world, whereas they attribute others’ belief in God to such emotional reasons as that it is comforting, that it gives meaning and that it is how they were raised.

None of these findings would surprise Francis Bacon, who, four centuries ago, noted: “For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.”

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One Comment to “The Enchanted Glass”

  1. Dr Jean-Louis Barsoux Says:

    Dear Dr Shermer

    I would like to cite the finding you mention in your article, re:

    “In one College Entrance Examination Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, less than 1 percent rated themselves below average in “ability to get along with others,” and 60 percent put themselves in the top 10 percent.”

    Do you still have access to the original reference please?


    Jean-Louis Barsoux