Cocksure but dead wrong

Medical and Social Science & Practice

The SBU newsletter presents and disseminates the results of the SBU reports, describes ongoing projects at the agency, informs about assessment projects at sister organisations, and promotes interest in scientific assessments and critical reviews of methods in health care and social services.

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The earliest advocates for more systematic application of evidence in practice held that the results must be used wisely, judiciously. What does that mean? Taking knowledge and experience into account? Great, but that probably is not enough. History shows that people can be both learned and experienced yet out of their mind. Possessing intelligence? Excellent, but still insufficient. Even the sharpest brains can be applied to witless pursuits.
Judicious use of reliable research findings requires something that Canada-based social psychologists Igor Grossmann and Justin Brienza refer to as wise reasoning in everyday life. This is not to be confused with knowledge and intelligence. Rather, it seems to concern an insightful approach to knowledge and experience. According to the authors, four features are involved.

  • First of all: intellectual humility. This entails recognising the limitations of one’s own intellect, openness to reconsidering one’s own views and to examining the particulars of a situation before formulating an opinion.
  • Second: recognition of uncertainty and change; realising that context changes over time and being prepared for the possibility that developments may take unexpected turns; searching for new solutions as problems evolve and consider the use of alternative actions.
  • Third: perspective-taking of diverse viewpoints – trying to understand the perspectives of others and taking the time to explore divergent opinions before reaching a conclusion.
  • And fourth: wisdom entails the integration of different viewpoints, so as to balance them one against the other and thereby identify possible compromises between contradictory interests.

But can we actively develop common sense, can we improve our ability to make sound judgements? Yes, to some extent, say Grossmann and Brienza, building on results from observational and interventional studies. But they also note that preparedness among individuals to reason wisely is also dependent on culture, environmental pressure and leadership.
This all sounds quite reasonable – and if the authors are right, it says something about how we should approach new knowledge. The discursive climate to which we aspire should be open, objective and characterised by the insight that knowledge is neither set in stone nor free from interpretation. We must be ready to embrace new reliable research findings, even when they are in conflict with what we once believed. But that is easier said than done!
Indeed, we find that results that confirm our beliefs are more convincing than those that contradict them. Researchers refer to this concept as confirmation bias. The internet is teeming with this type of error (for example ‘I don’t that it’s fake – it’s still horrible’). We like, tweet and share whatever fits our prejudices. With cocksure certainty, we compulsively cultivate our preconceived beliefs instead of exploring how things truly relate to each other.
However, anyone who takes the extra time to stop and reflect once again, realises that it is actually wise to remain sceptical of the unproven. And that applies to all of us.

Ragnar Levi, Editor-in-chief

* see e.g. Grossmann I, et al. The strengths of wisdom provide unique contributions … Journal of Intelligence 2018;2:22. DOI: 10.3390/jintelligence6020022

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