“Lies, damned lies, and statistics!” Have you heard this phrase before? It demonstrates how people can use statistics to strengthen arguments, specifically weak arguments.

This simple comic demonstrates a logical fallacy we often fall for. We have all deferred to an expert or a position of authority before, yet how do we know they were accurate? This is called Authority Bias. Let’s take a look at how this works:[1]

  1. Person X is an authority in a particular field.
  2. Person X says something about a topic in their respective field.
  3. Person X is probably correct because they’re an expert.

Another form of bias we typically fall victim to is Confirmation Bias. This occurs from the direct influence of desire on our beliefs. If we wish a certain idea or concept to be true, we end up believing it to be true. This leads to completely ignoring or rejecting information because we have already formed and embraced a specific belief. [2]

We can never be 100% confident.

A skeptical mind is a good thing. We can be 100% confident that we can never be 100% confident!

Let me show you what I mean through the use of hypothesis testing. What comes to mind when you hear a “not guilty” decision? Do you think there is any chance the person could have actually been guilty? A “not guilty” verdict could mean different things. For example, it could mean the jury was absolutely sure the person didn’t commit the crime (still we can never be 100%) or they were pretty sure the person didn’t commit the crime and had a reasonable doubt.

If a jury were to convict an innocent person, this would be a Type I Error. Alternatively, by not convicting a guilty person, this would be Type II Error. Hypothesis testing reminds me of a quote from Benjamin Franklin,

“It is better to let 100 guilty men go free than to convict one innocent man.”

So, what can we do to overcome bias? Let’s look at a couple techniques… but first, let me ask you a simple question.

Knowing that we can never be 100% confident, could Einstein have been wrong? The answer is a profound yes. In fact, scientists behind a theory that the speed of light is variable, and not constant as Einstein suggested, have made a prediction they plan to test. [3] So, if one of the smartest people in history could have been wrong, this should demonstrate that anyone can be wrong.

Always try to prove yourself wrong.

What would happen if we always tried to prove ourselves wrong? Typically, we accept the hypothesis. If we try to look for evidence, the natural course for us is to seek out evidence confirming the hypothesis. Yet, by doing this, we ignore the fact that the evidence could provide us a different explanation. [4]

“We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.” – Richard Feynman

Use the rule of 3.

Another powerful technique is the Rule of 3. Here you identify three potential causes for each issue. A study published in the Journal of Accounting Research revealed that auditors who develop three hypotheses are actually more efficient at identifying misstatements through the use of analytical procedures. [5]

Let’s take a look at how Andy Snyder recommends using the Rule of 3 tactic. [6]

  • Train yourself to understand that what you first believe is not necessarily right or wrong. It is likely somewhere in the middle.
  • Create 3 distinct hypotheses as you work to discover the truth. By tracking 3 distinct ideas, it forces us to go beyond right or wrong. It forces us to explore the gray areas.
  • Strive to update your beliefs and reward yourself when you do. Snyder says this is the hallmark of a finely tuned mind.

I also have another unique way to attack this issue. Let’s take a look.

Blinded by Numbers + Bias = Hypothesis

Your hypothesis becomes the outcome.

Here’s my Hypothesis for bias (using deductive reasoning)

  • Premise #1: People are easily convinced by statistics.
  • Premise #2: Statistics are difficult to understand, so people fail to question them.
  • Premise #3: People fail to question the experts.

Conclusion: Therefore, people blindly defer to the experts.

So, what can you do? Follow my winning formula Solution – Hypothesis = New Outcome.

My Solution for overcoming bias:

  • Step #1: Become aware of your bias.
  • Step #2: Remember your purpose or objective. Numbers are only indicators, so let them only serve as such and not your conclusion.
  • Step #3: Use a technique to develop your hypothesis (i.e. Prove Yourself Wrong or the Rule of 3)
  • Step #4: Use Argument Maps.

Lastly, let’s end by looking at a famous parable – The Blind Men and an Elephant. This is the story of a group of blind men and their first encounter with an elephant. They learn how to conceptualize the elephant by touching it. They each feel different parts of the elephant’s body (each man only feels one part). They then describe the elephant to each other based on their partial experience. They argue as each description is in complete disagreement with one another. [7]

The moral of the story is the following: We all have a tendency to project our own experiences; however, we project them as the entire truth. We should strive to consider that we might be partially correct, yet we only have a small chunk of the whole. We must become aware of the bigger picture, not just our chunk of information.

Featured photo credit: Stocksnap via stocksnap.io

Reference

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