Michael Faraday and self-deception

This week, the excellent website Brainpickings has published an article about the eminent British scientist Michael Faraday. On May 6, 1854, Faraday delivered a lecture at the Royal Institution on the subject of “mental discipline,” later included in his volume Experimental Researches In Chemistry And Physics. Here's what he said:

Among those points of self-education which take up the form of mental discipline, there is one of great importance, and, moreover, difficult to deal with, because it involves an internal conflict, and equally touches our vanity and our ease. It consists in the tendency to deceive ourselves regarding all we wish for, and the necessity of resistance to these desires. It is impossible for any one who has not been constrained, by the course of his occupation and thoughts, to a habit of continual self-correction, to be aware of the amount of error in relation to judgment arising from this tendency. The force of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great. In this respect we are all, more or less, active promoters of error. In place of practising wholesome self-abnegation, we ever make the wish the father to the thought: we receive as friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.

It's an excellent point. Faraday was wise enough to realise that his profession - science - was no less susceptible to this problem than any other. In some ways, the problem of self-delusion is even bigger for a scientist than a non-scientist because a scientist can hide his or her emotional bias behind his or her reputation as a clear and objective thinker. By comparison, a person in the Arts has to prove that he or she is thinking rationally, as he or she will be seen 'officially' by others as fundamentally an emotional thinker.

Faraday knew that the problem of us twisting the evidence before our eyes to fit how we like to see the world is a continual problem. If the scientific method, or even a Sherlock Holmes' style observational and deductive method, is applied thoroughly and objectively, such twisting can be stopped. Unfortunately, those methods are not thoroughly applied all the time, even by scientists. For example, Albert Einstein resisted the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics his entire life, even though he repeatedly failed to find a flaw in its logic. He didn't like the idea that the universe was only real during the act of measurement or observation, so he rejected the idea.

Einstein was a relatively solitary figure when he fought the Copenhagen Interpretation, but what if the majority are resisting a new fact because they don't like its consequences? A New Scientist magazine opinion article quote from 2004 neatly summed up this issue when it said that 'all the best ideas begin as heresy.' In other words, any new, important, correct idea must suffer a lengthy battering by resistant, established scientists, fixed in their calcified but erroneous views, before it is finally accepted to be true. Interestingly, the word 'heresy' crops up all the time in scientific articles (stick it in any popular science magazine website search field to test this), indicating that this dogmatic, emotional battle is going on all the time.

Perhaps this is all part of the game? If we were all robots, we wouldn't have such a problem of self-delusion, but we're not, thankfully. Challenging ourselves, and each other, to establish what is true is a great way to test and improve us as thinking people. Long may that continue.

p.s. If you want to read more of what Faraday said, click on the Brainpickings link. I also heartily recommend another new article on Maria Popova's site about Bertrand Russell's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.