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All the kids are above average…

6 September 2013

Didactic cognitive bias education could be very useful for medical researchers (and would have saved me a lot of head-banging!)

Image: Colloquially referred to as the “Lake Wobegon Effect” the experimentally derived Dunning-Krueger Effect explains why humans frequently believe they are more proficient at things than they actually are.

This morning I read a brilliant essay on the neuroscience of perception to discuss how internal biases develop by Robert Burton in Nautilus Magazine, Issue 5

Asking a juror to be ‘objective,’ recognize and control innate biases and understand his or her lines of reasoning, flies in the face of the evolving science of decision-making. The harsh and scary reality is the scales of justice aren’t tipped in the open courtroom; the real action occurs out of sight.

A few years back I started to understand the power that ubiquitous cognitive biases have in perception and decision-making. Likewise, I began to actively seek consciousness of innate biases, much like one would take up a workout routine or a new hobby. It’s an ongoing process, but as time goes on I’ve gotten much better recognizing my own biases of logic and reasoning, but also those of friends, colleagues, collaborators, and those published in the scientific literature.

Recognition is one thing, but countering intuition takes practice and persistence. Why do I “know” it’s not going to rain today? How and why do we overlook the obvious? Does a fish know it’s in water? What if this model of cancer metastasis is an association fallacy of a celebrity scientist bolstered by the momentum of hundreds of non-questioning researchers over time?

With my graduation less than a year away I’m frequently asked things like “what are you going to do with your PhD?” or “what will it allow you to do?” I’ll be the doctor that can’t help anyone! But really, one of the most valuable skills I’ve gained is how to recognize how cognitive biases affect my work (and every day life). From how I design my experimental controls, why I chose certain thresholds, what statistics would be most appropriate, to what I eat for breakfast and why I insist on riding my bike instead of driving when there’s a 50% chance of rain (that weatherman’s just a talking head, right?) I’ve come to recognize how pervasively influential innate cognitive biases are in everything I do, and how invaluable understanding these processes are for young scientists.

Toward that end, I’d like to think out loud that perhaps didactic training (i.e. classes) in cognitive biases would be very beneficial for PhD students. After all, the PhD is not about learning what to think, but how to think.

Admittedly I’m not very well versed in the coursework of many PhD programs, but I’ve never heard of formal training to recognize cognitive biases as a means to produce better scientists. Perhaps this is commonplace in some circles? Or maybe my circle is the odd exclusion? Maybe this is something the better scientists learn on their own without realizing it? These mind-twisters burn like 50-pound single arm curls for my brain, but I’m always glad I did the workout!


(back to for more ramblings)

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