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Wishful thinking – favouring fantasy over fact

May 1, 2012
If you find yourself hoping a model is true instead of judging the evidence, show yourself a red flag.

How to recognise this tactic

We all fall victim to this tactic because we use it on ourselves. We like to believe things that conform with our wishes or desires, even to the extent of ignoring evidence to the contrary.


Science is the one domain in which we human beings make a truly heroic effort to counter our innate biases and wishful thinking. Science is the one endeavor in which we have developed a refined methodology for separating what a person hopes is true from what he has good reason to believe.

Sam Harris, American neuroscientist and author, 2007

Whenever a group of people “desperately wants to believe” something, there will always be someone willing to tell them what they want to hear, whether the opportunists are charlatans or simply nutjobs.

Barry Bickmore,  American geochemist,  2012

wishing for a better tommorrow...

Why do people use this tactic?

We use this tactic on ourselves. It’s hard to avoid because it’s part of human nature. We prefer things to turn out the way we would like them to turn out. Unfortunately, some people exploit this human trait and use it for their own benefit.

What’s wrong with this tactic

When we engage in wishful thinking, we avoid proper evidence from the real world. This means we are likely to come to conclusions that are unscientific and false.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Be aware that everyone is vulnerable to wishful thinking. Acknowledge that you are no different, look for the signs, and guard against the temptation to dismiss evidence that doesn’t support your wishes. Beware of those who try to exploit your tendency for wishful thinking and discipline yourself to accept only conclusion that are supported by real-world evidence.

Variations and related tactics

Wishful thinkers can recruit just about any dubious tactic or logical fallacy to help them avoid the evidence. The predominant one is confirmation bias, in which we favour information that confirms our existing beliefs. Another is expectation bias, in which investigators look for only those results that favour their own model. Sometimes wishful thinking masquerades as ‘positive thinking’, in which we refuse to accept the possibility of results we don’t like.

Examples

  • Even the greats of science are susceptible to wishful thinking. Albert Einstein refused to accept the possibility of black holes, even though his general theory of relativity shows how they form, and in 1939 published a faulty paper supporting his position. As physicist Freeman Dyson points out:

    Einstein had acquired a deep emotional aversion to the idea of black holes and used this illogical argument to buttress his intuition that they ought not to exist.

    Einstein never changed his mind, even though other scientists used his theory to show he was wrong. The existence of black holes is now well established. Scientific models are accepted or rejected on the evidence. not on the authority of individual scientists.

  • Many bogus health treatments, such as reiki, are based on the idea of a mystical bodily ‘energy field’ that is tapped into and manipulated by the practitioner. The treatment is claimed to cure diseases, heal injuries and reduce pain. among other benefits. There is no scientific evidence for such fields. They are mere products of wishful thinking. A 2008 systematic review of reiki found that “… the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore the value of reiki remains unproven.”
  • Climate deniers are notorious wishful thinkers. Here’s a sample of their most fervent wishes (each with a link to Skeptical Science showing evidence the wish is futile): “It’s not bad”“It’s cooling”“Animals and plants can adapt”“Climate sensitivity is low”“Glaciers are growing”“Sea level rise is exaggerated”“Increasing CO2 has little to no effect”“CO2 is not a pollutant”, “Global warming has stopped”.

Further reading

Science deniers reject authority and facts by Patrick Stokes at The Sydney Morning Herald.

Add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.


Photo: wishing for a better tomorrow is by red daisies on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Sam Harris’ quote is from Is Religion ‘Built Upon Lies’?, an online debate on Beliefnet.
Barry Bickmore’s quote is from Ann Coulter: GOP Has Problem with “Con Men and Charlatans”, a post on the blog Anti-Climate Change Extremism in Utah
Freeman Dyson’s quote is from Robinson, Andrew 2005, Einstein: a hundred years of relativity, ABC Books, Sydney

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
4 Comments
  1. Martin Lack permalink

    Key steps forward in our understanding of this phenomenon were Dr Leon Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance nearly 60 years ago, and Dr Tari Sharot’s research into Optimism Bias less than 6 months ago. The latter is truly fascinating because it provides observable and repeatable evidence to demonstrate that people take note of good news (i.e. when they are being unduly pessimistic) but ignore bad news (i.e. when they are being unduly optimistic) – which Sharot explain in evolutionary terms as being likely to avoid inducing despair (i.e. as a facet of our survival instinct). Unfortunately, in this instance, it would appear to be counter-productive… See also:
    http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/what-on-earth-is-happening/
    http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/the-obamanation-that-causes-desolation/
    http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/global-weirding-and-optimism-bias/

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