Falsification is the principle by which a person tests her or his ideas for possible flaws. In a nutshell, a person considers a plan and then reflects on the possibilities that might derail the effort. Good scientists engage in it. A hypothesis is forwarded, and the researcher considers ways in which a theory can be proved wrong. It strikes me as a rational and orderly approach to the principle “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” Pessimism or pragmatism? Either way, it’s at the core of skilled scientific inquiry.
Something caught my attention in this month’s issue of Chess Life: Andy Soltis’ regular column “Chess To Enjoy.” In it, he looks at the difficult and complex relationship between optimism, worry, and success at the chessboard. In probing the idea of worry, he cites a 2004 study by Michelle Cowley and Ruth Byrne. In this research a group of chessplayers of varying abilities were tested, from average tournament players to the master level, and even a grandmaster. They were given various chess positions and asked to think “out loud” as they analyzed the situation and tried to find the best move.
Top players would find a candidate move, then spend considerable time searching for ways in which the opponent could counter. Players below master level routinely engaged in confirmation bias. When they found a move they loved, they would look for affirmation, then play it. Great chessplayers are thought to be far-thinking in their calculating processes. And the Cowley-Byrne research confirmed this. But more striking to psychologists was the content of the extended calculations. Masters underestimate their candidate move, presume the best of an opponent, and look for flaws in their idea. Amateurs are overconfident, grow attached to their good ideas, and look not so much to the best of what an opponent can deliver to counter their efforts.
Some observations …
In more than a decade online, I have to say that the internet is full of amateurs. People who have good ideas, and who trot them out there with the highest hopes. Often, issues are quickly muddied up, even if they’re citing good authorities. It’s the confirmation bias of chessplayers below the level of master. They don’t test their ideas in the crucible of critical thinking. Things have probably worsened for people who just hang with like-minded allies. Their arguments don’t get poked, probed, and pushed back.
I could use more falsification in my ministry. We’re just starting to revise Communion ministry procedure at the altar in my parish, for a possible implementation after we return to the church and when the pastor comes back from his leave. Lots of things have been suggested, and in one particular suggestion to get the chalices in the hands of the lay Communion ministers more expediently, I take the role of the pessimist. What can go wrong with this procedure? What is the likeliest way for people to mess it up? If it strays too far from old practice, what will I do with the dozen to twenty people our of ninety who never read updates, won’t attend a review session, or who have been doing it for so long they can’t break old habits without great difficulty?
Have I inherited this pessimism from my chessplaying days? Or 25 years of parish ministry? Not as much as would like.
At any rate, it’s a good spur to examine some aspects of my life. What are my presumptions? About parenting, personal finances, hobbies, and even blogging? Is there anything I’m doing that I think is a good idea, but that maybe isn’t? This is one reason I value my wife and our relationship. Being rather different in many personality aspects, we negate the tendency for confirmation bias in one another. We have unity on the essentials: love, respect, faith. We challenge one another on important things: parenting, finances, lifestyle choices. It works better because we’re not the same, because we disagree, and I count my blessings for being a better person and that I don’t have an echo chamber going along with every good notion that pops into my head.
Our bishops, alas, do not enjoy this grace. The higher one goes in the church hierarchy, the more one senses that confirmation bias rules the day. Minds and hearts and spirits are like those chess amateurs. They find a good move. They believe in it. They look around them for confirmation. They don’t think of the negative consequences, and they don’t seem to test things morally, intellectually, theologically.