Beware Wishful Thinking: A Science Lesson

This may seem like a contradiction. Astrobiologists are actively searching for alien life.  It’s their job.  And yet whenever new evidence of alien life is presented, astrobiologists are the first and most vocal skeptics about it.  If your job is to search for alien life, why would you be so quick to doubt any evidence that alien life actually exists?

This goes back to the famous “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” line from Carl Sagan, or the whole proof beyond a reasonable doubt thing I kept saying during my recent A to Z series on the search for alien life.  Astrobiologists very much do want to find alien life.  They’re eager to find it.  Perhaps a little too eager.

And thus, astrobiologists have to be careful.  They have to be extra skeptical, because they have to be on guard against their own wishful thinking.

And really, this is not only true in the field of astrobiology; it’s true of science in general.  And frankly, it’s a valuable lesson for us all, even if you’re not a scientist.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really wanted to believe something.  I’ve really wanted to believe that some girl likes me, or that I’ve put my money in sound investments, or that I’ve voted for the right people.  And when you really want to believe something, you’ll latch onto whatever flimsy evidence you can find to prove to yourself that it’s true.

Astrobiologists know this.  Scientists know this (or at least they’re supposed to).  And I think it’s good advice for us all to live by.  The more you want to believe something, the more you should question and doubt it.  Always, always, always be on guard against your own wishful thinking.

9 thoughts on “Beware Wishful Thinking: A Science Lesson

  1. This is, without a doubt, one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow. Honestly, I don’t think it’s humanly possible to do it consistently. (Although in my experience the effort is till worth it.) All of us have at least some notions we’re inclined to accept without much skepticism.

    I think that’s one of the reasons it helps to put your reasoning and evidence out there, to see what holes others can poke in them. Of course, when you do that, you’ll hear from a lot people who desperately want your conclusions to be false, and that’s usually easy to see in the people you disagree with. But if there are holes in your thesis, they’ll be far more motivated to find them.

    Liked by 3 people

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