Monday, March 10, 2008

Intuition about reality

Homebirth advocates justify their lack of knowledge by claiming that intuition is "another way of knowing". What they don't realize is that intuition has been studied extensively and found to be so unreliable as to be almost worthless. Indeed, reliance on intuition may be worse than ignorance. As historian Daniel Boorstein has pointed out:
The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance --- it is the illusion of knowledge.

Intuition: Its Powers and Perils a book by David G. Myers explores this paradox in detail. In the chapter entitled Intuition about Reality, Myers examines the many reasons why intuition is often wrong. These include errors routinely made by homebirth advocates, such as:
"Illusory correlations" - perceiving relationships where none exist - help explain many a superstition, such as more babies are born when the moon is full and infertile couples who adopt become more likely to conceive. Salient coincidences, such as those who conceive after adopting, capture our attention. We ... are less likely to notice what is equally relevant to assessing correlation - those who adopt and never conceive ...

Such illusory intuitions help explain why for so many years people believed (as many still do) that sugar made children hyperactive, that cell phones cause brain cancer, that getting cold and wet caused colds, and that weather changes trigger arthritic pain...

Likewise, stories of positive-thinking people experiencing cancer remission impress those who believe that positive attitudes counter cancer... But to assess whether positive attitudes help defeat cancer we need four bits of information. We need to know how many positive and not-positive thinkers were and were not cured. Without all the data, positive examples tell us nothing about the actual attidues-cancer correlation.
Another reason for the failure of intuition to make accurate empirical predictions is belief perseverance:
"We hear and apprehend only what we already half know," commented Henry David Thoreau. Experiments suggest how right Thoreau was. In one experiement, students in favor of and opposed to capital punishment were shows findings of two research studies, one confirming and the other disconfirming their preexisting beliefs about capital punishment's supposed deterrent effect. Both grops readily accepted the evidence that confirmed their view but sharply criticized the evidence that challenged it. The results: whosing the two sides an identical body of mixed evidence increased their disagreement...
Boorstein's quotation about the illusion of knowledge is particularly apt for homebirth advocates. Rarely has a group of people been so sure that they are "educated" on a topic, when, in reality, most of what they think they "know" is factually false. This false information, when married to the routine errors of intuition can lead to disaster. Homebirth advocates seem unaware that intuition has been shown to generate illusory correlations and that the tendency to accept only evidence that confirms what they already "know". In other words, intuition almost always confirms biases and does not produce new insights.

Intuition is not "another way of knowing". It is just another source of erroneous beliefs.

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