Sunday, July 14, 2013

How Not to Make Bad Decisions

Have you ever made an educated guess?  [heuristics]

Do you think women are bad drivers?  [confirmation bias]

Have you ever looked at a cloud and seen an animal or a person's face?  [pareidolia]

These are all examples of cognitive biases.  Having a bias means that you will be somewhat irrational when evaluating evidence.  In other words, you might end up making a bad decision, which can be relatively harmless (e.g. believing in a 9/11 conspiracy theory) or it could be very harmful indeed (e.g. marrying the wrong person, joining a cult, etc).

This is relevant for Messianic Judaism as well because there's a lot of crackpot sub-movements out there that base their beliefs on pseudo-scholarship.  And what is pseudo-scholarship?  Bad decision-making.  So how does one go about making a bad decision?  And how might one avoid making a bad decision?  Let's examine:


A bad decision is made by either (1) overlooking (2) evading or (3) distorting evidence.

Why do we overlook, evade, and distort evidence?  There's roughly three possible reasons:

(1) information-processing shortcuts (i.e. heuristics or "common sense");

(2) emotional biases;

(3) unscientific methodology.


If the problem is irrational thinking then the solution is critical thinking.  Critical thinking involves using reliable methodology (e.g. the scientific method, logical rules of inquiry, etc).  And the methodology will depend on the subject matter.  So, for example, Biblical scholarship requires a firm grounding in the rules of hermeneutics.  I'm sure there are reliable, logical rules for inquiry in just about every field.

It might also help to consider some of the different types of evidence and the strengths/weaknesses of each (paraphrased from "Writing Arguments" by Ramage, Bean, Johnson):

Anecdotal Evidence:  Strength:  it's evocative;  Weakness:  could lead to a hasty generalization.

Experimental Evidence:  Strength:  it's scientific;  Weakness:  flaws in methodology or using insufficient, inaccurate, or nontypical evidence.

Testimonial Evidence:  Strength:  depends on the source;  Weakness:  it's susceptible to attack (credentials, bias, countersource).

If anyone has anything else that might be helpful, please feel free to add.




  1. Peter, excuse me for using this space, has anyone heard from Gene lately? Gene, I had a dream with you in it last night, which is funny, because I have never actually met you in person and I have no idea what you look like, we were discussing the Torah together. Anyways, I hope you are doing well brother, blessings to you!

    1. Zion,

      Yes... he says he's done with blogging and commenting. But you can probably email him through his website... I'm sure he's still up for talking some Torah.