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May 28, 2019

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Al Brophy

Oh no.

Scott Fruehwald

This case shows why understanding one's cognitive biases is important for critical thinking and an essential part of being a scholar. Wolf had a thesis. Once she found evidence supporting that thesis she stopped; her theory had been confirmed. She had no need to look for contradictory evidence. This is called the Confirmation bias: "The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."

A scholar who was aware of cognitive biases would have said I have to make sure my cognitive biases are not misleading me. Such a scholar would look harder for contradictory evidence than confirming evidence.

The publisher's statement is just as bad. “We believe the overall thesis of the book ‘Outrages’ still holds.” This statement exhibits a cognitive bias of the worst kind. You say that a central premise of the work had been undermined (as have several other critics), but to the publisher the work is just fine. This is called the Semmelweis reflex: "The tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm."

E. Scott Fruehwald, Understanding and Overcoming Cognitive Biases For Lawyers And Law Students: Becoming a Better Lawyer Through Cognitive Science (2018).

Steve L.

Great comment, Scott. Of course, the great problem with cognitive biases, also called cognition errors, is that they are invisible to us, even when we think we are adjusting for them. That is why corrective systems -- such as peer review and fact checking -- are so important and need to be routinized.

Perhaps needless to say at this point, I have encountered unfathomable resistance to routine fact checking in my work on ethnography.

On the Semmelweis reflex, however, check out Sherwin Nuland's "The Doctors' Plague," in which he argues that Semmelweis's introduction of antisepsis was actually accepted by the Viennese medical establishment.

Scott Fruehwald

Interesting, the Semmelweis story may be an urban legend. However, the principle remains valid.

Yes, cognitive biases are very relevant to your ethnography criticisms.

Steve L.

The Wikipedia entry says that Semmelweis's conclusions were rejected by the medical establishment and not adopted for some years, so I don't know if Nuland was right or wrong -- but it is a very fascinating book, and also very short, so I recommend it.

anon

The publisher is just trying to salvage the book. No need to look for cognitive biases to explain its actions.

I fink not, yeah?

"Well, her advisor was Stefano-Maria Evangelista, whose field is "Nineteenth-century English literature, especially Aestheticism and Decadence." That should have given him at least passing familiarity with British penal law, which formally imposed the death penalty for a broad range of felonies."

Seriously?

Ellen Wertheimer

It seems to me that this is one of those times when a book's release should be postponed for the book to be corrected. Obviously, since the book has not been released, I have not seen it, so I have no way of knowing whether there is anything in it worth saving once the necessary corrections have been made. If, as has been asserted, the remaining content is still accurate and makes the same points, the thesis will be more unassailable if this error is eliminated.

Failure to correct this error gives those who would oppose the underlying politics of the book ammunition to attack its conclusions in a way that should make all scholars cringe. There is also a real danger into the future that those who read the book will assume that the content is accurate; information on the blogosphere to the contrary that is not in the book will fade, but the book won't.

George Smathers

This is also what happens when one choses to go the easy route and get a Ph.D. in politicized English rather than do the heavy lifting and study history or sociology. As noted, she should at least have put a couple of outside experts on her committee.

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