Understanding your biases and assumptions is crucial to clear thinking and scientific literacy. All of us, no matter our education, intellectual commitment, or good intentions, are susceptible to these. “It’s not our fault,” Neil says, “that we’re human.”
The key, if you’re going to think clearly, is to identify when you’re falling prey to bias and unconscious distortions. This means understanding cognitive bias, or your tendency to believe that something is true even if it smacks in the face of data that says otherwise (i.e., you might think a fair coin that has landed on heads five times when flipped is more likely to land on tails on the sixth flip—even though the odds are still 50-50)
It’s not our fault that we’re human. Being human, we all have susceptibility to a certain category of bias, and it’s called cognitive bias. These are things you think are true but are not and can be demonstrated to not be true. You’re staring at it bare faced. And you say, I swear to you this is how it is. And it’s not.
There are all manner of cognitive biases. There are some that are particularly insidious if you’re trying to understand what is objectively true. One of the cognitive biases is that you want to feel special. I’ve spoken to people who say, I always find money in the street. And I say, OK. You know what you don’t find? The money that you missed. How do you know that you didn’t miss vastly more money than the money that you actually spotted? In fact, you could be failing at this exercise. But that’s not how the brain thinks about it. You’re special today because you found $5 in the street. You missed the $10 under the rock one block earlier. The urge to feel special knows no bounds. If there’s ever a moment where something happens around you and you want to think it’s special, just pause. Chances are it’s not. And this comes about because the human brain is not wired to think about probability and statistics. It’s just not.
What’s wrong with feeling special? I guess, in principle, nothing. But it’s not an accurate understanding of the world. And it’s your choice. Do you want to live in a delusion of what you think is true or do you want to live in the reality of what is true?
Here’s a good example. Line up 1,000 people. Give them a coin to flip. They flip the coin. About half will get heads. About half will get tails. If they get tails, tell them to sit down. How many are left? 500. Flip a coin. Tails sit down. 250. Flip a coin. Tails sit down. 125. Flip a coin. Tails sit down. We’re down to 60. Sit down. We’re down to 30. We’re down to 15. We’re down to eight, four, two, one. When you do this experiment, there’s this one person at the end that flipped heads 10 consecutive times. Now what happens? The press rushes to that person and says, how do you feel about this win? And here’s a common response. I sort of felt that head’s energy about halfway through. And I saw the heads of things this morning. And I knew I was going to win. Oh, this is wonderful. And yeah, I knew. I felt today was going to be special. Very common response. No, not for this experiment, for people who win the lottery or something. Right. Did the press go to anyone else in that line and ask them how they felt? No. So here’s the bias. The bias is you think this person won, and that person thinks that person won, because of some sort of spiritual heads energy permeating their lives that day, when any time you do this experiment somebody is going to flip heads 10 times in a row. That’s the nature of this experiment. The person who flips heads thinks that they’re special when it’s just a statistical fact…
Think like a scientist
With a hit talk show and bestselling books, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most popular figures in modern science. Now the influential astrophysicist teaches you how his mind works and how he connects with audiences. Learn to think like a skeptic, open your own mind through scientific literacy, distill data, and navigate bias to discover objective truths—and deliver your ideas in ways that engage, excite, and inspire.