Incorrect hypotheses point to correct observations

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1. The Consciousness Researcher and Out-Of-Body Experiences

In his book Consciousness and the Brain, cognitive neuroscientist Stansilas Dehaene writes about scientifically investigating people’s reports of their out-of-body experiences:

… the Swiss neurologist Olaf Blanke[ did a] beautiful series of experiments on out-of-body experiences. Surgery patients occasionally report leaving their bodies during anesthesia. They describe an irrepressible feeling of hovering at the ceiling and even looking down at their inert body from up there. [...]
What kind of brain representation, Blanke asked, underlies our adoption of a specific point of view on the external world? How does the brain assess the body’s location? After investigating many neurological and surgery patients, Blanke discovered that a cortical region in the right temporoparietal junction, when impaired or electrically perturbed, repeatedly caused a sensation of out-of-body transportation. This region is situated in a high-level zone where multiple signals converge: those arising from vision; from the somatosensory and kinesthetic systems (our brain’s map of bodily touch, muscular, and action signals); and from the vestibular system (the biological inertial platform, located in our inner ear, which monitors our head movements). By piecing together these various clues, the brain generates an integrated representation of the body’s location relative to its environment. However, this process can go awry if the signals disagree or become ambiguous as a result of brain damage. Out-of-body flight “really” happens, then—it is a real physical event, but only in the patient’s brain and, as a result, in his subjective experience. The out-of-body state is, by and large, an exacerbated form of the dizziness that we all experience when our vision disagrees with our vestibular system, as on a rocking boat.
Blanke went on to show that any human can leave her body: he created just the right amount of stimulation, via synchronized but delocalized visual and touch signals, to elicit an out-of-body experience in the normal brain. Using a clever robot, he even managed to re-create the illusion in a magnetic resonance imager. And while the scanned person experienced the illusion, her brain lit up in the temporoparietal junction—very close to where the patient’s lesions were located.
We still do not know exactly how this region works to generate a feeling of self-location. Still, the amazing story of how the out-of-body state moved from parapsychological curiosity to mainstream neuroscience gives a message of hope. Even outlandish subjective phenomena can be traced back to their neural origins. The key is to treat such introspections with just the right amount of seriousness. They do not give direct insights into our brain’s inner mechanisms; rather, they constitute the raw material on which a solid science of consciousness can be properly founded.

The naive hypotheses that out-of-body experiences represented the spirit genuinely leaving the body, were incorrect. But they were still pointing to a real observation, namely that there are conditions which create a subjective experience of leaving the body. That observation could then be investigated through scientific means.

2. The Artist and the Criticism

In art circles, there’s a common piece of advice that goes along the lines of:

When people say that they don’t like something about your work, you should treat that as valid information.

When people say why they don’t like it or what you could do to fix it, you should treat that with some skepticism.

Outside the art context, if someone tells you that they're pissed off with you as a person (or that you make them feel good), then that's likely to be true; but the reason that they give you may not be the true reason.

People have poor introspective access to the reasons why they like or dislike something; when they are asked for an explanation, they often literally fabricate their reasons. Their explanation is likely false, even though it’s still pointing to something in the work having made them dislike it.

3. The Traditionalist and the Anthropologist

The Scholar’s Stage blog post “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are“, quotes Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success which reports that many folk traditions, such as not eating particular fish during pregnancy, are adaptive: not eating that fish during pregnancy is good for the child, mother, or both. But the people in question often do not know why they follow that tradition:

We looked for a shared underlying mental model of why one would not eat these marine species during pregnancy or breastfeeding—a causal model or set of reasoned principles. Unlike the highly consistent answers on what not to eat and when, women’s responses to our why questions were all over the map. Many women simply said they did not know and clearly thought it was an odd question. Others said it was “custom.” Some did suggest that the consumption of at least some of the species might result in harmful effects to the fetus, but what precisely would happen to the fetus varied greatly, though a nontrivial segment of the women explained that babies would be born with rough skin if sharks were eaten and smelly joints if morays were eaten. Unlike most of our interview questions on this topic, the answers here had the flavor of post-hoc rationalization: “Since I’m being asked for a reason, there must be a reason, so I’ll think one up now.” This is extremely common in ethnographic fieldwork, and I’ve personally experienced it in the Peruvian Amazon with the Matsigenka and with the Mapuche in southern Chile.

The people’s hypotheses for why they do something is wrong. But their behavior is still pointing to the fish in question being bad to eat during pregnancy.

4. The Martial Artist and the Ki

In Types of Knowing, Valentine writes:

Another example is the “unbendable arm” in martial arts. I learned this as a matter of “extending ki“: if you let magical life-energy blast out your fingertips, then your arm becomes hard to bend much like it’s hard to bend a hose with water blasting out of it. This is obviously not what’s really happening, but thinking this way often gets people to be able to do it after a few cumulative hours of practice.
But you know what helps better?
Knowing the physics.
Turns out that the unbendable arm is a leverage trick: if you treat the upward pressure on the wrist as a fulcrum and you push your hand down (or rather, raise your elbow a bit), you can redirect that force and the force that’s downward on your elbow into each other. Then you don’t need to be strong relative to how hard your partner is pushing on your elbow; you just need to be strong enough to redirect the forces into each other.
Knowing this, I can teach someone to pretty reliably do the unbendable arm in under ten minutes. No mystical philosophy needed.

The explanation about magical life energy was false, but it was still pointing to a useful trick that could be learned and put to good use.


Observations and the hypotheses developed to explain them often get wrapped up, causing us to evaluate both as a whole. In some cases, we only hear the hypothesis rather than the observation which prompted it. But people usually don’t pull their hypotheses out of entirely thin air; even an incorrect hypothesis is usually entangled with some correct observations. If we can isolate the observation that prompted the hypothesis, then we can treat the hypothesis as a burdensome detail to be evaluated on its own merits, separate from the original observation. At the very least, the existence of an incorrect but common hypothesis suggests to us that there’s something going on that needs to be explained.

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