Bringing Home the Bacon: The Idols of Mind in Psychological Science

Sir Francis Bacon (Wikipedia Commons)

Perhaps unfortunately named, the Renaissance philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is now largely forgotten. Where he is remembered, he is often spoken about as the founder of the modern scientific method. In his major work, Novum Organon or New Tool (1620), Bacon lays out new methods that he believes to be proper to the interrogation of nature. His writing also contains deep critiques against what was known as natural philosophy—a sort of epistemology (of way of thinking) about the natural world that loosely incorporated concepts drawn from alchemy, theology, reason, intuition and experimentation. From his published works, Bacon became revered by students such as Karl Popper as a ‘prophet’ of modern science. Although Popper does critique Bacon’s assumptions about the purity of knowledge that can be obtained from his methods, he and many others recognize that Bacon leaves us with a thoughtful and nuanced consideration of what scientific inquiry is and is not. In this post, I hope to draw attention to one schematic of Bacon’s that should particularly appeal to us even more so than his delicious name.

In the Novum Organon, Bacon described what he called Idols or impediments to the truth of Scientific Knowledge (these words are capitalized to underscore Popper’s critique, which is that Bacon deified science in the way that his contemporaries deified the idea of God). Although much of Bacon’s philosophy is now outdated and a product of his time, his four idols are still very much relevant to the ways that we assemble and deploy scientific knowledge today. Every student of science, including the psychological sciences, can benefit from being informed of what these idols are and of guarding against these forms of idolatry.

Idol #1: Idols of the Cave

The idol of the cave is based on Plato’s allegory of the cave. The idea here is that we are essentially constrained in our understanding of the world by our pre-existing intellect, experiences, education (theories). Bacon warns us that we tend to overemphasize things that we are familiar with and take for true explanations, findings and theories that we are particularly satisfied with. Bacon warns us about making inferences on truth based on our subjective feelings of satisfaction of liking. More recently, the psychologist Robert Caldini has published principles of influence that we are all susceptible to and can influence what we perceive to be true.

Idol #2: Idols of the Tribe

Idols of the tribe relate to errors built into us as a species. Humans are an exquisite pattern making species. This perhaps explains why we have such evolved cognition, however it is not without its drawbacks; many of which are studied by social psychologists. In fact, the condition known as apophenia refers to the tendency to see patterns that are not actually there. This tendency partly explains our decision-making and social behaviors and can be detected in studies from fields as varied as economics, health, politics, sports and art.

Idol #3: Idols of the Marketplace

The idols of the marketplace refer to ways that our social interactions—particularly language—contributes to fundamental misunderstandings of the truth. Bacon was particularly suspicious of the reification tendencies in language; that is, the tendency to think of something as true or extant by virtue of giving it a name. Concepts such as ‘ether’, ‘black bile’ and ‘maisma’ where once popular constructs to understand our bodies and the natural world. They have since been discredited as patently untrue. Will the same be said for concepts we contemporarily employ such as ‘soul’, ‘gravity’ or ‘psyche’? Furthermore, language has tendencies to narrow into jargon, have double-meanings, lose or change its meaning over time and/or be deliberately vague and unclear. Since we apparently have no choice but to think, communicate and work with words to further our understanding, this is not an idol we can ever truly exorcise. Perhaps like the other idols before it, we must instead learn to live (somewhat uneasily) with these idols. In order words, we may never reach Moses-like heights of peak/true knowledge but we should be aware of the idols we take with us (and weigh us down) on the ascent.

Idol #4: Idols of the Theatre

The final (and perhaps, for Bacon, his most reviled) idol is of the theatre. Bacon cynically rejected many philosophical and empirical studies as akin to theatrical performances; perhaps they are based on too few experiments, limited observation, speculation and failures related to the other idols. Ironically, it was Bacon who met his somewhat ridiculous demise conducting the lone scientific experiment he attempted in his career. Nowadays, we are deeply suspicious of virtue signalling, by which we understand that someone is putting on a performance rather than deeply committing to the underlying action or principle. Bacon has identified a form of this, which we may think of as virtue signalling in the sciences or even ‘science signalling.’ While virtue signalling can be executed with varying degrees of skills; we are generally fine-tuned to detect such displays in the public forum (e.g., social media, politics). However, we are not similarly critical of such signalling in the academy or in spaces we allocate to scientific thinking. Even keenly aspiring students or learned clinicians may accept a new study at face value simply because it is authored by a well-respected authority. Has this authority relentlessly updated their assumptions, adhered to the latest methodologies and made consistently strong efforts towards the truth—even at the expense of their own credibility? It is exceedingly difficult to know whether we are consuming virtuous science or virtue signals encoded as science.

Conclusion

Nowadays, we like to think of our field, like other modern disciplines, as having made strong inroads into knowledge and ways of knowing (epistemology). For example, the knowledge-to-action (KTA) model of learning is part of a dominant paradigm in psychology that describes learning and acquisition of skills and knowledge in two primary phases: Knowledge Creation and Action Cycle. This model is meticulously thought out and apparently synthesizes over 30 pre-existing theories into a unified schematic. Although wonderful and ideal in its scope, there are clear limitations to its applicability in the real-world. Systematic reviews, for example, suggest that the application of KTA is highly variable, unsystematic and largely incomplete across all settings of practice. Furthermore, it is not at all clear whether the primary drive of knowledge creation is independent of (and primary to) the action cycle. In fact, some research suggests that most psychotherapy approaches have been developed not in laboratories but rather from clinical observations and experience with innovative interventions.

Despite its shortcomings however, the KTA appears to be a sound, systematic approach to developing scientific knowledge. In the tradition of modern science, KTA assumes that knowledge needs to be constantly updated (especially with respect to history, culture, and demographics) and biases need to be identified. However, there is perhaps still no better system for analyzing these biases than the schemata proposed by Bacon. It is ironic that the philosophical contributions of Francis Bacon, one of the founding fathers of the scientific method, has been largely forgotten under a deluge of newly acquired knowledge.

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