Sam McNerney '11 Writes Guest Post for Scientific American
Alumni News & Notes
By Briana Wagner '13
July 22, 2011
Sam McNerney '11, who has recently begun a career in science journalism, has written an article titled “Confirmation Bias and Art” that was published July 17 on Scientific American’s guest blog. The article discusses the tendency of humans to look for what confirms their beliefs and ignore what contradicts them—confirmation bias.
McNerney summarizes the main idea: " If we are defining confirmation bias as a tendency to favor information that confirms our previously held beliefs, it strikes me as ironic to think that it is almost exclusively discussed as a hindrance to knowledge and better decision-making, or as an aid to argumentation and persuasion as reinforced by Mercier and Sperber. With such a broad definition, I think it also explains our aesthetic judgments. That is, just as we only look for what confirms our scientific hypotheses and personal decisions, we likewise only listen to music and observe art that confirms our preconceived notions of good and bad aesthetics. Put differently, confirmation bias influences our aesthetic judgments just as it does any other judgment."
McNerney has also started his own blog (whywereason.com), which focuses popular trends in psychology and neuroscience and tries to figure out how humans understand the world. His posts cover a variety of topics, but he writes that they are held together by three principal themes: Most cognition is unconscious and out of our control. Cognition is about creating structure and understanding and not about knowledge and truth. The mind is a dynamic embodied system constituted by 100 billion neurons that form 100 trillion neuron connections.
At Hamilton, McNerney majored in philosophy. He has studied psychology and neuroscience for several years and currently is working for Jeremy Skipper's neuroscience lab at Hamilton.