The Null Hypothesis

Using the scientific method to find common ground in politics

Even if you are not formally trained in the sciences, you have likely heard/learned of the scientific method in high school or college. In the classical scientific method, one begins with the “null hypothesis,” as being the assumed truth until evidence is generated to disprove the null hypothesis in favor of the alternative hypothesis (the often more interesting belief of the world). Instead of looking for evidence to disprove the null hypothesis, many scientists fall into the trap of confirmation bias, looking for evidence to support the alternative hypothesis. Early in my scientific career, I was given valuable advice in pursuing scientific truths: when attempting to test a scientific hypothesis, instead of looking for evidence to support the alternative hypothesis (i.e. your often desired belief), conduct every experiment possible, looking for any and all evidence, to disprove your hypothesis. If in an extensive attempt to disprove the alternative hypothesis or your “desired belief”, you are unable to, your hypothesis may just be correct.

So what does the scientific method have to do with politics? And how can we learn from the scientific method to 1) learn/discover truths of how to best govern society? and 2) find common ground in reasonable, logical, and open discourse?

While we would hope that the process of seeking for scientific as well as moral truths would be an objective one, as humans, we fall vulnerable to subjective approaches. People, particularly around highly charged political issues, often start with the assumption that their belief or alternative hypothesis is true, and then seek evidence to support their view, leading many into the trap of confirmation bias. Unfortunately as humans, even in what is considered an objective field such as science, we are often emotionally tied to the consequences/outcomes of seeking truth, and this often pushes us to look for evidence to support our desired belief rather than evidence to disprove it. This is particularly apparent when one of these issues becomes part of the broad societal dialogue. Many people jump on social media and post/tweet their hottest 160 characters to make a strong and compelling point that their position is the correct one. While I am sure this can be very gratifying to see the immense support for your opinion from your close friends and colleagues through “likes” or “retweets,” do these hot takes actually advance the dialogue or cause the desired change of mind in those with a different opinion? Usually, our followers/friends often share the same political leanings and beliefs as we do so these attempts to speak out amount to nothing more than patting each other on the back for holding the consensus opinion within our social sphere, further exacerbating our confirmation bias.

So then what can we do to be instruments of dialogue? instruments of change? instruments of unity? This brings me back to the piece of advice I mentioned earlier. Instead of assuming your position is the correct one, assume otherwise. Look for individuals who disagree with you and try to understand their position and reasons to disprove your “hypothesis.” In searching for these conversations, you can truly test the validity of your own beliefs. If you find and listen to every argument against your held belief, and they still do not convince you otherwise, you can be more assured of your position. But maybe in the process of engaging in these discussions, you may find you have fallen into the trap of confirmation bias the entire time. That until you had searched for evidence to contradict your world view, you were not able to objectively examine your own beliefs.

Ultimately, if the goal is to find common ground and truths among ourselves, we must be willing to engage with those we disagree with. Otherwise, by surrounding ourselves in the echo chamber of our own beliefs and thoughts, we will only serve to further divide ourselves and perpetuate the hate and toxicity that has taken hold of society.