“Seek and you shall find.”
Many people are familiar with this saying. It is one of those phrases that have permeated our culture. But where does it come from? This phrase comes from the Bible. It is part of the teachings of Jesus contained in the so-called “Sermon of the Mount” and detailed in the Gospel of Mathew. The specific reference is Matthew 7 (King James Version of the Bible):
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
This statement in religious circles is normally associated with a search for a spiritual type of truth, the one that usually falls outside the scope of science blogs. However, this statement in our society has been generalized and applied to any activity that involves a search for something. It is as if we take it as a given that the mere activity of searching will lead to the discovery of that which we are searching for. The problem is: what if we search for something that isn’t there? What if there is nothing to find? What happens then?
Searching for something that we want to find when there is nothing to find can quickly degenerate into the equivalent of finding shapes in the clouds. This is all too obvious, for example, to police departments that want to involve the public in supplying tips on a high profile case. They know that the majority of the information they are going to receive will be false positives, and they are going to need a lot of personnel and resources to chase down leads the vast majority of which will turn out to be false. This phenomenon is seen in all human beings including scientists. I have mentioned before in my blog the cases of the astronomer Percival Lowell who claimed to have observed canals on Mars, which he interpreted to be evidence of an advanced civilization, and of the scientist Rene Blondlot who thought he had discovered a new form of radiation. Invariably, when we are searching for something that is not there, and we want to find it, we will tend to find it one way or another. Because of this, scientists regularly use special experimental designs in those studies that rely to a great extent on the evaluation of the results by a human observer to avoid making this mistake.
As many studies have shown, our perception of reality can be strongly influenced by our expectations. But these expectations are not limited to something we are looking for. In fact, the very way we process the information we receive minute by minute in everyday life, even when we are not consciously searching for something, is influenced by our expectations. Our perception of reality is not passive. We subject the process of making sense of the inputs that are relayed to our brain by our senses to many filters, and some of these filters are made up of complex social and psychological premises that are a product of the interaction between our experience, our environment, and our genes. For example, new evidence that shows, yet again, that the Earth’s climate is warming, or that vaccines are safe, or that evolution is true, will be perceived differently by a regular person as opposed to a climate change denier, a person opposed to vaccination, or a creationist, respectively.
But why does our brain function based on a system where expectations can hinder the correct appraisal of reality? The answer is that we do this to make sense of the world around us. Once we have decided that our environment operates based on a certain set of rules that give rise to certain patterns, we will seek and find these patterns in the information we receive from our senses, and discard or ignore the rest. This approach is actually useful. It serves as a way to reduce the seemingly vast complexity of the world that surrounds us to a simple set of premises that will generate certainties on which we can base our actions. The downside of this approach, of course, is that we tend to blind ourselves to the perception of things that do not fit our expectations, and the flip side is that we see things where there is nothing to see. This is why conspiracy theorists keep on finding evidence of conspiracies even when no such evidence exists.
So the saying “seek and you shall find” should probably be amended to:
“Seek and you shall find, and if there is nothing to find, you shall make it up!”
Such is the complexity of the human mind.
Perception image by Geralt from Pixabay is free for commercial use.