Intuition: Its Pros and Cons

It is a common human failing that we assume we have knowledge of facts that we can’t possibly have. We often describe this is as our intuition.

Sometimes we leap to a conclusion and when we look for evidence we find there is ample, well-founded sources to support this leap. In this way we could view intuition as an unconscious aggregation of known facts which we bring together to form a conclusion for the conscious mind. In this sense intuition is a short-cut to reasoning and is an excellent thing. This also often occurs in, what some call, Lateral Thinking.

However often we leap to conclusions but when challenged we find we have no good grounds for the conclusion and fall back on a semi-mystical metaphysical citing of “my intuition”. When this happens, so-called intuition often leads to error.

Take the case of a jury trial. Now you may read some reports of a sensational trial in the media and form a conclusion, say that the defendant is obviously guilty. Then the jury returns a not-guilty verdict and you complain that the defendant was obviously guilty and rail against the jury and the system. But consider the position more carefully. You have most probably only read a small proportion of the coverage of the trial so are relying on a journalist’s interpretation of a miniscule part of the evidence. Even if you have closely scrutinised all the media reports, you only have second-hand, unchallenged reports of the evidence to go on. The media are mostly interested in selling more newspapers or increasing viewing figures so have a tendency to overstate, simplify and sensationalise their reporting. Not a reliable first-class source of evidence.

The jury has had all the evidence presented first hand to them in a structured way. The jury is picked randomly to ensure they are not biased or have any previous connections to the case. During the trial a judge presides to ensure a validated legal process is observed. At each stage highly trained barristers are allowed to interpret the evidence and challenge it to ensure the jury can receive alternative interpretations of that evidence. The process allows both the defence and the prosecution ample time to make their case, bring their evidence and to spin their stories to support their assertions of guilt or innocence, respectively. Without question the jury is always in a far better position to form a view based on all the evidence than you are with only media reports, so why should you ever doubt their verdict? If you have robust evidence to suppose the judge or jury were in any way biased or “fixed” or that vital evidence was suppressed then that would be an entirely different matter but that is rarely the case. So the only rational way forward is to accept the jury’s verdict. Not that the jury is always right, errors are always possible, but the only position to adopt is that the jury’s verdict is right until further evidence is presented to an appeal court.

Many other situations arise where we form views based on little or inadequate evidence. We should always be careful in these situations and be readily willing to change our views if better evidence arises.

This rather crass tendency to think we can “know” or can intuit facts is widespread and a common cause for error. Perhaps it forms the basis of most gambling where the punter believes he/she can beat the house over the long run. Plainly a ridiculous idea as casinos and betting shops are notoriously lucrative enterprises.

When you form a firm opinion, always be sure to check you have sufficient reliable evidence to support it.


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