Lessons From Copernicus: How To Develop New Perspectives

For a long time, our understanding of our solar system was flawed.

From the days of Ptolemy in ancient Roman Egypt, humans thought that the Sun, moon, planets and stars orbited around Earth. This notion of geocentrism was based on the observation that the Sun and moon appeared to revolve around the Earth once a day, and that the Earth was stable and fixed in position.

Then came along Nicolaus Copernicus, who thought otherwise. He observed that the planets, on occasion, would travel backwards across the sky over several nights of observation. He theorised that this was because both the Earth and other planets were moving in the same direction, but at different speeds. This made the other slower planet appear as though it was moving backwards in relation to the faster Earth.

Fearing criticism of his radical proposition and objection of the Catholic church, Copernicus would only publish On The Revolution of The Celestial Spheres right before his death. His work would later be improved on by other scientific minds such as Galileo and Newton, solidifying the framework with which we understand the universe as we do today.

The Copernican Lens

A key reason behind Copernicus’ unique formulation of our solar system was his ability to shift his vantage point. While most people certainly believed that Earth was important, Copernicus didn’t put too much stock into that idea. He didn’t operate on the basis that Earth was too special an entity, and considered that our planet could be minuscule in the grand scheme of things.

Most of us attach special importance and greater weight to ourselves. It has been so since the beginning of time, and will likely be thus in the foreseeable future. But this prevents us from viewing things from different perspectives and can be costly in both our personal and professional lives.

In this regard, we have much to learn from Copernicus. While his hypothesis was literal, we would do well to remember its figurative interpretation and be reminded constantly.

We are not at the centre of the universe; the world does not revolve around us.

Confirmation Bias

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it.” — Francis Bacon

Understanding our relative unimportance is the starting point of developing new perspectives. The next step is overcoming what psychologists call confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry pick information which confirms preexisting beliefs or ideas. It’s the reason why two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence, and still come away both validated by it. We see only what we are prepared to comprehend.

Much has been written on the subject, but knowledge and awareness of this cognitive bias hasn’t stopped us from being irrational. The confirmation bias is still as pervasive as ever, with even the best of us falling victim to it. As Sia Mohajer wrote in The Little Book of Stupidity:

“The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development and your reality that you might not even realize it is happening. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world but excludes those that run contrary to our own […] In an attempt to simplify the world and make it conform to our expectations, we have been blessed with the gift of cognitive biases.”

We ignore contradictory evidence because it is so unpalatable for our brains. The need for consistency has caused our minds to develop shortcuts for reasoning and classifying of information. The result is that everything we perceive inevitably becomes evidence of our worldview and beliefs.

This was what caused the leading thinkers of Copernicus’ time to reject the notion of a heliocentric universe even though there were observations which suggested otherwise. It was as Mark Twain remarked:

“Most people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamp post; more for support than illumination”

Seek Out Disconfirming Evidence

While we are plagued by cognitive biases, we can adopt habits and systems that allow us to think more rationally and be open to new perspectives.

The most powerful approach is to seek out disconfirming evidence. Head for the source of the opposing argument. Understand how proponents of an argument or belief arrived at their conclusion. Determine why they believe what they do.

It sounds simple, but it doesn’t work when it comes to the most contentious of issues. When it comes to politics or religion, most of us vehemently refuse to change our mind. These issues are so fundamentally central to our identity that we cannot possibly divorce ourselves from them. The question to ask, whether yourself or a peer, then is this:

What evidence must I find for me to change my mind on this matter?

Asking this question in good faith puts us in a frame of mind to accept new ideas and changes. The person who says ‘nothing’ has already closed his mind to further discussion. He has decided to his detriment that he will never adopt new ideas even if there are developments which suggest that they are superior to the status quo.

Conversely, those who are ready to explore new ideas in a spirit of curiosity and learning become more aware of their cognitive biases. Much like a fish is unlikely to understand the concept of water, we take many things for granted. We must learn to see things from a vantage point that is not just that of our individual selves.

Developing New Perspectives

The major barrier to developing new perspectives isn’t intellectual. More than ever, it’s emotional.

We have access to as much information as we want, but nobody wants to do the work required to have an opinion.

Nobody wants to bear the emotional labour that is required in challenging your own personal beliefs. Nobody wants to introduce uncertainty into their lives. It’s a terrible feeling to know that you could be absolutely wrong about something you stood for.

Copernicus must have felt great apprehension when he decided to publish his findings, knowing that he could have been ridiculed even after death. He was risking his entire life’s work for a finding that would not have impacted him whatsoever in his twilight years.

Fortunately for us, he felt the fear and did it anyway.

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” — Bertrand Russell