Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Confirmation Bias

I grew up in a different world than today. My teachers at the college prep school that I went to taught me how to have a reasoned debate. That skill seems to be lost today. In speech/debate class we'd be assigned a topic and a side to take. As time went on, our teacher learned our individual opinions and assigned us the opposite position to defend. If I were unable to defend the antithetical viewpoint, he would say, "It sounds like you don't have enough information to justify the opinion you have." The point being, unless you really understand the opposing views, you don't understand your own.

Holding an opinion that you are uneducated about is okay, as long as your mind remains open as you investigate further. Closing your mind to more information, particularly that which disagrees with you, is the hallmark of those who are doomed to living in ignorance and prejudice. Even scientists are vulnerable to this problem of only paying attention to results that agree with their hypotheses, it is called confirmation bias and it is the reason that no scientific experiment is accepted until after peer review, including review of the methods and data of the original experiment and a repetition of the experiment by a team who disagrees with the hypotheses.

It used to be that journalism was held to a similar standard. Before a story could be reported, facts had to be checked and opposing viewpoints had to be given at least some air time. Then came the 70s and the best journalists all retired from the broadcast media and the print media became almost exclusively anti-establishment. Journalism began a rapid decline into investigation to confirm the suspicions of the reporters, editors and owners of the networks. With one-sided stories being reported in the mainstream media, our educational institutions began a similar decline, even in the realms of science education. As a result, very few come out of our universities knowing how to adequately form a solid opinion. Those who don't attend a university have very little hope, since our high schools don't even try to teach the acquisition of knowledge.

This sorry state does not stop us from being surrounded by people with opinions that they are all too happy to share. Talk Radio is the only profitable category out there. The generally liberal bias of the media has spawned FoxNews as counterpoint. FoxNews has spawned those who feel a need to respond to it. TEA parties sprout up to respond... and it never ends.

I have relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who only watch CNN, MSNBC and other decidedly liberal outlets. That these folks cannot see that bias is merely evidence of their own lack of perspective. Those same people think that Michael Moore's movies were fair and balanced. They criticize Clinton for being too centrist and anything associated with Bush II is the worst thing that has happened to the modern world. They also cannot understand the existence of TEA parties or why anyone would object to universal health care. And, since they are unwilling to listen to any opinion that differs with theirs, they never will understand. All they will do is become more and more frustrated with those who disagree with the only sound position there is.

I have other relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who only listen to FoxNews, Rush Limbaugh, Christian Radio and other decidedly conservative outlets. These folks exhibit the same bigotry as the liberals I mentioned above. They think that Glenn Beck is the one voice of reason out there, that the President and Congress are out to get us and that universal health care will be the end of the world as we know it.

Each of these groups cannot abide listening to the opinions of others with any attempt to actually hear what they have to say. They only listen long enough to find something to attack about or to give them a good reason to quit listening. Without a listening ear, they are doomed to reinforce their own prejudices since confirmation bias will only serve to strengthen their already entrenched positions. We are locked in intellectual trench warfare, neither side can really advance, yet neither wants to retreat. How do we break this impasse?

Some even go so far as to break friendships and discontinue relations with their relatives because they don't like politics and they no longer want to deal with it. Of course, they also refuse to acknowledge that it is exactly their politics that is causing their stress and is separating them from the relationships that would help heal their wounded souls.

If it were just these politics that caused the problems between people, we could easily hide our problems by just avoiding that topic. Unfortunately, the problem is our loss of ability to carry on an informed discussion. In order to hold these discussions, we have to be able to speak the language of the other side and continue to converse without deprecation nor accusation.

That this is true is evident in other topics besides pure politics. We have politicized science in our discussions of global warming: some argue with the clear evidence that average temperatures are going up and have been for a while. Others take the timing as incontrovertible evidence that the warming is anthropogenic, even the climatologists, supposedly scientists, are falling for the common logic fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc (after which, therefore because of which). Neither side wants to say, "I'm not sure." Conservationists want the results that reducing carbon output will bring, irrespective of whether it is causative or not, therefore they do not want to listen to nor support anything that might show other sources of the warming. Those who see the impact these measures will have on our economy don't want to take the bitter pill until we are sure of the diagnosis. Of course, since our level of debate doesn't allow for such a reasoned position, they choose to question the climatological studies. Back to the trenches, men!

A similar breakdown is happening with religious discourse. While it has always been considered bad manners to speak of particular religions, their tenets and doctrines in polite company, there has historically been a tolerance of the existence of religion, indeed an assumption that most people are religious is built into our foundational documents. Since the mid 20th century, society has been growing less and less tolerant of the existence of religion. In response, Christianity in America has become much more fundamentalist, and on the world stage, radical Islam has arisen. Scientists like Sir Richard Dawkins rally radical atheism to attack religion. Sadly, none of these parties gives one moment study to find out the positions of the other side. A friend who is the pastor of an evangelical church in my area only spends enough time studying any other religion so he can demonstrate its fallacies to his flock. Although Mohamed encouraged coexistence with Christians and Jews to his followers, his nephews and subsequent generations have found it more profitable to sew dissension. Dawkins and his ilk take the perspective that the religious experience they were exposed to as a child is the sum total of religion, so their arguments seem very childish to those of a different tradition. Dig in, we're in it for the long haul!

In the end, unless we can learn to get back to informed discussion, we are condemned to shouting matches that go nowhere, unless the "tyranny of the majority" takes over and a portion of the populace justifiably feels disenfranchised. We must break this cycle before it leads to unfortunate reactions on the part of those who are losing their rights. Breaking the cycle begins with educating ourselves, since our schools are failing in that area.


  1. I should have put tags: education, civility, discourse.

  2. You're right about all this. Will you be practicing this commitment to rational debate in your own blog from now on?

  3. Lisa: I always try to understand the opposing view. I welcome all comments--those in agreement or disagreement. I do moderate to make sure that the language is acceptable since my children follow this blog. If you have a problem with a previous comment, by all means post it. I will listen.

  4. That is very true. It makes me sad because now it seems that almost every subject you cannot talk about in polite society. If you do someone has a different opinion and won't rest until they believe that you agree.

  5. You bring up an interesting point, Bekah-Belle. Just because you are having a reasoned debate does not mean you must agree. It's just that you continue to respect the fact that reasonable people may have a different opinion. What is unreasonable is when someone refuses to listen to the other side and try to see where they are coming from.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I am an empathasizer - I always have to see things from different perspectives. So, I am constantly amazed with how some people almost literally put their fingers in their ears and sing "la, la, la" and refuse to acknowledge another opinion. That's why I rarely voice my opinion - it doesn't make a difference and my goodness it is frustrating!

  7. Meanoburrito: your opinions are always welcome to me, I love to hear them all, agreeing or not.

  8. My adult niece has refused to be in the same room with me because I have an opposing view from hers regarding Prop. 8. We actually had a very long debate/discussion(via phone) which was very emotionally controlled(on my end if I say so myself)and "polite." We finally agreed to disagree, but in the end that did not satisfy her. The bottom line was, she wanted me to change my position to agree with hers, just as Rebecca stated.

    BTW Mike, you can go to your post and edit it and add the "tags."

  9. Thanks, Sue. I'm new at this blogging so that helps.

  10. Hey Dad-
    I don't think the RSS feed works on private blogs. I asked David, and he's looking into it. He'd basically have to finangle the program to get it to work.

  11. According to another blogger, private blogs do not show up on RSS feeds. I don't know why they would have put this done this. But it is.

    You make a lot of good points in your blog Dad, I never thought before that if you can't defend the opposite view then you don't have enough information about your own. That makes a lot of sense and that mentality would help us to make informed decisions.

  12. Good stuff Dad. You are an eloquent writer--impressive. I wanted to say WHAT I could never talk with you because you never seemed to really hear what I had to say, and would just want to listen and disagree. But, it's been awhile I guess. I heard a cool line: "A true friend doesn't doubt, but hopes." Just because you see a problem in a friend, you don't have to doubt they'll improve, just hope.

    Also a cool thought, I heard or read somewhere that people usually think someone else is an expert or genius when what the "expert" says confirms what they believe. So most people don't want to hear experts or intellectuals shedding light on topics, or points of view that are disagreeable to them. people do want to live in their box.

  13. Thank you for sharing this wonderful perceptive view to life.

    We need to encourage the use of temporate behaviour in regards to spreading knowledge. Holding up a key in information form and yelling "I've got the truth" is akin to devout extremism which is commonly related to religion and capitalism alike.

    My parents are devout seventh day adventists and I have slowly been training out of them the need and desire to spread god into my life, every second of every day.

    Since my childhood I have been prone to many forms of confirmation bias; joining many different groups that agreed with selective opinions.

    The constructive answer is always the hardest to get to, and the easiest I find.

    Thanks again for sharing, there should be more of this on the internet.

    Matthew Sforcina

  14. You're blog is long overdue for an update. FYI