Monday, December 14, 2009

Confirmation Bias: A Testimony

I was on an airplane yesterday and a friend had given me a book to read, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, the fairly well-known, even infamous, New Atheist tome. As I sat in the waiting area I pulled the book out of my bag and the thought immediately struck me that some of the people around me are bound to make judgments about me simply because of the book I am reading. There, in a very religious, conservative city on the Southernmost border of America, where 67% of the population claim to attend church service weekly, I was mildly concerned about generating ill will in my fellow travelers. Now, the fact is, since my beliefs are decidedly in the undecided column, I probably do fit into most of these folks' definition of an atheist. But I do not consider myself in full agreement with Mr. Harris on all points in his book and I would not want to be painted with a broad brush in that manner. But here is a larger question.

Why did I think most of the people around me would assume that I was reading this book because I agreed with it? And was I wrong for thinking it? I will admit that I assume the same things about others, if I see someone reading say, the Koran, on a flight, I assume that the reader is probably not a Baptist minister. Of course, he could be, and I could come up with several scenarios in which a Baptist minister might study the Koran: to find out more about an increasingly important faith in the world, or in preparation for a sermon denouncing said faith, or simple curiosity. Who knows? But the likelihood is that the person reading the Koran is a Muslim. Why would I say that? Because of confirmation bias. What, one might say? Again, that is confirmation bias - the idea that most people willingly consume information that reinforces already held beliefs, and ignore or avoid contrary points of view.

Now, do I know absolutely that confirmation bias is widely practiced? No, I don’t, but I suspect that it is, primarily because of my own susceptibility to it and my observation of the propensities of others. In my own case, for years I read almost exclusively authors that I agreed with. I listened to speakers and preachers that I agreed with. I let a certain set of spokesmen and authors shape my beliefs to a great extent. Then I learned about confirmation bias, and realized that I had been guilty of practicing it. I then determined not to do so in the future. I assumed that what I believed at the time was true and would not seriously change as I examined other points of view. But, I also knew that whenever I had read far afield from what I was used to, it was a mildly uncomfortable experience. So I knew that I was setting out on a difficult course. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that my entire concept of the universe and my place in it was to change as a result of my newfound determination to erase my own ignorance.

In my case, I was raised around politically conservative Christians (those whom Andrew Sullivan calls Christianists), and when one is raised in these circles, a favorite past time is finding and excoriating enemies - nothing unites a group like a common enemy. So, my only experience with a lot of alternative view points to my own was through the lens of my group’s spokesmen. For instance, I heard a lot of denunciations of secular humanists (quite the bogeymen in my group) but I had not actually bothered to meet, read, or consider anything actually written by a self-proclaimed secular humanist. A clear symptom of confirmation bias. And I suspect that this scenario plays itself out in many different circles. If I had been raised by raging Leftist environmentalists, I could likely tell a similar tale.

Thankfully, I shed myself of this limiting and debilitating habit (not completely, but it is a work in progress). Over the years I have read hundreds of works by all the old bogeymen: secular humanists, and leftists, and socialists, and atheists, and evolutionary psychologists, etc. And guess what, encountering these points of view changed my own forever. And I don’t regret it in the least. Confirmation bias be damned. My life has become eminently richer by encountering a much greater swath of humankind. Of course, I have also been scared and alarmed in having to question many of my own assumptions, but I believe I would rather continually question and seek knowledge “to the utmost bound of human thought” than to remain in the shackles of group-think and confirmation bias.


Anonymous said...

thanks. very nice post

gentleeye said...

That reminds me of a shock I got when I was still in the very midst of reading only what I agreed with. I was reading a work by a renowned expert in their field (I won't say who), and with whose stand on most things I was largely, of course, in agreement.

But then I came across a passage where this fount of wisdom wrote something which I knew to be completely incorrect. I was deeply rattled by this. Looking back now, I see it as a key moment. It was a long way from there to real self-questioning, but it was one of the first tiny stones rolling that signals the landslide to come.

PatricktheRogue said...

There always seems to be one pebble that gets kicked loose that starts the landslide. What really surprises me most is how rare this journey is - from what I can tell most people are content not to ask any frightening questions, for fear of the answers probably. One of the key pebbles for me was being introduced to a quote by Thomas Jefferson in a philosophy class in college. I committed it to memory:
"Fix reason firmly upon her seat. Bring to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question boldly even the existence of God, for if there be a God, he must surely more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear." The Professor introduced this quote to the class to portray Pascal's wager to be a coward's passage around the existential dilemma.

gentleeye said...

A good quote from Mr Jefferson. I have only the very barest acquaintance, I am sad to say, with the facts of Mr Jefferson's life. What was his own view on the 'existence of God'?

gentleeye said...

A further example of the serendipity of the world - here is an interesting piece about what the brain does with information that contradicts currently held views!