Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Confirmation Bias

[Johnathan Clayborn]
Confirmation Bias is decidedly one of the more fascinating and infuriating components of the human psyche. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this concept it can be explained as “the power to deny” or if you had to explain how it works you could sum it up as “the power to continue believing what I believe is right because it’s what I believe, no matter what”.
To some extent, all of us are afflicted by confirmation bias to some degree or another. Most of us have at least one topic that we feel so strongly about that we run into the danger of confirmation bias. Many people simply are not aware that they suffer from confirmation bias. Those of us who at least understand what it is have an easier time realizing that what we’re experiencing is confirmation bias, even if we are unable to change it in ourselves. The one interesting thing however, is that it’s immediately apparent when someone’s logic or debate is being influenced by confirmation bias.
Examples of confirmation bias can be found in pretty much every subject. The more controversial the subject is, the more prominent that confirmation bias exists and manifests itself in a direct relationship (↑ ↑).  The more knowledgeable you are about the subject and the more understand confirmation bias, the less likely you are to be afflicted by it (↑ ↓). But, this isn’t always true, it’s just a generality. Some people continue to be afflicted by confirmation bias regardless of how aware they are of it or not.
Where can one find examples of confirmation bias? The easy examples are things like: religion, the existence of aliens, conspiracy theories, politics, childrearing, etc. Part of the nuances of confirmation bias is that people will take information and then twist that information in their mind in order to either further support their own beliefs or discredit the beliefs of others. Take religion for example. Many people take the fact that we cannot prove that God exists as concrete proof that God does not exist. Other people however take that very same piece of fact and use it as proof that he does exists (after all, if we could detect his presence what kind of God would he be?). In this example both of these viewpoints exhibit signs of confirmation bias. All that the data suggests is that we cannot prove his existence. The data itself lends no evidence to support or deny the existence of God one way or the other.
Part of the reason that I’m writing about confirmation bias today is to vent. You see, as I’ve mentioned before, I have this compulsion to stamp out incorrect data where ever I see it. I admit that I have my opinions, but I think that I do a pretty good job of allowing my analytical brain to consider all of the factors before I make up my opinion. And I’ve certainly had my mind changed through debate with several of my friends on numerous occasions. A few of my friends are excellent debaters. There are certain topics that we don’t always agree on, and more than once they’ve been able to persuade me into seeing things from their point of view. Had I been afflicted by confirmation bias this would not be possible.
A perfect example of this came up in my ethics class last week. The teacher posed a question to us;

What does Postman mean when he says the media is eroding our intelligence? Give an example.
I responded thusly: This is a prime example of an opinion that I have long-held myself. Socially, it seems as though people (collectively) are sheep. Individually people are smart, intelligent, and thoughtful. However, if you put those people in the stands of a hockey or soccer game after their favorite team losses (or wins) there's the potential that these smart individuals will become part of a very stupid mob responsible for vandalism and assault. It might be that I'm becoming more and more cynical, but it seems as though people are becoming more and more comfortable with just believing whatever they are told without any further investigation or thought. With the advent of digital media, particularly the internet, misconceptions and misinformation can be spread easily from one place to another rather quickly. It's entirely possible for something that's not at all true to be spread as fact by surrounding it with plausible sounding explanations. For example, take these common (but untrue) myths: pirates wore eye patches because it gave them a tactical advantage in battle (false), consumption of sugar causes a "high" (false), Suicide rates go up during Thanksgiving and Christmas (false), people abuse and murder black cats around Halloween (false), etc. Not only do these myths perpetuate, but they are taken as common knowledge and fact when the truth is that they are completely and totally wrong. Genealogical records are also another case where this runs rampant as well. TV certainly infects our psyche and our way of thinking. There have been countless news articles where the judge has had to dismiss jurors or declare a mistrial because the jury has watched too much "CSI" and doesn't understand how forensics really works in application. They watch this make-believe (and often quite erroneous) portrayals of forensics and have a skewed perception of how it works. (This is now known as "the CSI Effect".) However, this isn't necessarily a recent invention. Take this map, from Prof. Ferguson published in 1893.  It postulates that the word is, in fact, square, not round. Many people bought his book and bought into his crazy ideals simply because he was a "professor" and the information seemed credible enough on the surface. The news hasn't always been known for their objective reporting so even things that are seen on the "news channels" are often questioned and scrutinized. In some circles Fox News has the odious moniker of "Faux News", despite being a national agency.
Now, as if on cue one of my classmates whom I’ll refer to simply as SB replied to my posting with this; I don't know that I agree with all of your untrue myths. I have experinced [sic] the pirate myth. Having one or both eyes can help when trying to move around in a dark place. I have experinced [sic] a sugar "high", it might be a real high be it can make you act out of character. I don't know if suicides go up around Christmas and Thanksgiving but I can see why they might. I wouldn't be at all surprised if people do abuse and murder black cats around Halloween. There are alot [sic] of cults and religions that would encourage that. I've never heard of the "CSI effect", but I would probably be removed from a jury for it. I know a person who worked in SVU in my state and she said they do a reasonable job of showing the process.
Now, as followers of my blog will know, I’ve already addressed all of these issues before in prior posts. But, this classmate doesn’t read my blog so I responded with this: You see, no disrespect intended, but this is exactly what I'm talking about. What is the basis for your "disbelief" of my facts? I'm not stating my opinion here, I'm stating irrefutable fact. I've personally researched these topics, and these are all myths that do not hold any shred of truth whatsoever. They're all baseless claims made by media and perpetuated by media and society by people who believe everything without checking facts for themselves.
I explained the facts surrounding the pirate eye patch (found here). I explained the facts surrounding the sugar high myth (found here). I explained why suicides don’t go up during the holidays (here).  And I explained the misconception about black cats (found here).
I also explained the CSI effect; If you do a Google search on the term CSI Effect you'll find hundreds of newspaper articles explaining the principle and talking about cases where it has ruined or delayed the case. The show "CSI" makes the science of forensics seems not only easier than it really is, but also more trivial. As such, jurors’ opinions are skewed by the TV series. They want to see more evidence, they want faster evidence, and when they do get evidence presented they don't realize the true consequence of that evidence and brush it off.
My classmate, SB, responded right back: I have never heard of pirates wearing eye patches to protect against injuries to the eye. That doesn't make any sense to me at all. I can see them wearing them because they lost an eye or had an injury to an eye. But I don't see how a piece of fabic [sic] or plastic could protect their eyes during battle. I really don't care about what "research" you have done. I could find "proof" to support my ideas too. Just because someone researched it doesn't make their word law. They may have skewed the results to get the data they wanted. Their test might have been too small. Take your Humane Society president as an example. Where did she have her taskforce get this information. Unless she talked to every cult and religious leader, ever humane society and animal activest [sic] expert in the world just because she didn't find any evidence to support that black cats are killed or abused more around Halloween then any other time of the year doesn't make it true. Research and statics are unreliable. You can find just as many studys [sic] for something as you can against something.
By this point it’s becoming abundantly clear that she’s suffering from confirmation bias. Not only is she attacking my response, she’s not even reading what I actually wrote to begin with. She’s misinterpreting the data as automatically wrong. But, be that as it may here’s what I wrote back to her: I'm not saying that the eye patches were a preventative measure, I'm saying that they wore the eye patches AFTER the eye was injured to keep the wound clean, like a band-aid, to prevent further infection. And as far as the rest of your response goes, I have two simple words for you: confirmation bias. You're so wrapped up in your own belief system that it doesn't matter what evidence anyone presents to you, they're automatically wrong. That's fine. It's nice to know that we have people in this world who are smarter than all of the doctors and researchers that give us our cutting edge science, that's awesome. Maybe they should just ask you how to solve world hunger and cure cancer, because I'm sure you already know the answer to that too. Any "proof" that you could find supporting your "ideas" has been refuted by more recent research, by professional researchers and scientists. The old "proof" is, quite simply, wrong. I find absolutely absurd that you can so easily dismiss the results of the tests and studies that I mention without knowing anything about them. The Humane Society President, Dr. Leslie Sinclair, personally oversaw her taskforce. They examined newspaper articles from every major newspaper in the largest 250 cities in the United States during the month of October. They also contacted every police department in those cities and inquired about persons being charged with animal abuse charges. Despite their massive undertaking, which took two years to complete, they found no credible evidence to support the idea that black cats are sacrificed on Halloween. The few "reports" that they did find turned out to be hoaxes. And we're not talking about world-wide, I'm talking about the United States, where we live. But sitting here spouting that doctors and researchers are idiots and morons doesn't further your position. As I said before, find me CREDIBLE EVIDINCE to support your claims. Which cults say that Black Cats should be killed, specifically? Where do they say this? When did they say this? Why? How many cases have been reported? Where? By whom?
Admittedly, this was a little harsh, but this is one of my pet peeves. This lady is not debating, she’s arguing.  A debate would involve her responding to my posts with facts and or other data that I could then go and independently verify. She didn’t do this. She just stuck to her own narrow-minded opinion and continued to disregard all of the evidence that I presented to her. I implore you all, as you argue your viewpoints with others ask yourself; am I automatically refuting evidence because I don’t want to believe it’s true, or are my ideas supported by fact?


  1. I would like to submit for your approval:


These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.