Policy makers, decision-makers, journalists, and indeed all of us have an ethical obligation to be on the alert for confirmation bias, that insidious human tendency to interpret all external phenomena as confirmation of our established opinions and beliefs. Why do we have the obligation? We have it because confirmation bias makes us dogmatic, inflexible, close-minded, incompetent, and, in a word, stupid. Life can make us wiser, but not if we misinterpret everything so as not to disturb our most cherished certainties.
This month, scientists may well have discovered that there was life on earth 3.4 billion years ago. That is the age of a recent fossil discovery in Australia. It is only bacteria, and there is some validation left to do. If the fossils are what they appear to be, however, they pose an immediate ethical dilemma for fundamentalist Christians, who maintain that the Biblical account of creation is the undeniable truth, and that, as a result, the Earth is between 6 and 10 thousand years old. Needless to say, there is a yawning chasm between 3.6 billion and six thousand.
It is very traumatic to acquire information that challenges one’s core beliefs, and few handle the crisis well. For those whose religious beliefs are incompatible with facts, confirmation bias is a port in a storm. Thus the new discovery will be embraced as proof that scientists are hostile to religion and actively trying to undermine God, or as more evidence of the fallibility of science, or as a discovery of another one of those sneaky fake fossils God (or maybe Satan) has planted here to test our faith, as kind of a pre-Rapture final exam.
Then there is Glenn Beck, emerging from increasing irrelevance to give us another primer on confirmation bias, a sincere one, no doubt, but irresponsible nonetheless.
Beck told listeners Friday that Hurricane Irene is “a blessing from God.” He said Irene should be construed as a divine warning for those who have ignored his repeated advice that listeners should stockpile food.
“How many warnings do you think you’re going to get, and how many warnings do you deserve? This hurricane that is coming thorough the East Coast, for anyone who’s in the East Coast and has been listening to me say ‘Food storage!’ ‘Be prepared!’ If you’ve waited, this hurricane is a blessing. It is a blessing. It is God reminding you — as was the earthquake last week — it’s God reminding you you’re not in control. Things can happen. Be prepared and be someone who can help others so when disaster strikes, God forbid, you’re not panicking.”
Now, any natural catastrophe should remind us to be better prepared, but Beck is hijacking a straightforward lesson from experience to justify his proselytizing listeners with a religious message, specifically one of the tenets of the Mormon Church. Ethics foul. First, it’s a bait-and-switch: Beck is supposed to be a pundit, not a preacher, and is misusing his position to make it a propaganda vehicle for his personal faith. Second, his argument is classic confirmation bias. The hurricane doesn’t prove that God wants us to stockpile food and water; Beck’s religious beliefs supply him with a prism through which any occurrence confirms his belief in God’s will. Third, and I know I’ve discussed this before, it is arrogant and presumptuous to claim that a Supreme and infallible Being has weighed in on your side. It is the ultimate unfair tactic: if God is willing to destroy homes and kill people to send the message that Glenn Beck was right all along, why, we would be fools not to do what Glenn Beck says…always. Right, Glenn?
Meanwhile, global warming hysterics are arguing that Irene proves that the climate is becoming lethal to human life. And a Detroit Free Press columnist tops Beck by suggesting that Irene was sent by Martin Luther King himself, because America “isn’t ready” to dedicate his memorial.
I do not say that avoiding confirmation bias is easy, and sometimes it may even be impossible. I became convinced that Joe Biden was a goof-prone dingbat long before he became Vice-President; when I read about his troubling comments on China’s one-child policy, it naturally strikes me as just more proof of his ineptitude. For those who believe—and there may really be rational people who do think this—that Biden is a wily politician who was making a nuanced diplomatic calculation, his gaffe is far more excusable. Who is the more biased? Yet I cannot possibly consider Biden’s comments without being influenced by what I already believe.
Anyone who holds or expresses opinions, especially for public consumption, has to be aware of confirmation bias and try to minimize its effects. The alternative is for public discourse to ossify into a futile battle of closed minds, each using the same facts as ammunition, conveniently distorted to fit pre-determined positions. Democracy cannot survive in such an environment.
And please, let’s keep God’s opinion out of it. If He “works in mysterious ways,” then His ways shouldn’t suddenly become un-mysterious as soon as it suits Glenn Beck.