Thursday, August 19, 2010

Confirmation Bias

Orin Kerr has two wonderful posts over at Volokh: Brilliant People Agree With Me and People Who Disagree With Me Are Just Arguing In Bad Faith. Funny with a point.

The power of confirmation bias fascinates me because it is my own. I fancied myself a logician, an uber-rationalist from highschool on, in days when I was quite liberal. I was distressed as I passed 30 to begin to discover how many of my opinions were social markers rather than strictly logical. I held the beliefs of "my people" - not without artful variations of my own, of course; marvelous are the subtle ways that we disguise ourselves from ourselves, and I needed those idiosyncrasies, those deviations from standard, to maintain the fiction that I was an independent thinker.

I don't mean to paint this too starkly, like those seem to feel that their testimony of coming to Jesus must include truly awful things they were involved in to make the story better. I was a logician in part. I did have some ability to stand alone even from a young age. But this was nowhere near as dominant in my personality as I thought.

We move also in the direction of our social contacts: friends, coworkers, congregants, neighbors, and even those distant people we listen to or read about who seem to be from a culture we would like to be a member of. On this score, I am lucky that I wanted much to be a descendant of Inkling culture, especially of Lewis. Time and again he proved me wrong, and reluctantly, gradually, I came to his views on many subjects. I was lucky also in my friends. These evangelical Christians - pretty close to fundamentalists in those days - were precisely the people who my work associates assured me were intolerant, close-minded, and unthinking. Those fundies were, in contrast, more willing to discuss things honestly and consider alternatives than the open-minded mental health professionals. The latter groups is somewhat more tolerant now. I know many psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists who are believers - but I knew almost none 30 years ago, an era that we think more religious than our own.

Perhaps I just had an especially nice group of fundie friends, our longstanding Bible study in particular. But at least in the Covenant, I have been able to consistently find people who were willing to hear you out, make your case, and consider the merits of your argument. Not always, of course. Just a lot more than anywhere else.

I write opinions here, and fall into the trap of thinking myself opinionated in the usual sense. But I don't offer political opinions as much as I think I do. I am much more likely to focus on the arguments that people do make for their side and poke holes in them. That's not a reason...Social signifiers you are unaware of are leaking out all over...That's a contradiction... and hopefully, being able to stand back from it all and say to myself "Pretend all the intellectual content of this essay is irrelevant, mere post hoc reasoning for an opinion taken for entirely social reasons. Does anything change?"

The danger of this is that it still applies to my own opinions as well. I am sure I miss an enormous amount of my own emotional leakage. But I at least consciously try to turn the spotlight on what I write as well, try to see if there are places where I am guilty of precisely the error I am exposing. I find it all the time, sentence by sentence as I go, and have to rethink and reword comments the moment after I type them. "What would an antagonist see in that statement?"


Dr X said...

Excellent post. Informed self-skepticism rarely articulated in blogs, or anyplace else for that matter.

I don't believe this kind of thinking is possible when one is young. We must face up to being wrong many times before we seriously reckon with our own biases, particularly confirmation bias. The long view doesn't exist in our twenties and, so often, it takes years to recognize that our own arguments were not as airtight as we once believed.

(another) Jonathan said...

The older I get the more I realize how wrong many of my past judgments were. This realization has made me more cautious about offering opinions and advice, though I suspect not nearly as cautious as I should be.

It has also made me extremely skeptical of people who confidently offer advice yet will not publicly acknowledge their own past errors. Many prominent advice-givers fall into this category. (So do most politicians, and the worst are the most confident. When Obama said that he never doubts himself I immediately thought that nobody who isn't a flagrant liar or nuts would say such a thing, and as far as I can tell I was right.)