Ep 21 – Confirmation Bias

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As an atheist who openly criticizes religion I often get this question “Why do you care some much about something you don’t believe in?  Seems like you are trying hard not to believe.”  My good friend Phil over The Week in Doubt has spoken on this topic several times and he put it like this: “The study of religion does not belong exclusively to the religious.”  I think he states this perfectly.  Just because I don’t believe what you believe, doesn’t me I don’t have a right to analyze, study and criticize those beliefs.  Most atheists come to be atheist after careful consideration of the evidence and close study of the details.  We don’t believe based on faith or by what someone told us, instead, we take the time to study and come to a conclusion.  I’m not saying believers don’t study their beliefs, I know several that do but the ones that actually look outside of their bubble end up seeing things for what they really are.

I was speaking with a classmate over email and the topic of religion came up, specifically Christianity.  Now my friend is big into social justice like most social work graduates tend to be.  She had a difficult time reconciling her Christian belief with same sex rights.  Eventually she was defending a belief that she didn’t believe in anymore.  She came to the realization that being a Christian didn’t make much sense if you have one group using the Bible to justify discrimination and another using the same Bible to justify tolerance.  I asked her what is it about the Christian faith makes her need Jesus.  What she lives and practices can be obtained from a number of philosophies that are based on faith or non-faith?  Is it the threat of hell?  She responded back and said that she no longer considers herself a Christian and she thanked me for being open about my beliefs for two years during school, being outspoken and a vocal critical thinker. She just couldn’t keep up the facade; she stepped outside her bubble and saw the world for what it really is.

She did what John Loftus calls the ‘Outsiders Test of Faith.’  Simply put, you analyze your own religion as if you were an outsider.  Christians reject Judaism and Islam.  Why? They may tell you that they have studied the religion and that they think Christianity is the best choice but what they may fail to realize, especially here in the US, is that they have been inundated with Christian iconography since birth They are already primed to think Christianity is true because it is the dominate influence in their culture.  The same can be said for Jews and Muslims.  We all fall victim to this error in reasoning and it is called confirmation bias.  In this episode, I am going to look at what is confirmation bias, how we fall victim to it and how we can avoid it.

Defining confirmation bias is rather simple.  It’s the tendency of people to favor information that already confirms their beliefs or hypothesis [link].  Here is an example:  I know Christianity (or Islam, Judaism, etc…) to be true so I am only going to find information that supports that belief.  The same could be said for atheist such as ‘I know there is not God so I am only going to search out information that supports that belief.’  I’ve done that and I will probably continue to but I do recognize that I do it and I try hard to look for resources that are contrary to my beliefs.  This effect is the strongest when beliefs are emotionally charged and deeply entrenched.  This is why it is often very difficult to argue with a believer.  They have too much invested into their belief system to budge when new data is presented that differs from what they already know.

Let me use a personal example.  When I first became a Christian, I was twenty years old and stationed in South Korea.  I had a lot of free time on my hands and access to a computer with internet.  I searched out information that confirmed my new faith for a year.  It got so bad that I thought Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day was of the devil.  I became obsessed with the End Times and bought books about prophecy’s, Armageddon and the second coming of Christ.  I had books on apologetics, evidence that the Bible was historically accurate and books by authors defending the Christian faith.  I still have many of these books on my book shelf.  Once I lost my faith, my reading habits changed.  Here is a list of some of the books I have in my Amazon Wish List labeled religion:

  • The God Problem
  • Atheism and the Case Against Christ
  • Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed At All
  • God and His Demons
  • Good without God
  • The Messiah Before Jesus
  • The Portable Atheist

You get the point.  My reading list now consists of books that are counter to faith.  Is this confirmation bias?  Yes, it is.  I now filter information through the lens of my atheism.  I seek out information that supports my belief that there is no God.  How is that not confirmation bias?  If I am being honest, I am doing the same thing that I did when I was a believer.  How are any of us any different from a believer who filters information based on their beliefs?

Confirmation bias is one of the most common cognitive errors we humans make.  There is an explanation for this.  Each of us has been raised to view the world a certain way.  Since birth, our thoughts, ideas and environment have been shaped for us.  If you were born in urban Chicago you see the world one way than if you were born in rural Alabama.  Black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, all of these shape the way we view the world.  Our brains are a resource hog.  It takes a lot of energy to power this biological computer.  We have to be able to filter information quickly or we would be stuck analyzing every minute detail of every thought and action.  On a cognitive level, it is much easier to deal with data that supports our beliefs.  It requires fewer resources and allows us to do other things like hunt, seek shelter and mate.  We quickly assess the data and if it conforms to what we already know, we take it in and keep it.  If it does not conform, we toss it aside either permanently or to be analyzed later.

Researching these episodes for this podcast takes a lot of effort and energy.  I have to analyze different viewpoints and sources and come to a conclusion.  It would be easier just to find information that already conforms to my beliefs.  Having lost my faith, the emotional toll it took on me was tremendous.  I am sure some of you have experienced that as well when losing your own faith.  When your worldview gets flipped upside down you can do one of two things.  Retreat back to what is comforting or adventure out into that uncomfortable place and see where it leads.  It’s hard, really hard but ultimately it’s worth it.

Frequency illusion is a key component of confirmation bias.  It has been called by several different names but the one I like most is “the red care fallacy.”  What this does it illicit responses from the pattern seeking parts of our brain that once we are conscious of the red car (or any item that we weren’t previously conscious of) all we notice now are red cars.  Does this mean there is an increase in red cars on the road?  No, the number of red cars on the road has not changed just our conscious awareness of them.  You will see this from people all the time when they explain how the universe or God or whatever is giving them a sign.  Deep down, you want things to go one way or the other and once you have that established, you will find events or objects to confirm that stance or belief.  I had this happen to me when I bought a new car recently.  Up until the point I owned the car or started looking at that specific car, I barely noticed them on the road.  Now, I see them everywhere [link].  Once your mind is set on observing something, you begin to only filter those pieces of information, out of the chaos that is life; you only noticed those data points that support your thoughts or beliefs.

Frequency illusion dovetails nicely into another concept of confirmation bias which is ‘ignoring the misses and remembering the hits.’  Psychics are masters of this and we are slaves to it.  Psychics throw out a lot of crap, hoping that some of it sticks.  They could ask ten questions but only get one right.  That is a miss rate of 90%.  But, do people remember those 9 wrong questions?  Of course not, they only remember that one correct one.  When controlled, psychics are no better than chance.  Why doesn’t this stop people from believing them though?  Confirmation bias!  People that go to psychics want to believe.  They want to hear from their loved ones, they want to know their fortune and future.  You have already done most of the work, the psychic just has to be right that one time and you’re gone, hook line and sinker.

I don’t know if this is a real term or not but I want to talk about the Google Effect.  There is more information on the internet today than at any point in time in human history and it grows every single day.  We’ve all been there.  We set out to look for one thing and then next thing you know hours have gone by and now you are on Wikipedia reading about quantum mechanics when all you wanted was a recipe for guacamole.  With the internet and Google, we can type pretty much anything in the search box and see a return of some kind.  I have done this time and time again, especially for this podcast.  I want to look at a specific claim and I have an idea of what I want to find.  I type in the key words and I don’t see any results that I like or to put it another way, results that don’t support my preconceived hypothesis.  Instead of reading the stuff that doesn’t support my hypothesis, what do I do?  I search again but this time using different keywords and again and again and again until I find the answer I want.  I catch myself doing this all the time.  Eventually I give up and change my hypothesis but not after trying five or six different searches.

It seems pretty hopeless, we cannot escape confirmation bias.  We are doomed to hold on stubbornly to our beliefs and never change our minds but we know this is not true.  Most of us are prime examples of this.  We were once believers and now we are not.  How did we break the spell of confirmation bias to escape?  Critical thinking is the antidote to confirmation bias.  The lack of confirmation bias is most evident in science.  It is still there and scientist can and do fall victim to it just like everyone else but the scientific method has built in mechanisms to limit the influence of confirmation bias.  It consists of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formation, testing, and modification of hypotheses [link].  That last part is the key, modification.  If the evidence does not support the hypothesis, you modify your hypothesis and test again.  If it does support your hypothesis, you run the test again and again and again.  Once all that is done, you send your hypothesis to be peer reviewed.  This process is where peers in your field of study try to tear your hypothesis apart.  They look for flaws in your testing, in your analysis and in your conclusions.  Confirmation bias cannot survive this when don properly, which is why science is one of the most reliable tools we have for understanding our world.

What about philosophy?  Religion?  God?  Some things you can’t test scientifically and this is true.  This is where confirmation bias is at its worst, subjective truth and opinions. This is where critical thinking is so important.  The key component of critical thinking is seeking views that are antithetical to your own.  You have to constantly challenge your beliefs, you have to be pushed into uncomfortable places and you can’t be afraid of being wrong.  That is how most of us got where we are today.  We pushed ourselves into that uncomfortable space of doubt, we sought alternate viewpoints and we were not afraid of being wrong.  Avoiding confirmation bias is not easy and it never will be but we have to be careful, as non-believers, not to fall into the traps that we accuse other people of falling into.  In science, we move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary, we need to do this with beliefs and opinions as well.

I cannot stress this enough.  No one is above confirmation bias.  We can all fall victim to it but we don’t have to be slaves to it.  With practiced and polished critical thinking skills, with active investigation and the hunger for truth, no matter where the evidence leads, we can diminish its control on us.  Keep this in mind when speaking with people with contradictory viewpoints.  If you are so convinced you are right and they are wrong, take a step back and try to see things from their perspective and re-examine your viewpoint.  By doing this, you’d be surprised how often we are wrong.

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

– Francis Bacon