As a parent in that purgatory known as “potty training” I am of course familiar with Taro Gomi’s #1 Bestseller: Everyone Poops.
It is pearl of wisdom.
And since it has also been quite lucrative, I’ve even pondered writing my own classic to address a universal issue plaguing our society.
I call it Everyone Skews—a grownups guide to confirmation bias.
To save costs, we could even steal some illustrations from the Gomi classic (see especially the donkey and the elephant).
The need for such a book should be obvious: Everybody is biased at some level.
And in a highly polarized environment we become especially adept at spotting bias in “them” while being blind to it in “us.”
As Wittgenstein once said: “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.”
TYPES OF BIAS
In fact, there are many types of bias (see here)—and each should probably be taught with the kind of rote memorization once reserved for multiplication tables, and now replaced by Taylor Swift lyrics.
- Projection Bias
- The Gambler’s Fallacy
- The Anchoring Effect, and
- Current Moment Bias
But this is not about those.
Confirmation Bias (or “Myside Bias”) is the tendency we all have to focus only on claims that reinforce what we already believe.
As the argument goes, we humans can interpret almost any evidence as a confirmation of our existing opinions.
And this can make us stupid.
In the words of George Dvorsky:
We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. … It’s this preferential mode of behavior that leads to the confirmation bias … And paradoxically, the internet has only made this tendency even worse.
One result of this is what I call a “silo culture” (see here) is a general lack of listening.
WHY DOES IT SMELL FUNNY?
This is dangerous, because to quote Rosaria Butterfield (yet again): we all tend to become sentimentally attached to our bad ideas.
Hence the children’s book for grownups.
While Everyone Skews, more problems come when we deny that our biases stink like those of other people.
“Sure that other News network smells funny, but mine smells like roses and truth. It even says so on the label.”
(Never mind that both are driven by the same quest for ad revenue that guides Keeping Up With the Kardashians.)
CAN I FLUSH IT?
A further danger with confirmation bias is the evidence suggesting there is little correlation between one’s understanding of a given issue and one’s confidence in understanding it.
A sign of this comes in a recent Yale study (here) involving—and I am not making this up…—how a toilet functions.
The study asked folks to rate their understandings of basic processes, including zippers and how a bathroom stool works.
Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because …(Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)
[The researchers] see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.
But while such ignorance is fairly unimportant when it comes to toilets, it is more dangerous in other areas:
It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban [or any other position] without knowing what I’m talking about.
Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” … And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem.
BELIEVING THE LIE
Interestingly, the New Testament goes even further.
In Romans 1, Paul attributes the universal human rejection of God (a fairly serious bias), not merely to ignorance or lack of evidence, but to our active “suppression” of the truth.
This is how deep bias runs.
As Paul argues, we all want to “believe the lie” at certain points because lies are more convenient.
Because of this, we need something more than information.
We need Grace.
In some ways, this startling diagnosis should encourage a certain patience when dealing with the biases of others, because I realize that I am prone to even more egregious truth suppressions.
THREE PRACTICAL STEPS
Apart from a gracious overthrow of previous perspectives, there are some practical steps to breaking bias. Here are three simple ones:
- Admit the problem.
I can’t have my biases challenged if I don’t admit their existence.
While some folks are clearly more biased than others, there is no view from nowhere.
Every perspective–including mine–carries with it certain blindspots and prejudices.
No one is completely fair and balanced.
So claiming to be so is either ignorance or duplicity.
- Irrigate your ideas.
Idea irrigation happens as we expose ourselves to new and differing perspectives. The goal here is not to adopt opposing viewpoints (they might be wrong), but to understand them and (this is important) to encounter them in their most cogent form.
Along these lines, I recently heard a libertarian colleague tell me that he gets all his news from periodicals (not the rubbish heap of Cable News).
Then he told me that he subscribes to thoughtful publications from opposing angles. That seems like great advice. Read diverse thinkers who know how to write in complete sentences.
- Embrace Surprise.
As the biochemist Isaac Asimov once said:
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’.”
What he meant was that our greatest advancements come not when our old presuppositions are confirmed, but when they’re rattled—and we notice it.
Thomas Kuhn called these “anomalies.”
They are observations that don’t make sense under the current paradigm.
Along these lines, some scientists are now encouraged to start a “Surprise Journal” (see here) in which each entry chronicles three things:
- The moment of surprise.
- Why it was surprising.
- What this tells me.
The point is to fight confirmation bias and to turn the dissonance into a moment of discovery.
What if more than just scientists did this?
What if we began to notice (and even delight) in those instances in which our presuppositions are surprisingly upended?
In my view, that would be a good thing.
Because all facts are friendly when you’re chasing truth.
For more on bias and what a proper information “diet” looks like, check out The Information Diet, by Clay Johnson (here).