Confirmation Bias


– Rant # 171 –


Okay, this is now the 314th time I’ll have said it. I take no interest, one way or the other, in any of the The-Sky-is-Falling-No-it’s-Not claims and counterclaims currently consuming many of my colleagues’ time. (And, unfortunately, their students’ class-time.) But I do take an interest, in fact a keen one, in their interest in these issues. I’m especially interested in the role confirmation bias plays in their so-called ‘research’ into these matters, and in just how oblivious they are to that role.

For example, I’d have thought that all I had to do was say, Look at your bookshelf. What does that tell you?

“That anthropogenic global warming is real.”

Ah, no, what I meant was, have you read any of what you call the denialist literature?

“No need to. “


“It’s all been refuted.”

By …?

“By every one of those books on that shelf.”

Well, all I can say is, nice work if you can get it! Nice work too going from

1) Global warming may have worsened the drought which may, in turn, have exacerbated the political conflicts leading to the civil war in Syria, to

2) global warming is the cause of the civil war in Syria!

Well, at least it’s nice to know that, pace Tony Hall, not everything is the machinations of those mephistophilian Zionists.

Another’s confirmation bias is a hard nut to crack. But it can be done, provided you’re persistent. What you have to do is ask, “What makes you think that’s been refuted?” And then, to whatever he answers, “What makes you believe that?” And so on. Eventually your interlocutor will have to admit that he’s taken that refutation on faith, which means he’s likewise taken on faith the position being unsuccessfully refuted. In fact he hasn’t done any honest epistemic toil at all!

Getting him to see that won’t convert him, or even make him agnostic on the question at issue. But with any luck it’ll shut him up. And maybe that’s enough to make your Herculean efforts worthwhile.

But none of this will happen. Why not? Because no one has the requisite persistence. Beyond the second or third question you’ll be rightly judged – in fact you’ll judge yourself – as just being churlish. Being churlish is just one notch below being an asshole. Nobody wants to be an asshole. And so that’s how your interlocutor gets to go on deluding himself. If no one calls him on his confirmation bias he has no reason to believe there is any.

So as it turns out confirmation bias is not an individual epistemic vice. It’s a collective one. We’re supposed to be a corrective to each other’s faulty reasoning. In reality we become accomplices in it.

What’s to be done about this? Apparently not a damn thing!

Categories: Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

Tags: , , ,

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