Got Bias?

I’m afraid I’ve been processing a couple of things and haven’t been able to write about them yet.  Which leaves room for a guest blogger!  Dr. Isham – aka the hubster – will be enlightening you today with his thoughts.  Enjoy!

I have been thinking about confirmation bias lately. Google defines it as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.” Basically, it’s our (everybody’s) tendency to see evidence that supports our position and ignore (or misinterpret) evidence that contradicts us. Unchecked, this confirmation bias can lead to a VERY skewed view of ourselves and the world around us.This is a big deal in research circles because if you go into a research project expecting a certain result (without being very careful of confirmation bias), your research findings may be skewed or worse, completely wrong.

This might not seem like a big deal, but I think it is, even in our daily lives. All of us have a very particular and personal view of the world. Some hold a Christian World view, and others do not. What do we do with situations that don’t fit into our paradigm? Do we ignore it, do we explain it away or discount it with sophisticated mental gymnastics, or do we wonder how that fits into our world view and wonder if our world view is off?

Confirmation bias is a 2-headed beast that must be controlled. On one side is our tendency to look ONLY for evidence that confirms what we already know. “God is good all the time, and all the time God is Good” Really? Is He good ALL the time, or do we choose to only pay attention to the times when He has been good to us because that phrase MUST be right because churches have been using it for years…or it’s in the Bible (that phrase is NOT in the Bible, by the way, but did you assume it was? might want to look that one up for yourself…)  We only look at the evidence that confirms the statement. We only look for time when God was good, and therefore, the phrase is correct.

The OTHER side of this is that we quickly discount or completely ignore the evidence to the contrary. Let’s take our test phrase again “God is good all the time…” What about the times when God DOESN’T come through? What about the times when your finances are stripped bare? Or what about when God DOESN’T protect you from harm? We Christians don’t even talk about those things because when we say God is Good, we tend to only find the good things in life. The rough parts don’t make sense to us, so we either ignore them or perform some pretty sophisticated mental gymnastics to make them fit into our paradigm instead of questioning whether our paradigm may need a bit of changing.

And we do this ALL. THE. TIME. we HAVE to make guesses about the world so we can (hopefully) predict how things work in the future. Without prediction, you can’t plan anything. EVER. Evolutionarily speaking, we have to try to make sense of our world or we would die. I use evolution as evidence here to mess with my Christian readers a bit. How many of you just discounted my argument because evolution has no place in your paradigm? What I am saying just lost credibility because I pointed to something you dont agree with?

Evolution vs Creation is a great study in confirmation bias. When I read discussions of creationist science (even well-structured research studies), I find both sides ignoring evidence that contradicts thier position and both sides seem to focus too much attention to evidence that BOTH supports thier theory AND contradicts the other. They may not be as contradictory as everyone seems to make them out to be, but without looking at ALL the evidence…without confirmation bias, the debate simply becomes more polarized and dogmatic.

We mere humans (as opposed to evolutionary or creationist scientists) do this all the time as well. How many times have we woken up in a bad mood and the day was horrible…until we started actually paying attention to the GOOD things happening that day as well. Sure, we stepped on legos that kids were supposed to put away yesterday and our pants were a bit too tight (Grr….), but what GOOD has happened today? If you are convinced that it’s a bad day, you will ignore the good things and LOOK for the bad things as evidence to confirm your prediction.

And what about me? I have a particular world view that I hold. What am I missing that other people are seeing that make their world different than mine? I have dogmatic liberal friends on facebook who disagree with pretty much everything I think as an evangelical Christian. What are THEY seeing that I am ignoring? What are THEY ignoring that I am seeing? We BOTH suffer from confirmation bias, so can I try to see things from their perspective, or will I continue to see things ONLY my way?

SO, here’s my challenge for you (and me) today. Find something that you don’t agree with and challenge yourself to figure out if it truly is the way you see it, or are you ignoring (or at least heavily discounting) evidence contrary to your viewpoint. Is this REALLY a bad day or am I just paying attention to the bad things? Am I assuming that person is a bad person because they hurt me once but I am ignoring how they can be kind and generous? I am ignoring someone with great wisdom because they are uneducated and clumsy in their speech? Am I assuming that someone is not worthy of being my friend because I disagree with their lifestyle? Are there beliefs I hold dear because I have chosen to ignore evidence to the contrary?

It’s a tough assignment, I know, but I think we can do it. I’ve seen the evidence 🙂