Biased … Again

I posted this before here and on my other blog, Both Sides Now, but reading the news this morning, it seemed more appropriate than ever. It seems to me that if we don’t harness our tendency to find evidence supporting what we already believe (confirmation bias), we will tear our nation apart.

biasI like to begin my day with a cup of coffee at my side and my tablet in front of me, seeing what is going on in the world from the various news outlets. I have searched for years for a source of unbiased news (a phrase that should be a truism but turns out to be an oxymoron) but have finally settled on reading biased news from a variety of sources, then drawing my own conclusion. Over in the blogosphere or on social media, it is worse. Opinions masquerading as facts may not win the day but they dominate it. It is as if we are pre-programmed to be biased, which we are. The culprit is not some brain-hacker out of The Matrix but a fundamental characteristic of our species known as Confirmation Bias. Our Creator (or Evolution, you choose) has endowed us with a very strong tendency to sort through the array of information available to us at any instant and choose that which supports our currenttiger2 opinions, thus strengthening our belief. Some scientists explain that for our ancestors, dealing with simpler (but more critical) situations (like Is that a Sabre-Toothed Tiger and is it likely to eat me?), reaching a quick decision in the face of sensory overload was a matter of life or death. If this is the case, then Confirmation Bias is strongly linked to our Flight or Fight Response, becoming strongest when the situation seems threatening.

We seem to live in a time in which Confirmation Bias rules the day. Everyone seems to be certain about everything and ready to expound on evidence that is a mix of facts, pseudo-facts and just plain bullshit. I would suggest that this is because our government, our media (social and otherwise) and many of our citizens raise every news story to the level of international crisis and certain doom. Anthrax turns up in a few envelopes in government offices and people are hoarding Cipro. A terrorist drives into a crowd, killing 7 and, suddenly, every Muslim is a terrorist. The president makes a few admittedly stupid statements (relax, that’s only my opinion) and the media has us on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Oh, how the media loves a crisis. And with Social Media, we get to join in on the fun. When everything is a crisis, it triggers the Flight or Fight Response, which, in turns Confirmation Bias up to HIGH. We stop thinking and start reacting, like our primitive ancestors. More accurately, we switch from Exploratory thought, which neutrally considers multiple points of view and tries to anticipate all possible objections to a particular position, to confirmatory thought seeks to justify a specific point of view. Except the issues in today’s world are more complex than, Is that a Sabre-Toothed Tiger and is it likely to eat me?

I don’t believe that the biggest threat to democracy is the president, the Left, the Right or the Alt-Right. It isn’t our admittedly biased media or social media. It isn’t Vladimir Putinpogo or Muslim extremists. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo says, We have met the enemy and he is us. Or more accurately, our Confirmation Bias, fanned by the ability of our government, our media and ourselves make us believe everything is a crisis. Want to save democracy? Stand up to your Confirmation Bias. Oh, yeah, you’ve got it. Do you ever say, I agree with you Bud, but this, I will always believe? Do you ever read articles you find difficult to believe? Do you only recommend articles that support your current position? Do automatically assume certain organizations … races … religions … people … are bad? Or good? Yeah, you do. Yeah, we do.

brinkSo, how do we stand up to our Confirmation Bias? Well, we start by stepping back from the brink. Confirmation Bias runs the show only when those primitive corners of our brain think we’re dealing with a Sabre-Toothed Tiger. Everything is NOT a crisis, even if the media and your friends on social media say it is. Then comes the hard part (who said democracy was easy?). Force yourself to consider the Other Side, that possibility that you are wrong. Look for exceptions to your view (I’m sorry to tell you, there are always exceptions). Read something directly contrary to your opinion, or come at it from a different angle, say your emotions instead of your reason. Talk to someone who disagrees. Here’s the cool part (as we said back in my day) … you don’t have to change your opinion for this to work. All you have to do is crack open the door.

I’ll have more to say tomorrow.

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One Comment on “Biased … Again”

  1. Margy Says:

    I’ve been watching YouTube Interviews by Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, etc – very refreshing to watch them be energized by the differences of opinion. Munk Debates are interesting too – this Friday it is Steve Bannon vs David Frum. Should be a rousing affair, assuming it doesn’t get cancelled because of protests.

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