Campus Blog

Confirmation Bias

Susie Richardson March 2, 2015

“Perhaps the most undervalued quality of a great mind or, at least, an awakened mind, is the willingness to abandon cherished ideas that cannot stand up to new evidence.” Joseph Loconte

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”  Sherlock Holmes

Gay Marriage? Artistic Nudity? Women’s Roles? Evolution? Tattoos? How do we decide about these things: determine right from wrong, good from bad, truth from lies?

Not that long ago my answer would have been “The Bible,” which (and I base this on many years of Sunday School experience) can usually be counted on as correct. And if not the Bible, then “Jesus.” Those answers always worked.

But now I think it’s not that simple to offer up the Bible as the final arbiter on such volatile questions.  It’s not that simple because, too often, the cognitive awareness we bring to Scripture’s pristine pages gets muddled by the underlying sum total of our cultural background, life experiences, education, and myriad other factors. Though we position ourselves within earshot of God’s voice, our subconscious babble tugs and pulls, distorts and distends the message. This is commonly referred to as confirmation bias , the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our own beliefs and preconceptions.

A most egregious example of this type of muddling was the disparity in the hermeneutics of Christians in the North and the South on the issue of slavery. In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis , Mark Noll carefully documents opposing conclusions reached by learned individuals studying the exact same Biblical passages.

In Noll’s book we read, “They saw clearly that no matter how much the voluntary reliance on scriptural authority had contributed to the construction of national civilization, if there were no higher religious authority than personal interpretation regarding an issue as contentious as slavery, the resulting public deadlock over the will of God would amount to a full blown theological crisis.” In other words, though the Bible was fundamental in the founding of our nation, the outworking of democracy as applied to hermeneutics— “interpretation by the people”—unleashed a Pandora’s box of problems.

This willingness of our forefathers to pay such a horrific toll as was exacted by the Civil War should give us pause and move us to fear such biases incubating within us.

Noll’s findings document a further fracturing; that of the Biblical underpinnings of our nation. While both sides touted the Bible as authoritative, the lingering effect was one of creating widespread distrust of Holy Writ as a ruling voice in the affairs of men and nations. Inaccurately handling the word of Truth can come with a price, both immediate and long term … and possibly cataclysmic.

In 1620, Francis Bacon in Novum Organum noted, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be an increasing number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects …”

A 19th century scientist also addressed this issue:  “I had … during many years, followed a golden rule, namely that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed by my general results, to make a memo of it without fail and at once, for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones.” This guard against confirmation bias can be found in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin .

Classic subscribers to confirming biases were the Pharisees, teachers of the law.  When someone was being hailed as the Messiah who didn’t fit their Messianic preconceptions, they dug in. “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free,” Jesus said. Then He responded to the objections of the Pharisees, saying to them, “Why is My language not clear to you? You are unable to hear what I say.” It’s these words of Jesus in John 8 that, centuries later, reverberate in Bacon’s observations and Darwin’s autobiography.

Back to sorting through those quivering topics listed at the beginning: How can we know we are able to hear what Jesus is saying? What is there to learn from the varying positions of antebellum theologians? How can we catch ourselves dismissing “unfavorable” facts and thoughts? Are we well-enough acquainted with ourselves to identify how we might distort God’s Word as it settles within us?

For me, exposing myself to viewpoints that contradict the one I tend to espouse has been of value in unmasking some of my pet biases. Learning to be respectfully curious of another’s position has sometimes resulted in adjusting my position, engendering unlikely friendships, and some good laughs. I think I would do well to pay closer attention any time a child voices their perspective on the world. And honing in on that other Sunday School answer, “Jesus,” noticing more carefully how He negotiated the controversial issues of His day.

What about you? What are you doing to guard against confirmation bias?

 

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