Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Pullin' the Wool Over Our Own Eyes

I’m fascinated with how people make decisions and why folks dig trenches around their takes even in the face of pretty obvious contradictory evidence. I’ve noticed over the years that we often give props to ‘an open mind' but are usually closed to actually having one. Religion and politics are two areas where that rigidity of mind and spirit can be especially obvious.

Social scientists call that process ‘confirmation bias.’ Basically, that means holding a strong bias and then selectively choosing evidence or experience that confirms that bias and ignoring or eliminating evidence or experience that doesn’t fit with the pre-existing take. Obviously, confirmation bias plays a big role in everything from science to jury decisions to, well, you name it.

Deception and self-deception are very closely related to confirmation bias, and evolutionary biologists and social scientists are making some pretty interesting discoveries right now about why we deceive each other and ourselves so easily.

I’ve also thought a lot about how various religions deal with confirmation bias and deception/self-deception.

In the Christian tradition, folks talk about self-justification. Maybe that's the closest religious equivalent to 'confirmation bias.' Christians think that people are driven powerfully to deceive themselves and to 'make a case,' whatever the actual reality or facts, for their own desires and decisions. In the New Testament way of thinking, deception of others and self-deception flow pretty easily from self-justification.

I’ve described myself a lot here in P and P as a Christian anarchist. Without going into great detail, Christian anarchy is all about--among other things--accepting the fundamental reality of confirmation bias and self-justification and self-deception. That means a life giving faith should include appropriate skepticism about various claims and ideologies and a satirical spirit that recognizes the pretentiousness normally lurking just below the surface of pretty much everything. Especially when it comes to ideology or religion or politics.

Ran across some cool science recently on this whole thing:

Check out a brief article by Michael Shermer of Scientific American. He points out that brain science increasingly demonstrates that confirmation bias is ‘hard wired’ into our heads.

Take a look too at a fascinating 6 minute video conversation between Robert Trivers, a leading evolutionary biologist, and Noam Chomsky, the famous MIT linguist, on the reasons why deception and self-deception may have evolved as a central part of our make-up. When Trivers refers to our current political leaders as ‘that present set of organisms,’ you know you’re listening to a scientist deep into his subject :^)

Touching on the post 9/11 world one last time, have we just lived through a five year binge of confirmation bias and self-deception on the part of most everybody in the room?


Anonymous Jon said...

Michael Shermer is one of the more unpleasant people I've ever met. Yet I totally agree with his article (although saying that "Strict double-blind controls are required in experiments" is sort of a white-washed generalization about science).

1:11 AM  
Blogger 3wishes said...

I believe more than 50% of civilization is chemically dependent, so the word "binge" was just about perfect. And by chemically dependent I dont mean oxygen and water. Pullin the wool over our eyes is just another way to try to get to euphoria without chemicals.

12:10 PM  

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