Actually, it was yesterday, and there was no splatter on the blackboard. In fact, there wasn’t even a blackboard. I digress.
Once again I spoke to a class of Christian high school students taught by my high school friend Dr. Bridget Melson. Bridget (or Dr. B as she is often called) remarked before I started speaking that I represent the exact opposite of everything she believes in, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t really mean it. I think we both agree that democracy is better than monarchy and that slavery is bad. After that, sure, it becomes a little difficult to find common ground.
The last time I spoke to this class I had two conversations with students afterwards that I found a little unsettling. One student was absolutely convinced that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks of 9/11 and that this justified the invasion of Iraq. (For the record, kids, even George Bush himself has admitted that Saddam Hussein had no connection to 9/11.) The other conversation was shorter, and rushed as the students were trying to ask me questions while simultaneously getting packed up to leave for their next class. It basically boiled down to how to evaluate conflicting versions of events and who can be trusted.
These two conversations, while separate, struck me as related, specifically as a problem of selection bias or confirmation bias. When Bridget invited me to return to the class a couple weeks ago, I had already been considering talking about this issue when the BLS report came out on Friday, and a large portion of the right wing lost their collective minds. The idea of a conspiracy by the BLS to defraud the American people being talked about as a plausible scenario is disturbing, and to me, it was a perfect illustration of a form of confirmation bias where people are willing to latch on to any seemingly plausible fantasy that allows them to believe what they want to believe.
So Sunday night I took an hour or so and I wrote this little speech which I read to the class before the Q&A started. I kept it to 500 words (which is about 5 minutes of speaking for me) because I really didn’t want them to fall asleep, and I think I only lost one or two while I read it. Here it is:
Humans have a problem. It’s a problem that all humans tend to share, regardless of ideology, philosophy, political party, or religious belief. When we try to investigate the truth about natural issues — that is, issues or questions of fact for which we can compile evidence, not supernatural issues — we all have a tendency to seek out and accept only that evidence which reinforces what we want to believe. It’s called confirmation bias.
In fact, the problem is even worse than just a tendency to look only at sources with which we agree. Many of us, when shown evidence which contradicts our preferred outcome, become entrenched. We dig in, insisting even harder that the new evidence is flawed, pointing out any imperfection, no matter how small or irrelevant, and we tend to look pretty silly doing it, especially to disinterested observers.
There are ways to overcome this. In the scientific or academic world the most important antidote to confirmation bias is peer review. Do you have a cool new theory about how something works? Awesome, publish all your work, detail your methodologies and results, and then sit back and cringe as everyone you respect in your field tears your new theory apart. If it survives all that, you might be on to something, at least until someone else publishes new information or a better theory.
But while peer review is very effective for humanity, it’s not very effective for us as individuals. How do we as individuals overcome this? Well, awareness is a big first step. Recognizing times when we are guilty of bias is really important. But this is a tricky problem. Even people who are fully aware of it are guilty of it occasionally, without realizing it.
So the other way we can overcome this bias is through something which many people reject outright, and that is… faith.
Now any of the scientifically inclined among you should be objecting, and you’re right to object to a certain kind of expression of faith. It is indeed unscientific to make a statement like “I know that global warming is false, regardless of what the evidence says, because I have faith.” (Remember, I’m talking about questions of the natural world.) I reject such statements, and they can be, in fact, a form of this very problem.
However, I do think it is faith that allows you to say, “I will follow this evidence to wherever it leads, and whatever I find will be okay, because I believe in something bigger than this issue. The truth about this issue is not a threat to that greater truth, and can only improve my understanding of it.”
In fact, allowing bias to influence your judgement is a failure of faith, because it suggests that your greater truth is vulnerable.
If you remember absolutely nothing else about what I say today, I hope you’ll remember that.
After that we talked a little about the jobs numbers and why 114,000 jobs added could result in a 0.3% decrease in unemployment. (Two different surveys.) And then we talked a lot about the debate, and why Obama had such a poor performance. (Not the altitude!) It was a really fun (for me) discussion. I was surprised that when I asked who the students thought would win the election, only one clearly raised his hand and said Romney would win. A lot were unsure, but about half thought Obama would win. I would have expected them to be more bullish on Romney’s prospects, so soon after his debate win.
One student asked me whether I thought that Mitt Romney changed his positions a lot. I smiled, thought about it, and finally said, “I think he has taken changing positions to a whole new level.” I talked about two of the things that Romney said in the debate which directly contradicted what he had said in the primaries. The most egregious one, obviously, is his insistence (now) that he does not want a tax cut for wealthy Americans. In February of this year, Mr. Romney stated that he would cut taxes by 20% for all Americans, “including for the top 1 percent.” He was very specific about including them before the debate, and then suddenly the policy position had changed.
The other (that I talked about) was his statement that his healthcare plan would cover people with pre-existing conditions, which was so ridiculous that his campaign “clarified” it on the same night of the debate.
In response to these obvious position reversals, Dr. B offered that Barack Obama had flip flopped on same-sex marriage. I conceded that he had indeed changed his position, but I then added that when he changed his position he didn’t then immediately say, “and I’ve been saying the same thing the whole time.”
This is the kind of false equivalency that I often encounter with Romney supporters. Romney flips his positions on taxes, healthcare, teachers, the Middle East, plus how he feels about 47% of Americans and that’s all okay because President Obama flipped on gay marriage. Never mind that while Obama’s official position on gay marriage has changed, he had already taken steps to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, passing hate-crime legislation that included crimes targeting homosexuals, and being supportive of increased rights extended to civil unions. It was only after concluding that civil unions would never be sufficient to achieve the same rights that marriage provides that the president changed his mind on marriage equality, and it was entirely consistent with the other pro-LGBT legislative actions he had previously taken.
Suggesting that Obama’s self-described “evolution” on marriage equality is in any way equivalent to Romney’s ideological Etch-a-Sketching is a bit of a stretch, and probably could be included in a discussion of confirmation bias if one were so inclined. (/snark.)
Still, a great discussion, and I really enjoyed it. Thanks again to my good friend Bridget for inviting me, and for proving, definitively, that disagreeing with people can be done respectfully and with a smile.