Honesty and the Confirmation Bias

An issue that comes up consistently in discussions of the unprecedented ability of the internet to spread political information to users, is the question of whether this actually improves the quality of public discourse, or whether it is simply an avenue for people who already believe X to find many arguments and facts in support of X, while ignoring content which puts their values into question. The technical term for this tendency is confirmation bias. I’ve written about this issue several times before , including a post about Julian Assange’s assessment of the blog world, which he effectively acuses of being little more than confirmation bias:

In fact, people write about things in general, if it’s not part of their career, because they want to display their values to their peers who are already in the same group. Actually they don’t give a fuck about the material, that’s the reality.

While Julian’s assessment might be a dash impolite, I think he got straight to the point about the dishonesty required to enact confirmation bias in one’s intellectual work – you have to not care about the material. But, to make sense of this, it is required to think more deeply about what “material” is in the context of political or journalistic content, usually textual. Material, or content, is not literally a piece of text, but some assemblage of perspectives, values, analyses, arguments, facts, figures. Any part of material can, if you engage with it honestly, challenge the perspectives, values, analyses, arguments, and facts which motivated your interest in engaging with the material in the first place. This is, I think, the real meaning of “keeping an open mind” (the usual meaning, something like “not making judgements”, is reactionary tool used by power to prevent people from engaging in moral action by keeping them obsessed with their inability to overcome their own particularity).

But why would one engage in material with honesty? There is, after all, a strong incentive to engage material only to bolster one’s existing stories about oneself and one’s role in the world, because these stories allow us to understand our lives as significant, meaningful, worth living. This is true that we need stories, but it is not true that we need the specific story which we happen to have – and when we value the specificity of that story over the need to have a story in general, we leave ourselves open to lying, to dishonesty, specifically to disavowing content or aspects of content which challenge our stories. And if we disavow challenges to our stories rather than work through the troubling confrontations, we are in danger of becoming weak – of allowing our stories to get more and more out of touch with the world in which they might help us work and survive.

In other words, we have to care about the world in which we live more than we care for our stories. And since, in a sense, we are our stories, we have to care about the world in which we engage more than we care for ourselves. Perhaps this is the challenge of not remaining entrapped by confirmation bias – the challenge of honesty as a fidelity to the world which exceeds our stories over the world which is a product of our stories.

 

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12 thoughts on “Honesty and the Confirmation Bias

  1. I think people suffering from confirmation bias often believe they are doing excellent research with a proper respect for the respective quality of sources. It is just much easier to accept new evidence that supports your core beliefs, while downplaying evidence that contradicts them.

  2. If you accept evidence that supports your beliefs, and downplay evidence that contradicts them, you are by definition not respecting your sources, not expressing fidelity to the content above your understanding of the content.

  3. Everybody does this all the time. On the one hand, it is necessary to prevent our worldview from veering around wildly with every new piece of evidence. On the other, it is easy to maintain a belief that has become discredited.

    I think confirmation bias might be one of the most constant and problematic limitations on how well people can understand the world. It is not an affliction experienced only by those who are intellectually dishonest.

  4. I don’t think it’s a limitation on how well people can understand the world, I think it’s a moral problem. And while we might all experience it, that just means we are all intellectually dishonest in some basic way, while some people might practice it to a greater extent, and then we might call people intellectually dishonest only if they find themselves above some arbitrary designation.

  5. I think it is basic psychological process akin to why we are likely to beloved nasty rumours about people we dislike and disbelieve them about our friends.

    We jus aren’t good at forgetting our personal position and pre-existing views web evaluating new information. I think this would be easy to show experimentally. We find news stories that support our worldview credible and convincing and those that challege it poorly reasoned or untrustworthy. Media like Twitter make this worse, by surrounding us with people who we agree with.

  6. Why would we want to forget our personal position and pre existing views when evaluating new information? The whole argument I made above was to try to divorce confirmation bias from the vulgar sense of having an “open mind”. You seem to desire to make confirmation bias a physiological affliction, rather than a moral one – and say we are trapped by it inevitably, rather than recognize it a region of existing requiring virtue to avoid pathology.

    1. I do think we are trapped by it inevitably. It is just one of those limitations in human reasoning that we need to acknowledge. It is also one reason why things like statistical analysis and experiments can be useful. There is still confirmation bias in our interpretation of results, but the use of a methodology that pushes back the stage at which human analysis occurs should somewhat reduce the risks associated with our faulty thinking.

  7. Milan, how many of your comments on this post have been in response to the content of the post, rather than repeating things you already believed about confirmation bias, and have written before in other places? Did you try to engage with the substance of argument I presented above? If not, do you think your own comments are an example of confirmation bias? Do you think there is anything objectionable about them, if they are?

    1. Being tedious and demonstrating confirmation bias are not the same thing. Tediousness versus novelty are about how you speak. Confirmation bias is about how you reason.

      Certainly, what I thought before about confirmation bias affected how I thought about your post. That is inevitable.

      1. This discussion feels like a repetition of asking the same question over again, and not being heard. Well, at least some people liked this post and found it useful (comments on facebook).

  8. Actually, I think that blogging is an interesting way to put out an idea and get a response from people who don’t necessarily agree with you. What most challenges me to reconsider my assumptions is when somebody posts a thoughtful blog that I don’t agree with or that I partially agree with and if I really make an effort to understand it that is when I learn something.

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