Friday, May 28, 2010

Historical Examples of Confirmation Bias

I'm not as vociferously on the climate-change-denialist-bashing train not because I think global warming is bunk, but because I just don't know that much about it, and there are plenty of people who know more than me - so I leave the debate to better informed people. But without looking at positions, you can as a first approximation look at the rhetorical behavior of supporters of those positions. And indeed it's interesting that there does seem to be more of the "you have to believe me, and if you dare ask me for evidence you're a bad person" on the anti-global warming side. These folks are also overwhelmingly conservatives, usually social conservatives, mostly in the English-speaking world and predominantly in the U.S. One question I do have for the anti-global warming faction is: what do they think the pro-global warming people are getting out of the deal? Presumably pro-global warming faction wouldn't take up such a patently false (and wicked) position unless they thought there was something it for them. And more than that, why do anti-global warming people instinctively defend the behavior of oil companies that are often not even American? Does this extend to state-owned oil enterprises of other countries, for example Venezuela?

Of course, the madness of crowds is not new, and there's a great post at Joss Garman's blog comparing the anti-global-warming faction to the anti-relativity faction of the 1920s. Yes, you read that right - there was apparently once an organized anti-relativity movement. Who knew!? Not long ago I posted that it takes a while before a paradigm-shifting theory percolates thoroughly enough through public awareness that it can be perceived as a threat to morality. I wrote specifically that anti-quantum physics and -neuroscience movements will follow on the heels of creationists' succession of undignified routs, just like the Flat Earthers finally did in the last century. Now that I know there was an organized anti-relativity movement I feel more confident in this prediction!

Bottom line: do relativity or evolution or any of these paradigm-reinventing theories play a direct role in the cognitive processes that make up most people's day-to-day struggles to try to live a good life? No - but of course once you throw out the origin stories and show that religion is an ineffective a good way to figure out the truth, the authority of religion is badly damaged. That's lethal for a badly metastasized argument from authority, which is what religion is. That's also why it's religious figures who are so desperate to connect various aspects of scientific progress to immoral behavior ("Evolution! Hitler! Evolution! Hitler!" Sound familiar?) It's how to live morally that's the important question, and it's the religious who are obsessed with linking this question to theories which don't directly impinge on morality for most people.

Of course, confirmation bias is a tough nut to crack. When reconciling old beliefs with new contradicting evidence, humans very often throw out the evidence and keep the belief. This can extend to rejecting the entire method that generated the new information - e.g., all of science - and there's an interesting article by Geoffrey Munro at Towson measuring exactly this effect in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. This is a problem that is reinforced by the more social aspects of "cognition" and I'm not sure there is an effective remedy for it within rational rhetoric.

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