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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Confirmation Bias

Among the many ways we humans are able to distort reality seeking selective confirmation of our opinions is the most prevalent. We are all, to one degree or another, susceptible to this behavior and it is what those who wish to manipulate our thoughts rely upon. Disciplined thought always requires that we maintain an open mind— we do not start from conclusions and work backwards to proofs but rather we start from a question and seek answers.

Where precisely we find answers to our questions poses some further exercise of sound judgement. Today, everyone is an expert, even and especially if their expertise is obtained by reading posts on social media. So, what constitutes a reliable source of information? The first question I ask myself about any source is the agenda. Who has a stake in the information provided—who pays for it and who benefits from it? But let’s say in this era of so-called fake news and suspicions of official sources that entities charged with assembling data on any topic could be tainted. That type of thinking underlies almost every conspiracy theory. Have you ever run across a 9/11, moon landing or Kennedy Assassination or Holocaust denier? I’m not making this up—there are such people who in the face of seemingly insurmountable evidence to the contrary believe in alternate explanations of events steeped in dark and threatening plots.

Every conspiracy plot requires that we accept the idea that tens of thousands, perhaps millions of people who have first-hand factual knowledge of something are either deluded or are engaged in a massive coordinated plan to cover up the truth. The conspiracy theorists are convinced that they and those who subscribe to their delusion possess a special and superior knowledge--as they mutter, wake up. Seeing through this kind of distortion isn’t that challenging for most of us but consider how often we learn of something that we previously understood to be one thing only to find that we were not in possession of the whole unvarnished truth. That is the seed which bears the fruit of doubt opening a wedge--sometimes in the mind of even relatively sane people.

Because truth can occasionally be less than firm, either due to new evidence, revelations of intentional misdirection, or some other cause, most of us have a modest degree of skepticism about what would otherwise be considered settled fact. The past 4 years or so have done nothing but strengthen our mistrust of most sources of information—that is most sources which fail to agree with our ingoing assumptions. Some delusional folks are so prepared to believe that all news is tainted, that all official governmental data has been corrupted, that almost everything we see, hear, or are told is a lie, that they have invented a special way of thinking and sharing their doubts and fears. In fact they do not think all news are lies, just those that don't happen to agree with their narrative.

In this upside-down world my neighbor who happens to agree with me that there are child predator rings running the dark government, that vaccines have 5G chips in them, that the election was stolen, or that the pandemic is a disease created either by China or pharmaceutical companies or both is a more reliable source than any other. Why? Because my neighbor agrees with me. I don’t care if my neighbor is a loony, with a 6th grade education, and a history of eating meal worms and wearing aluminum foil hats. But maybe it isn’t my neighbor, maybe it is my state legislator, my congressional representative, a TV evangelist, or my pastor. There are plenty of such folks peddling made up facts, bigoted viewpoints and just plain lies to further their own ends. If enough people say something long enough, doesn’t it appear to raise some doubt, cause us to question what we think we know?

Let's take the stolen election thesis that has become a watchword among the Maga and is echoed by most politicians from one party--the party that lost the election of course. Despite countless audits, investigations and reviews there is scant evidence of voting misconduct--certainly nothing on a scale that could have resulted in altering the outcome. In fact there never has been any significant voting irregularity in our country despite rhetoric that would suggest so. I do not believe for one minute believe that most members of Congress and those in state legislatures working to make our voting more difficult and restrictive think that the complaint of a defeated narcissist unable to accept his circumstance are legitimate. So why cling to this absurd claim. Because the demographics of our country have been steadily changing--and at this point without a dramatic alteration of agenda, the party in question would prove unelectable in a fairly run national election as well as many state races. Recent census data only underscore this fact, a census that subjected to obstacles and stalling tactics for the entire purpose of obfuscating the facts.

If you don’t know much about a subject, but have strong opinions about it, it’s relatively easy to concoct a plausible story. Certain so-called news channels do this kind of thing all the time. They create a headline, or a story line based on an intentional misrepresentation. A recent article on one of those TV channels quoted a very real study from one of the most respected sources of medical information on the effectiveness of masking by quoting part of a sentence from a lengthy study. The report compared N-95 masks to surgical masks and concluded that the N95 masks did not afford a significant improvement in protection from influenzas in a medical setting. But the news channel only quoted the part of the sentence that said one was not better than the other (they were in fact about 3% apart) concluding that this was proof positive masks were not protective. Nothing could be further from the truth—if you bother to read the whole sentence, much less the entire study, it concluded that masks were highly effective in preventing airborne disease transmission.

Why then would a news channel try to get away with such explicit misrepresentation? Because they know that very few people seeing this story would bother to check them. And why not? Because the story confirmed what their audience wants to believe. And that is how a relatively small number of people using the bully pulpit of TV, radio, social media, and sadly real pulpits, are able to conjure up blatant mistruths, distortions so outrageous and so easily disproved that they could be debunked in a matter of minutes. They know that the truth isn’t salacious, startling, or of much interest; conspiracies, secrets and distortions are. It's easy to delude people who want to hear a story that confirms their view.

To be candid, people are lazy—they’d rather rely on someone else to feed them the pablum that they have already decided to believe than do the thinking and investigation –to ask the questions that will uncover what is real and what is bunk. If the stakes were not so high, we might just agree that people are easily swayed, fooled, and conned. And as tempting as it is to conclude this, there is a body of evidence that suggests we can in a non-threatening way respond and perhaps inject some common sense in the mind of the mindless. What we must do is just keep asking questions. Why, how do we know, who said so, and what makes them knowledgeable, are a few good questions to ask whenever someone trots out the latest bit of quackery. You'll know you have uncovered the truth when the debate ceases with an angry retort to do your own research; conspiricists are not fond of anything at odds with their theories. Ask any nurse attending a dying patient who clings to the belief that Covid is a hoax and vaccines are poison. Beware of such people who have a litany of manufactured untruths—you’ll know them when you ask for their sources so you can validate them—and when they tell you to do your own research…you should.

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