Confirmation Bias

It is well known and understood that each person’s perceptions are not complete. In many professions, this understanding is necessary in order to communicate both the precision and the accuracy of perceptions in a report so a reader or other person can know how much confidence should be invested in the conclusions presented.

Shrinkwrapped discussed the problem of Struggling with Confirmation Bias. Confirmation Bias (wikipedia) is the unconscious tendency that all of us have to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions.

The key point I want to make is that Confirmation Bias is pervasive and operates on a predominantly unconscious level. However, it is possible to understand (some of) your own CB and take steps to at least partially protect oneself from falling so far into the trap that your perception of reality is impaired.

While this bias is considered unconcious, or better, unintentional, there are many ways that a person can detect and compensation for a confirmation bias. Shrinkwrapped cites the scientific method as one of these but then wanders off into minutia about the high precision parts of such a bias. The problem, though, is that a confirmation bias is often to such a major point in many public debates that it can create wonder about sanity. The comments to this entry show this.

The point of all this is to suggest a way to deal with our own CB: if a position we hold is not falsifiable, it behooves us to remain silent until and unless evidence appears or accumulates that provides us with confirmation of our position.

This is not fool proof and it is in this area that commenters can be of crucial importance. Telling me I am biased is unhelpful; I already know I have biases and have never claimed otherwise. On the other hand, if you can point out an assertion I make that is not falsifiable or already disproved, alerting me is a favor which can only improve the quality of my blog and the quality of my thinking.

In itself, the difficulties expressed by Shrinkwrapped may be an expression of confirmation bias as well. It is extremely difficult to believe and accept that people in prestigious positions of influence and leadership could be willfully so far off in regards to evidence readily available. Trying to bring together the expectation of intellectual integrity and honesty with the behavior of these people creates significant dissonance. This is a bias that is being challenged and confronted and behavior that is trying to bring that bias back into line with basic perceptions.

For a contrast, there are those who have no difficulty in assuming the worst of “people in prestigious positions of influence and leadership” even without any significant evidence to support their views. These folks exhibit a bias so severe that Shrinkwrapped has written several entries about the behaviors of psychotic denial to try to explain them.

The scientific method is just a manner of successive refinement of perception entailing a process of logical inference, measure, open communications, and critical examination. It requires an integrity in that participants must accept measure and observation and evidence that is put on the table. If there are contradictions or questions then further experiements or observations are undertaken to resolve them.

But what is happening in public debate does not exhibit integrity. Journalists are taught about the fundamental bias in perception yet the response to allegations and measures of bias is to refute any bias at all and to ridicule slogans such as “fair and balanced.” As evidenced by the comments to Shrinkwrapped’s post, confirmation bias gets to a point of creating absurdities in debate or argument. The measure of these behaviors (see resources) can be used as an indication of bias.

Those who seek to discover their own biases can learn about the behavior that they generate. This is a means of looking in the mirror to see yourself. By learning a bit about what to look for you can go back over posts, or even be on the alert in real time, to determine when you need to step back and be careful about how your own bias is flavoring your perceptions.

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