Commentary: ‘Confirmation bias’ plagues
Wed October 7, 2009
Commentary: ‘Confirmation bias’ plagues political debate
The debate over health care overhaul legislation has been so contentious at times that it's triggered stories that examine the lack of civility in American politcs. Commentator Martha Catt believes she's figured out the problem. I recently attended a lecture entitled "Spotting a Liar." A retired FBI polygraph expert named Robert Drdak described the lying clues our bodies betray, and he cautioned us all to avoid something called "confirmation bias" when seeking the truth. "Confirmation Bias" occurs when you form a hypothesis and rather than test it, you ignore or discount all information to the contrary. You become so enamored of your theory, that you seek only that which supports it, even if it isn't true. That's when I had an epiphany: perhaps the reason our society has abandoned the thoughtful middle ground is that we are collectively suffering confirmation bias. With millions of internet sites spouting factoids both real and imagined; with broadcast media drifting further and further from the journalism of Edward R. Murrow; with daily newspapers folding or slimming down to a fraction of their weighty glory, is it any wonder that we've become polarized? We're choosing our information sources to confirm what we already believe. But that's not the path to truth. With only thesis and anti-thesis, we'll never reach synthesis. This summer's health care town hall meetings demonstrate the stalemate. Across the nation, forces both for and against arrived with signs and sometimes firearms to bolster their argument, but failed to listen to each other. Those who attended to learn, instead, watched a shouting match. There were civilized meetings, but they didn't get the same degree of coverage. Orderly citizens make for dull video, so town hall coverage played like an endless episode of The Jerry Springer Show. So entrenched are the beliefs that South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson blurted "You lie" at the President during a formal address despite the fact that the President spoke the truth. Fact check. org confirmed the President's assertion that no illegal aliens would be eligible for health insurance coverage was indeed true. Yet comment in The Buzz column of The Charlotte Observer commended Wilson (and I quote) " for saying what we were all thinking." In this case, the word "thinking" might be a stretch, for that would imply that there is a process of verification and deliberation where none exists. So how does a reasonable person sort through all the chaff to find the kernel of truth? Agent Drdak had an answer for that as well: "You have two ears and one mouth, use them in proportion." Perhaps we should add, and listen only to those who do the same.