I’ve seen a disturbing pattern recently in the way people are reacting to the world. And even more disturbing, I have noticed it in myself as well. And what makes it all worse is that I don’t have a great solution to it. But as they say, noticing the problem is always the start of a solution.
The pattern I have been noticing is the need to look for and absorb information that affirms my world view, followed by the need to avoid, ignore, or discredit information that would contradict my world view. This is called confirmation bias, and unfortunately we all do it.
Even more unfortunate, it is so much easier to call out in someone else than correct in myself. I mean, I don’t want to change my worldview. That’s hard. It means I have to change a ton of things about myself. Let’s take my faith for example. I might be tempted to ignore, avoid, or discredit any information that contradicts my faith. Why? Well, for starters it is central to who I am. It is part of my core identity. So my entire belief system around which I have built my life might come into question. It so happens that I have built a significant part of my social circle around my faith. If that comes into question, I might lose some of my closest friends. It might complicate things with my family. Not to mention that a way I have spent countless hours of my life might feel wasted. In other words, I have a lot riding on my world view. I have built my life around those beliefs. Questioning them in any way could be absolutely devastating to my entire way of being.
Now I have never been one to avoid asking the hard questions, even about my faith. I question my faith openly all the time, and I believe by doing so I strengthen it rather than weaken it. But I may be a little bit the exception more than the norm on that front.
Confirmation bias extends to every aspect of our worldview. I personally don’t, but I know a lot of people who consider their political affiliation to be a core part of who they are. Or their nationality. Or their sexual orientation. Or their relationship status. Or their religious affiliation.
Personally, I have been tempted to judge people who are refusing to wear masks in public, who are decrying the scientific community as a left-wing fraud. And then I realize that I am doing the same thing as them. I am an engineer, meaning most of my engineering social circle believes science is an absolute truth. I wouldn’t want to question the scientific community lest I look like a whacko to my friends. In the end, there are fakes in every community. There are scientific studies with fake results. There are hypocritical religious leaders. And we shouldn’t be surprised by now to find corrupt politicians. There are frauds all around us. Fake articles online, doctored photos, and artificial intelligence is giving rise to deep fake video. There has always been fraud, and that isn’t likely to change.
So what can we believe? How can we ever know what’s real? If we only ever examine information through our biases, and any change to those biases could completely destroy my relationships and identity, how can I change? How can I examine any information objectively if my biases run that deep? How can I ever know what to believe? Who to trust?
Can I trust the government? The scientific community? The medical community? My book of faith? My friends? Family?
So what is the solution? Once aware of confirmation bias, how can I fight it?
I think in the end, trust is always a leap. But maybe I can examine myself for the leaps I make blindly. I can take a look at the information sources that I trust inherently, and the ones I instantly discredit. Maybe I can accept that my personal biases could mislead me to believe in twisted truths.
I will never be completely objective. But maybe it’s enough for now to know that there are truths I hold beyond reproach, and to know what they are. And, maybe if I am really brave, I can ask myself what I stand to lose if that closely held belief isn’t as certain as I thought. Perhaps becoming aware of my bias will be enough of a start for now. Do you know what your biases are? Are you brave enough to find out?