Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Plague of Confirmation Bias

Our lives are plagued by confirmation bias. We have a strong tendency to latch on to information that affirms our believes. Without training and great effort we usually don't abandon our views and seek new perspectives until reality stares us straight and undeniably into the eyes.

Science is supposed to be the remedy for such bias. After all, if our hypothesis is incorrect, the experimental data will not support it. But unfortunately even the way we formulate our scientific inquiries is plagued by a profound desire to be affirmed. This is especially true for the more elusive social sciences but isn't isolated to their domain. In all walks of life, questions are posed in such a way that they will confirm and not refute. In physics it may seem that gravity is gravity. But phenomena may be investigated within constraints where they hold true. They are then incorrectly applied to areas beyond those constraints. You measure the rainfall in the Utah and conclude that Vermont is due for a drought.

So what to do? It's very important to be willing to act against our own grain. If we hold something to be true, we must for a time actively seek to refute it. We must not just open ourselves to the possibility that we are wrong. We must, so to say, become our own skeptic. Very hard indeed. Self-help is replete with advice of how to be successful by being more confident and self-assured. I'm not saying that we cannot strongly commit ourselves to some believes. But prior to that commitment we must actively assume the role our own detractor and be willing to join their ranks.

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