There’s a term in psychology called confirmation bias. That’s the notion that you’re more likely to believe things you read or hear which happen to conform or reinforce beliefs and ideas you already hold.
To quote the wikipedia article on it:
Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.
No doubt confirmation bias has been around since humans developed language, but in the age of the internet with rabid conspiracy theorists, clickbait ‘news’ sites, viral memes and attention seeking trolls, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous, and something that’s increasingly important we’re on guard against.
The following quote is famously attributed to Mark Twain:
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
Never has this been so true as in the age of the Internet. Anti-vaxxers can whip themselves into a frenzy when someone circulates an image showing a disabled child and some cloying statement underneath such as “Chloe got a polio jab. Then she got a wheelchair.”
Forget any notion of cause and effect, forget any notion of factual verification, and forget any notion of references. “Chloe got a polio jab.” “Then she got a wheelchair.” Case closed, right?
In these sorts of cases, we can sit back to sneer and rage about it because the anti-vaccination movement is thinly disguised child abuse orchestrated by raving idiots suffering terminal histrionics. We can demand to see the proof and laugh down the pitiable attempts at evidence offered – if they even are offered.
But there’s always another foot for the shoe to go on.
And we own the other foot.
Confirmation bias is something everyone can suffer unless they remain vigilant against it. I know I’m particularly vulnerable to it if I’m feeling tired. Only a month or so ago I got fooled by a satirical piece about Pope Francis simply because it resonated with my beliefs about how reform should happen within an ancient and corrupt religious organisation.
The only way of combating confirmation bias is to be forever vigilant, and to be prepared at any point to ask three questions:
- What proof is being offered for this?
- Where did I hear it from?
- Does it seem correct or do I hope it’s correct?
Of course, the biggest problem with this is that it starts to fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect and the level of self-awareness a person has. Those who believe themselves to know more about a topic than they do are more likely to assume the ‘information’ on offer is proof in itself (or, to use a school term – doesn’t need to show the working). Further, those who aren’t practiced at self-awareness or self-introspection are less likely to correctly evaluate their response to the ‘information’ against the third question.
These days thanks to a highly politicised, polarised media dominated by self interest and toadying, we’re increasingly suffering a public misconception between opinion and fact. Former US Senator and academic, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is attributed as having said:
You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.
This message has been increasingly lost – unfacts are raised as “alternate views”, but that’s a weasel term for lies. Australian media for instance gives far too much air-time to child abusers from the anti-vaccination network simply because they offer an “alternate view” when in actual fact they merely spread lies based on faulty reasoning originating from confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Somewhere along the line it became a requisite function to give response time to blithering idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about. Anti-vaxxers, Birthers and Climate Change denialists contribute nothing of value to a conversation by spouting their own memetic viruses. Indeed, their lies and fallacies should be considered to be mental cancer.
In No, you’re not entitled to your opinion (5 October 2012), the Australian Philosopher, Patrick Stokes wrote:
You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.
This is a powerful refutation of fallacious thinking originating from both confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect. Someone with no scientific credibility or training isn’t entitled to sit on a panel debating climate change with an actual climate scientist if they can’t produce tangible, verifiable facts, no matter how much they feel they’re entitled to.
Much as we like to think this only applies to the idiots, it’s important we all remember that unless we remain constantly vigilant, we risk falling into the same trap ourselves. But perhaps most importantly, we owe it to each other to take the time to point out when we’ve been sucked in by a lie.