Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Confirmation Bias

I was catching up on feeds, when I read this post called A Declaration of Cognitive Independence. It links to a Scientific American article on the so-called confirmation bias. This is a great read, though it's one of those "obvious" things after you read it. It says that people don't think when they are faced with information that is contradictory to their opinions/beliefs. This seems anecdotal, but the article offers some modest scientific proof of this phenomenon.

This has to be incredibly obvious to anybody trained in the world of science. Science is built around principles designed to squash the confirmation bias. That's what the scientific method is all about. The article mentions this, and suggests how similar principles could be applied to things like politics and corporate decision making.

There were a couple of interesting thing that this brought up for me. First, it reminded me of my eleventh grade English language course. This class had a huge effect on my life. It was an Advanced Placement class taught by a tough professor who had a Ph.D. and had taught at four-year colleges. It really taught me how to write and express myself. This has been a huge advantage for me both in college and in my career.

The reason I bring it up is that a lot of what we did in that class was write position papers and essays. I had some experience writing these kind of papers from my tenth grade European history class, but the English class took things to a new level. One of the principles that was stressed to me was that if you want to write a convincing essay, you must gather the most convincing evidence to support your position. As a corollary, you add nothing that would contradict your position.

This seemed like a great strategy when I learned it, and I have employed it quite successfully over the years. Now I must wonder if it is fundamentally flawed. I was already indoctrinated in the scientific method and mathematical proof before I took this class, so I'd like to think that I judiciously employed those techniques when forming a position, even if those techniques were not reflected in the statements of the position. I'm sure there are many times when that was not the case though...

The other thing that this article made me think about was personal relationships. Confirmation bias is a big part of most people's relationships with other people. The scientific method is great in science, but as I have learned first hand, it is often inappropriate during social conversations. If you're being scientific when socializing with your friends, then you will often find yourself challenging their statements and trying to discredit their reasoning. That's not a great way to build friendships. Maybe Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne can interact like that, but I think most people would have a hard time with it. Now there are probably people who actively seek confirmation bias in their friends, but even those who would disavow such sycophants are still guilty of the same thing in one way or another.

technorati tags:, ,

Blogged with Flock

No comments: