I stumbled upon an excellent article yesterday in The New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Biased but Brilliant.” The author, Cordelia Fine, a senior research associate at the Melbourne Business School, points to research showing that confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors – is not only present in the halls of science, but it leads in a round about way to the discovery of truth.
While this may be true, it seems to me that there must be more efficient ways to arrive at the same destination.
I spent part of my undergraduate and graduate studies in France and while I was there one of my professors told me that the French love to argue (a fairly well-earned stereotype) and that the quality of the argument was more highly prized than the veracity of the position being argued. This was a disturbing thought to me at the time and in many ways still is, especially since the truth is so often hidden from view when false ideas are well-supported by confirmation bias.
Human consciousness as a whole is a crucible for creation. The lack of coordination and harmony between individuals coupled with the intensely competitive environment in churches, schools, businesses and government buildings between groupings of individuals results in progress, albeit at a great cost. We get there, but it’s messy and it’s not pretty.
As an example of this, Olympic Equestrian Anky van Grunsven won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics on her horse, Bonfire. She had trained Bonfire using a controversial method she and a partner developed called “Rollkur,” where hyperflexion of the neck (the horse’s chin is pulled back toward his chest) is used to supple the horse’s neck and back, a technique that some claim achieves its positive outcomes by means of unnecessary if not abusive tension between horse and rider.
Particularly upsetting to her critics was the fact that Anky won the gold medal despite having scored terribly in the walk, the gait that most classically-trained riders see as a fundamental building block to just about everything else riders ask a horse to do. She had a hole in her foundation from their perspective, as was evidenced by her poor performance at the walk, but she won the gold. Whether or not her approach lacked integrity I cannot say, but these types of provocative disconnects happen all the time.
At the end of the day, the truth is true, no matter how human beings act in relation to it. While our humanity complicates our discovery of truth, it also compels us to continue questing for it. Many of our efforts are clumsy, if not foolish, especially when squared against a related element of known truth.
Confirmation bias may be of some value in the larger sense, but in the life of the individual it only serves to slow the process of becoming acquainted with the truth. The truth is unbiased, it is absolute, and the means are as important as the end when it comes to the truth as the truth is never in conflict with itself. Neither is a truth in one area of living ever in conflict with a truth in another. Irrational loyalty to opinions and beliefs may bring comfort, but when those opinions and beliefs are not grounded in truth such loyalties are disunifying to the individual.
If you believe that appearances are more important than the underlying reality, then this post does not merit further consideration. If, however, you value substance over show, absolute truth over high quality copy, then take a few moments to weigh my message, not against the opinions and beliefs you hold, but against the truth that you know, the truth you have proven in your living!