We’ve all experienced it: that intellectual zombie who persists doggedly in their obvious error no matter how many facts you show them. No matter how much reason, logic, truth, and evidence you may place right before their eyes, they are impervious. In fact, it seems they only entrench themselves further. Facts don’t seem to matter.
Whether in the area of politics, religion, economics, history, law, sports, music, art, social issues, racism—you name it—we’ve all experienced this, and probably in more than one, if not all, of these areas. What’s up with some people?
The truth is, it’s not just “some” people, it is virtually all. It’s probably you, too. I know it’s me. (In fact, were it not already taken, this confessional would be the perfect application for a viral #MeToo hashtag.)
I began reading series of articles and studies on “confirmation bias” that, quite frankly, I think should be part of every homeschool curriculum (and every other curricula, including seminaries). These studies began in the mid-1970s. A recent article in The New Yorker outlines some of them:
In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.
Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.
As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine—they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office—the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.
In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed. The students were told that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. (This, it turned out, was also a deception.) Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded.
“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”
Get that: people who were once merely told they were right, started believing it, and persisted in believing it even after they were shown facts to the contrary.
In a second study, students were given very limited profiles of two firefighters and asked to form judgments about them. They did. Upon being told, however, that the information given them was totally false, the students still persisted in holding the same judgments they had formed about firefighters. The article relates the study’s conclusion:
Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.
If it were but a few studies from the 70s, we might think little of it. But even beyond our own experiences, these studies have now been replicated thousands of times in controlled and peer-reviewed settings:
Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now.
Honestly, it doesn’t take any psychology or grad study. It just takes about four minutes on Facebook.
Understanding human experience
The problem with the studies and the articles (the last one in particular) is that they default to evolutionary explanations. We were once brute beasts and tribal-clan hunter-gatherers. Reason and logic did not evolve for reasons of independent thinking and intellectual analysis of principle, but only for surviving in collaborative groups on the African savannah.
Of course, Christians know this has the cart ahead of horse, along with all the other problems of presupposed secular humanism, naturalism, etc. God created mankind in His image, endowed with reason and logic precisely for purposes of distinction and discernment. The first command assumes this: of any tree in the garden you may eat, but not of that tree.
The refusal to exercise reason and logic with evidence, or more particularly, to pervert them with reference to glorifying the self and becoming like God, was the basis of the fall of man.
The fallen nature with which we all now struggle is a wicked combination of selfishness and self-loathing, predation and victimization, abuse and self-pity, self-worship and misanthropy, recklessness and fear, blame and self-righteousness, rebellion and conformity, autonomy and socialism, false witness and hypersensitivity to criticism . . . we could go on. Christians struggle with this nature even after conversion; we are prone and liable to the problem like anyone else.
In this condition, virtually any and every disagreement naturally devolves into taking sides. Minds get made up in a number of fallacious ways, and without intense self-control and humility, facts don’t matter. What matters is that the mind has been made up already—no matter how, or how wrongly.
Don’t think for a moment that just because facts don’t matter, we don’t still want to engage in argument and, desperately, to win arguments. When we’re all irrationally entrenched, however, the only way to win arguments is by lionizing ourselves and demonizing the other side. We call names, create straw men, even lie outright.
Thus for some Arminians, Calvinists are one step away from being sadistic, psychopathic murderers, just as those people strawman Calvin himself. For some Calvinists, Arminians are one-step-removed humanists who limit God or put themselves in his place. Fundamentalists think Reformed folk are all liberals (or will be soon) who blindly baptize unregenerate babies. Reformed folk think of themselves more as Fundamentalists who got an education and wear shoes. Each maintains an exalted sense of self, and a warped sense of the other.
We simultaneously grow hypersensitive to even the minutest of perceived slights from the other side. When told of our own, however, we immediately deny them, demand evidence, then marginalize, downplay, or dismiss the evidence when it is given.
Some of you may be a little rankled right now because you’re a Baptist, and you feel I just took a little harsher shot at Baptists than I did at Presbyterians. Unfair!
Because of this phenomenon of fallen human nature, Trump probably really could gun someone down in broad daylight and lose no support, as he said. Because facts don’t matter. No matter how many times he gaffes and even lies and is exposed across the new media, he’s almost Jesus to some people, and debunking him only makes them see him as a victim and thus love him and defend him more. No matter how many times Hillary or Obama—or every other politician (Ron Paul excepted)—was shown to be a liar, con artist, swindler, and subversive, facts don’t matter. Allegiance does. Exposing them only makes their masses love them more and hate you more greatly.
Likewise on social issues. The mind made up is impervious to facts about guns, racism, immigration, economics, education, and a thousand other issues. Take ten minutes and watch this clip: watch a libertarian totally eviscerate a statist conservative on immigration using reputable stats, facts, reason, and logic while the interviewer stutters and is reduced to ridicule based on no evidence and personal prejudice. His mind is made up: facts don’t matter. No matter how many facts disprove his theory, he will not concede, but instead entrenches himself and demonizes the more informed man as superstitious, untrue, devoted to error, oblivious, unwilling to admit. After all, he’s a “Libertarian.” Loser!
Nationalists and others opposed to immigration have viewed this and said I’m a loon. My analysis of who won the argument is clearly biased and I am living in a la-la-land where butthurt snowflakes go to escape reality where real men with a pair fight like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator.
Some readers will be so beset by the phenomenon that they will only take away from this article my exception above of Ron Paul as a glaring example of my own bias. Paulbot! More proof that I’m an incorrigible, closet Libertarian. Such readers will see nothing of themselves in any of this.
When thinking of such things, I am always reminded of a quotation from an essay by a young John Adams:
Let me conclude, by advising all men to look into their own hearts, which they will find to be deceitful above all things and desperately wicked [Jer. 17:9]. Let them consider how extremely addicted they are to magnify and exaggerate the injuries that are offered to themselves, and to diminish and extenuate the wrongs that they offer to others. They ought, therefore, to be too modest and diffident of their own judgment, when their own passions and prejudices and interests are concerned, to desire to judge for themselves in their own causes, and to take their own satisfactions for wrongs and injuries of any kind.1
That this phenomenon, as it is, exists is problem enough. What’s worse, though, is that when we don’t look into our own hearts first, we end up creating whole cliques, movements, groups, and even cultures based upon this aspect of our fallen nature and its polarizing, demonizing tendencies.
Thus, a simple set of personal grievances, or disagreements, can be blown into a whole series of myths and lies about others, or another movement or ministry. Once minds are made up—it does not matter how or on what false witness—no amount of facts can prevail. The offended mind will always find that tiny sliver real estate in self, against forty acres of facts, in order to justify its warp. When even that sliver erodes, the heart will resort to name calling, projection, double standards, and whatever else it can get away with.
Fake news, leadership, and you
In society and politics, it manifests in polarized sides repeating their mantras to loyal followings ad infinitum. It won’t matter how much they ever get exposed as liars or biased bloats, their following is content to rail all critics as liars, frauds, and fruit loops. Facts won’t matter.
What results is collections of news agencies pointing fingers at each other calling each other “Fake News.” It is left to the masses to determine who the real fake news is, but they decide largely based on their own predetermined loyalties, or merely default opposite the side they hate.
There is no news any more. We’re all fake news now. The truth is, it always was this way.
The greatest and most discouraging angle, however, is, what we might call deep fake news. This is the world of purposeful propaganda. Elites and movers-and-shakers have known about this phenomenon for ages, and they try purposefully to control and exploit it. Just listen to Machiavelli:
[M]en judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.
For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, for the few find a place there only when the many have no ground to rest on.
It behooves a would-be ruler (or would-be leader in any capacity) to use and rely on the biases of the masses, and especially the power of this phenomenon of “confirmation bias.” By means of the “opinion of the many,” he can insulate himself against criticism, and even marginalize and destroy his critics, or at least render them a laughingstock.
The problem is, when he lets such ends justify such means, it is not only critics but truth that gets squashed. Such a man may successfully insulate himself from other men, but not from God.
There is no quick remedy for this save the Holy Spirit himself. As day-to-day Christians, though, it is incumbent upon us to live as resurrected saints, mortifying the fallen nature and the works of the flesh. This means we must become and remain mindful of our propensities in this area, and dare to discover how we, too, have behaved in this way: believing falsehoods and even outright lies on little-to-no evidence, interpreting evidence only in a biased way that confirms our suspicions, refusing to let facts change our minds, refusing to make difficult decisions due to old loyalties, affections, or allegiances, or stopping our ears to a just defense of the truth.
Not only do we need to police ourselves in this regard, we also need to take the further and more difficult step of finding ways to address conflicts among ourselves that don’t resort to name-calling, degrading memes, slander, projecting, and other polarizing affronts, as well as insulating ourselves from accountability when we’re responsible.
We also need to check our motives. Why, after all, are we even engaged? Maybe controlling the narrative becomes a consuming focus, or has become a contest itself. This is not just allowing the end to justify the means, it is making the means itself an end. I am not sure what good can come of that. At best, it is a waste of valuable time and resources.
Mostly, however, we need to check our hearts and open our minds to correction. At the very least, open your mind to information. There are a great many things we need to learn. Unfortunately, in a polarized, paranoid world full of confirmation bias, most people read in order to refute, not to learn, not even with the possibility of learning. Most people don’t listen; they are formulating their statement, rebuttal, refutation while you are speaking to them. They didn’t really hear a word you said; they certainly didn’t consider how it may be true of them in any way; they’re already crafting how to tell you that what you said is wrong.
This way, it is always the other guy or gal that needs to repent.
This is not the way it is intended to be. It is the way fallen men have made it.
Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices (Eccl. 7:29).
Part of our job as Christians is meekness and self-control. This is victory:
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city (Prov. 16:32).
These are among the greatest virtues of bravery and manliness. They will lead us into great new frontiers, if we do not fear the repentance through which they will lead us. You have to be brave enough to challenge yourself and to change your mind along the way.
- John Adams, in The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams, ed. C. Bradley Thompson (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000), 17.(↩)