We’ve all experienced it: that intellectual zombie who persists doggedly in their obvious error no matter how many facts you show to 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, in not all, of these areas. What’s up with some people?
The truth is, it’s not just “some” people, it is virtually all.
Yesterday, 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 well:
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.”
In a second study, students were given very limited profiles of two firefighters and asked to form judgements 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.
The problem with the studies and the articles (this 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, we 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 foundation 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 self-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. Even Christians struggle with this nature after conversion—we are prone and liable to the problem like anyone else.
In this condition, virtually any and every disagreement devolves into taking sides. Minds get made up in a number of fallacious ways, and without intense self-control and humility, for the vast majority of people, facts don’t matter. What matters is that their mind has been made up already—no matter how, or how wrongly.
At this point, the only way to win arguments—and don’t think for a moment that just because facts don’t matter, we don’t still want desperately to win arguments—is by 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 like Calvin. For Calvinists, Arminians are one-step-removed humanists who put themselves in the place of God. 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.
In fact, some of you may be a little rankled right now because you’re a Baptist, and you think I just took a little harsher shot at Baptists than I did at Presbyterians. Unfair!
Trump probably really could gun someone down in broad daylight and lose no support. Facts don’t matter. No matter how many times he gaffes and even lies and is exposed across the new media, he’s Jesus to some people, and debunking him only makes them love him more. No matter how many times Hillary or Obama—or every other politician (Ron Paul excepted)—was proven 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 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 L-L-Libertarian. Loser!
Nationalists and others opposed to immigration will view this and say I’m a loon. My analysis of who won the argument is clearly biased and I am living in a libertarian la-la-land where butthurt snowflakes go to escape the harsh reality of the real world where real men with a pair fight like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator.
Some readers will be so intensely beset by the phenomenon that they will only take away from this article my exception 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, 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 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 warped mind will always find that tiny sliver of yet-unproven real estate, against forty acres of facts, in order to justify its warp. When even that sliver erodes, the warped will resort to name calling, projection, and whatever else it can get away with.
In society and politics, it manifests in polarized sides repeating their mantras to their loyal followings ad infinitum. It won’t matter how much they get exposed as liars or biased bloats, their following is content to rail all critics as liars, frauds, and fruit loops. Facts don’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, and they decide largely based on their predetermined loyalties, or merely default opposite the side they hate.
There is no news reporting any more. It’s all fake news now. The truth is, it always was.
The greatest and most discouraging angle, however, is, what we might call deep fake news. That’s right. 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 the biases of the masses, and especially the power of this phenomenon of “confirmation bias,” in his favor. 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-no-no evidence, or 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.
We also need to find ways to address conflicts among ourselves that don’t resort to name-calling, degrading memes, slander, projecting, and other polarizing affronts.
We also need to check our motives. Why, after all, are we even engaged? Maybe controlling the narrative becomes a consuming focus, it has become the contest itself, and 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.
But mostly 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 hear a word you said because they’re crafting how to say what you said was wrong.
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. To me, these are among the greatest bravery and manliness of our time. They will lead us into great new frontiers if we will exercise them. You just 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.(↩)