. . . doesn’t mean it’s there. Or, it might be but there might be other things too. Or maybe not.
To be fair, I am writing this in a dentist’s surgery waiting room in-between treatments, with a numb mouth and a pocketful of painkillers, so I am aware this may need a little explanation.
I wanted to write in this blog post about the greatest and most prevalent series of lies we tell ourselves in our efforts to make sense of the world. It is called confirmation bias and we all do it. All the time. Even you. (There is even a bias bias in which we believe that we are less susceptible to confirmation bias than anyone else).
It is incredible hard to change a world-view or a deeply held set of beliefs. Attempting to do so touches all our threat, and therefore our fight/flight, buttons. So we don’t do it very often. It is far, far easier to notice and pay attention to all the evidence we can find (or make up) that goes along with these beliefs, and to studiously ignore anything that doesn’t. We are biased in what we see in ways that seek to confirm what we already believe.
So, we all do it. We do it with our political beliefs by spinning evidence and we do it with our religion. It’s funny how the religion we were brought up in just happens to be the right one, as the rather controversial Mr Dawkins puts it. But of course it is. We ignore any evidence to the contrary so why wouldn’t it be? It is possible that the Freudian defence mechanism of projection, where we notice in others what we least like (and don’t want to own) in ourselves, is a manifestation of the same process.
Anyway, the reason why this all came into my mind today, lying on a dentist’s chair staring into a bright light through rather fetching wrap-around glasses, is that there has been a classic example of this in the media this week. A local (to me) Counsellor from a fringe political party (let’s call them Utwit) has stated his belief allegedly, if not unequivocally, in the link between gay marriage and the recent floods. It is hard not to laugh, even with a numb mouth. But he believes it. To him, it is evidence.
The cure? The trick is to notice it, as this is a largely unconscious process. But ultimately, we have to become academics – or at least, do what they do. The basic experimental design involves trying to prove the null hypothesis – in other words, that our idea or theory doesn’t work. If we can’t, it is proved to a degree of probability. It stops the confirmation bias because you are actively trying to do the opposite.
You hold a belief. And then you notice the things that appear to confirm it so it gets reinforced and ever more firmly entrenched. Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there. Or is the Truth. It is just possible that the flooding was caused by the jet stream, for example. Just a thought.
Although I am biased. . .
 Definitely allegedly. Legal Ed.