Psychologists have long reported we do not arrive at certain kinds of beliefs for the persuasive, reasonable reasons we use to defend them. We come to accept our religion and often our politics, for example, based on our upbringing and personal experience, and we then back our way into these beliefs by making selective observations in their favor. This is called confirmation bias, and I’m convinced it’s the most powerful and dangerous force in the universe.
As a Christian I first took the truth of scripture for granted. The Bible was the Bible was the Bible. I entered my teen years in need of something more to go on, a demand my then pastor happily met. He used impressive terms like “preponderance of evidence” and waxed broadly on the “manuscript, archeological, prophetic, and statistical data” in support of the proposition I’d already accepted, namely that the Bible is among other things a trustworthy historical document. Did you know “there are over five thousand New Testament historical manuscripts”? Did you know “there is no better attested document of similar antiquity?”
I recycled these phrases (which are true but deliberately misleading) with the eagerness of a child operating a bobcat from his father’s lap. I didn’t know what I was doing, only that it worked. It kept me on track, and it seemed to shut people up when they challenged my faith. Taking the queue from my pastor, I behaved as though the evidence in favor of scripture (and God for that matter) was so substantial, the only reasonable position was Christianity. Since the Bible was obviously the best book ever written on any topic, something didn’t add up to me when others failed to acknowledge this. Unbelievers and those in other religions were either ignorant of the facts or else willfully rejecting the gospel in favor of their own private, competing preferences. After all, as I would have told you even then, people do not reason their way to things like Islam or atheism. People adopt certain kinds of beliefs for other reasons and then back their way into them. This brings to light a funny thing about cognitive biases: they don’t go away after you’ve been made aware of them.
Cognitive biases don’t even taper off when one makes a conscious effort to avoid them. In studies on hindsight bias, for example, “instructions that explicitly identify and warn against the hindsight bias do not ameliorate its impact.” If anything, our insight into others’ cognitive blunders can inappropriately elevate our confidence when it comes to our own beliefs.
I was still at a formative age when I learned, contrary to my former views, the Bible was less than historical in many respects, contradicted itself on important points, and told a creation story which science has thoroughly discredited. Yet I did not cease to be a Christian. To me, these facts only proved that God was more sophisticated than the naïve version of him I’d previously constructed. I comfortably backed my way into the same belief system I’d come to accept and reaccept since my early childhood using different data but the same selective calculations.
The only cure for this inborn deficiency is to employ methods of testing ideas which are not at all kind to them.
I’ll discuss a few of these methods in reference to another example, since religion by no means has a monopoly on cognitive biases (not for lack of trying). A small contingency of my family is anti-vaccination. The questions they raise in the face of evidence in favor of vaccines are, by and large, reasonable enough: “Are there conflicts of interest?” “Who published this, and was it submitted for peer review?” “Have the results been independently corroborated?” “Are there latent causes or uncontrolled variables?” They become scrupulous analysts on a moment’s notice and are nothing short of ruthless, to the point of being flagrantly dismissive, in dealing with results which could be interpreted in favor of vaccines.
Yet their skepticism vanishes in a flash when they deal with claims supporting their view. They dismiss well-conducted, careful research by the droves on the slightest possibility of error, and proceed to accept claims which they would themselves debunk in any other context. We’re talking about claims based on evidence of a quality and nature that would embarrass a Holocaust denier. These are educated, sophisticated people of the twenty first century. They are not stupid or lazy, nor have they been indoctrinated in any traditional sense.
They are simply people with large blind spots where their favorite ideas are concerned, and characterizations which depict them as hysterical and irresponsible are usually unfair for this reason, though I fear the consequences of their belief are every bit as grave as their critics suggest. It’s with a little frustration that I notice the only tools they need to dig themselves out of their ideological rut are already in their belts. The deceptively difficult question before us is this: how can we turn our tools inward for use on our own ideas?
As is so often the case, the company we keep can be enormously beneficial or deleterious. My mind often wanders to my former pastor’s declaration: “I want to surround myself with likeminded people.” With due respect to him, screw that. On the contrary, we should hear from our opponents directly and often, and never be satisfied with characterizations of them manufactured within our own camp. The fact that half the US believes the world we live in is less than 10,000 years old is only made possible by ignoring this imperative. I can personally attest to this as a former young earth creationist, which may shed light on my gentle treatment of vaccine deniers.
More difficult perhaps than abiding the criticism of our opponents is developing the habit of dealing harshly, which is to say fairly, with ideas we favor. This is sometimes called the “outsider test.” If you think the Bible is great, ask yourself: what would your commentary on Leviticus be if it were in the Qur’an instead? If you believe Jesus healed your cataracts, ask, “What questions would I raise if this claim were attributed to a rival deity or mystic faith-healer?” Only through repetition, after being proven wrong over and over, will this start to feel normal, at which point all of our conclusions become tentative, and our confidence in ourselves is superseded by our confidence in our proven methods of analyzing the world around us.
I fully recognize (as, apparently, does my old pastor) faith-based religious ideas will not survive in such an environment, but neither will pseudo-science, charlatanism, extremism, and quackery of any kind. When we stop backing into our ideas, reasoning our way selectively to familiar conclusions, the benefits come thick and fast. So, reason forward, friends, and remember: be kind to people, not to their ideas. And especially not to your own.