Posts Tagged 'confirmation bias'

Desire, Delusion and Projection

I got a comment on yesterday’s post that took me down a new line of thought relative to whether these global warming folks are outright lying, or just indulging in massive wishful thinking. At least as regards to whether the planet really is warming up and man is actually the cause. Though Rush Limbaugh maintains they are indeed lying, and I wouldn’t rule it out, I can’t help but wonder if desire, delusion and projection might be another way to evaluate their viewpoint/actions.

I’ve mentioned before being at the World Science Fiction convention years ago and listening to a panel of scientists express agreement that sometimes one’s hypothesis can overshadow the data. “You know in your gut your hypothesis correct,” one woman said. “You just know. And thus your job is to figure out how to make the data show it.”

Confirmation bias, anyone?

As I’ve also mentioned before, I’ve encountered that same viewpoint repeatedly ever since. I’ve even quoted from some prominent atheists/scientists to the effect that science by definition excludes God. They begin from the standpoint that God should not even be able to get his foot in the door because that would destroy the “science ” of the scientific method. I can see justification for the viewpoint in a way: if whenever you don’t understand how something works you just say God’s making it happen that way and leave it, you’re not going to learn very much about the world around you on any kind of deeper level. Such an approach operates from the premise that there is no logic, no sequence, no underlying order in what’s happening, nothing to be learned about God from the created world.

When the truth is the exact opposite. Romans 1:20 says that “His invisible attributes, eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…” Science, then, is really just another way of finding God. Looking carefully at the natural world, you see the logic, the sequence, the building of one element upon another to produce a whole, the incredible precision and specificity of it all. None of which you’d see if you could never get past the, “God did it so we can’t figure it out” mentality. The real question behind all scientific inquiry and experimentation is how did God set this thing up to work? How will it interact with other things? What exactly is this thing and how much of it can we know? Kind of the same approach we use in studying the word of God.

But as with so many things, including the word of God, people can take a truth and misapply it. They are ignorant, arrogant, they possess a nature virulently opposed to God, their natural thoughts can’t understand God, and they live in a world system devised and administrated by a creature who is far smarter than any of them, but just as arrogant about himself and as ignorant and deluded about who God is. Many of the people who have seized upon science and the theory of evolution as truth, do so admittedly because it gives them a way to explain everything without having to acknowledge (and thus be accountable to) God.

Which brings me to the third element of my triad, projection. Projection is when you take your own sins, failings, and faulty viewpoint and project them onto others, all the while denying you have any such failings yourself. Then you criticize those on whom you’ve projected for the sins you deny in yourself. So it is here. Atheists and atheist/scientists love to mock Christians as being blind, as having “to check their brains at the door in order to believe in the things of God. “Faith is believing to be true what you know to be a lie,” one said.

I know that’s not me, because I know the Word of God is not a lie. But given the revelations of Climategate, the desperation with which the media and global warmists seek to defend their position in the face of God’s laughter (that would be the massive snowstorms burying the east coast just now) it seems to me that they are the ones who are caught in “blind belief”, the ones who truly are seeking to believe that which they know to be untrue.

And I can see why they might be so incredibly desperate because look what they have to lose… position, esteem, reputation, money, maybe their life’s work. I suspect not too many of them are eager to admit they are wretched sinners, weak and foolish and in need of a savior, either. It’s not rational, it’s emotional.And emotions simply cannot think.

ADDENDUM:  Speaking of desperation in defending global warming, a British engineering prof, Dr. John Brignell, runs a website called numberwatch where he’s collected links to media stories ascribing the cause of everything under the sun to global warming, many of them contradictory. Things like…

Lack of snowfall, too much snowfall
shrinkage of coral reefs, growth of coral reefs
destruction of bananas, growth of same
winds increasing, winds decreasing
hibernation ends too soon, hibernation ends too late.
wolves eat more moose, wolves eat less…

All supposedly the result of global warming. He has over 600 of them at this writing. You can see them all HERE.

Differing Worldviews

My son and his fiancée were here over Christmas and since I had finished The Black Swan (which he had loaned me) and he had not yet read it all the way through himself, but wanted to, I gave it back to him. Thus my posts from that source will be coming to a halt here pretty soon. But not yet.  Today I share some observations prompted by a statement the author made regarding differing viewpoints:

“This confirmation problem pervades our modern life, since most conflicts have at their root the following mental bias: when Arabs and Israelis watch news reports they see different stories in the same succession of events. Likewise, Democrats and Republicans look at different parts of the same data and never converge to the same opinions. Once your mind is inhabited with a certain view of the world, you will tend to only consider instances proving you to be right.

Paradoxically, the more information you have, the more justified you will feel in your views.”

Taleb’s observation that different people can look at the same series of events and come to wholly different conclusions is quite true. [Bush Derangement Syndrome comes to mind] And yet the implication in his words is that there is no one “right” conclusion, just conclusions based on whatever each individual regards as correct in his own eyes, each person’s perception shaped, maintained and bolstered by his innate tendency toward confirmation bias.

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

Only God has the true perspective and according to His word, there are absolutes. There are right ways of thinking and wrong ways. Life and death. Lies and truth. The flesh and the world versus the spiritual and the heavenly. As believers we are engaged in a battle against the spiritual forces that for the moment have rulership over our planet. It’s difficult to fight against forces one cannot see nor feel. We’re not going to be slugging it out physically. No, the battle is one of ideas; one of opposing systems of thought. And there are only two: man’s/Satan’s systems (which encompass all of those things that “seem right to a man” in their varied sameness), and God’s.

If you orient back to central principles of each world view, you are going to reach consistent conclusions. In Satan’s worldview, the creature is supreme. The creature operates independently from God (even if he is claiming to serve and love God, he does it in his own way, not according to God’s way) and seeks to solve his problems and improve his situation using creature power and solutions. In God’s worldview, all credit goes to Him. He is perfect. He does all the work. We, by grace, receive the benefits of what He has done, initially in salvation and continuing throughout our Christian walk. We must decrease, He must increase.

Satan’s genius lies in the way he has drawn in all manner of variation, complication, detail, urgency and just plain volume to obfuscate the central conclusions of each viewpoint. As the Lord said in x, the worries and cares of the world rise up to choke the truth of the word. Pretty soon we no longer see the forest for the trees.

But ultimately there are only two viewpoints. Man’s thoughts and God’s. And the two are not remotely similar.

The Only Reliable Confirmation

Back before Christmas I wrote about confirmation bias, the concept that people tend to look for evidence to support their beliefs instead of evidence to disprove them. I discovered it in the book The Black Swan where it was presented in a negative light, something which hindered people from arriving at truth.

And to some degree I believe it is that. I brought up the examples of Global Warming, evolution, and someone trying to sell a machine that was said to detect and cure ills via quantum mechanics and cell phones, all of which rely on confirmation bias for their “proof.”

We also see it in matters of faith.  Members of cults who see events working out to their liking claim that God is behind them, thereby endorsing their beliefs. Muslims are sure that God is working in their attacks upon the Jews and no doubt there are many other religions who look at external events and see the hand of their deity at work. Indeed, the whole point of sacrificing to various gods was to bring about a desired outcome; if the outcome occurred, the sacrifice was good enough, if it didn’t, the sacrifice was lacking. And, of course,Christians use confirmation bias, too, as I illustrated from the example of the young man who derived confirmation of his belief in God’s guidance from a series of numbers on a boxcar.

But just because events seem to confirm a belief does that make it so? Are we to abandon confirmation in external events in our faith lives? Or should we go about looking only for things that might disprove our faith as the author of  The Black Swan seems to advise?

Looking for things that sow doubt does not line up with what the word of God has to say, and in the end, that is the key. The only thing, the only real source of confirmation is the word of God, never experience or external events. I’m not saying that God doesn’t use external events to guide us, only that all experience must be filtered through the standard of God’s word. If it doesn’t line up with what scripture teaches, it’s not valid.

Of course, if you don’t know what Scripture teaches, you’re going to have a hard time discerning what’s valid and what isn’t. We live in a world of lies administrated by the father of lies, Satan himself. He is a master of deception and we are charged with acquainting ourselves with his schemes (2 Co 2:11). We have a sin nature that deceives us constantly. We are human, with limitations to our senses. We don’t always perceive what’s actually going on.

I remember one time my family and I passed a vehicle at the side of the road. A woman was standing near it. After we had passed it we got into conversation and discovered that each of the adults in our car — me, Stu, my mother and my sister – had a different memory of what we had seen. Some thought the vehicle was a pickup truck, others an SUV. Some thought it was perpendicular to the road we traveled on, others thought it was parallel. We even disagreed on what the woman was wearing: what it black shorts and white top, or white top and black shorts? Or was it not even black and white but colors?

I no longer recall what the actual case was, but it would have been a sorry display had we four been called upon to testify before a court of law! Though perhaps if it had been a more important incident we would have paid better attention and remembered more. The point is, our memories aren’t always accurate. Especially if emotion is involved. Which feeds into another principle delineated in The Black Swan — that experiments have shown that each time we recall a particular event from our past we change it slightly, until years later it’s not at all like what it was originally.

All of which goes back to the fact that it’s the word of God that must be the standard for discernment not someone’s experience. Experience can support the word, but if there’s a conflict, experience has to go. And if the word of God is to be our standard, well, that makes one more reason why we must know it backwards and forwards and be we are handling it accurately.

Walk by Faith, not Sight

Continuing my thoughts stimulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan  on the validity of human-acquired wisdom, information, predictions, etc. 

In Chapter 5, entitled “Confirmation Shmonfirmation” Taleb observes, “…a series of corroborative facts is not necessarily evidence [of something]. Seeing white swans does not confirm the nonexistence of black swans…” However, seeing a single black swan will  prove that not all swans are white. In the same way finding a malignant tumor proves you have cancer, whereas not finding one doesn’t prove you don’t. [As the doctor said recently to my mother, the cancer cells migrated from the first location to the second and logic says they took up residence elsewhere besides in her leg bone. Hence they opt for another round of chemotherapy. How can we know that the chemo is needed, that it will kill the cells we are hoping it will? We can't.]

Taleb calls this “negative empiricism” and contends that negative instances (like cancer, like a black swan) can bring us closer to the truth than verifying instances. “It is misleading,” says he, “to build a general rule from observed facts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our body of knowledge does not increase from a series of confirmatory observations.”

That’s one of those sentences that makes you stop and ponder. It seems that the more we see of something, the more certain we can be of the truth, but the reality is, we just don’t have a large enough sample size. Or, put another way, we simply don’t know the big picture.

This recalls to mind God’s command that His children live by faith in His word and character and not by what they see. Sight would involve confirmatory observations, and we crave confirmation of the things that we believe. Yet as we grow God increasingly asks us to put that desire for confirmation aside.  Noah had never seen rain, had not one convert in his 120 years of preaching to the antedeluvian world, yet he kept on.

Abraham spent his entire life waiting for a city without foundations and is still waiting. Moses spent his adult life traveling toward the promised land and never got to enter it. The church has waited 2000 years for the return of our Lord with no confirmatory evidence for the most part. (Though lately that’s been less true than in the past!)

And then there was Job, who was actually being shown off by God to Satan and the world. “Have you noticed my servant Job?” he asked of Satan. “There is none like him in all the world.’

Job was a mature believer with whom God was well pleased. And what did He do with His mature believer, one who had been faithful for many long years? He drew Satan’s attention to him and allowed him to take all that he had without cause. And after Job lost all his children, all his livestock and houses and servants, and even his health, there wasn’t a lot of confirmatory evidence to bolster the notion that God loved him, and that He was a just God who had all under control.

Nevertheless, Job’s initial response was to affirm that very viewpoint: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Even after his wife came advising him to curse God and die, he said, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” and did not sin with his lips. It was only when those three so-called friends arrived to sit with him silently for seven days before urging him to confess his sins because it had to be his fault that all this had befallen him — which was not at all the situation! — only then did he start to fail the test. Why? Because he had only the word of God to rest in and the lack of confirmatory evidence had gotten to him, especially when the “friends” used that very lack against him.

Our Lord also did not seem to be in the Father’s plan when He was tried, convicted and marched up to the hill of Golgotha to be crucified. There His enemies mocked Him, demanding, once again, confirmatory evidence: “Why don’t you come down from there if you’re the son of God? Where is He? Why doesn’t He deliver you if you’re really who you say you are??”

Of course the evidence did arrive eventually, but it’s in those dark hours that we most want it and don’t have it and the fact that we don’t is by God’s design.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a philosopher, concerned with human viewpoint, and the limitations of man’s perceptions. He doesn’t touch at all on divine viewpoint — at least not directly, but what I like is how he highlights many of the tendencies we have as humans that make having faith in someone we’ve never seen, having faith in the words of men long dead, as all the while the exact opposite is apparently staring us in the face and “everyone” is telling us how things “really” are, and they aren’t like how the Bible says.

 It also shows the myriad ways in which the cosmic system deceives. With such tendencies in us, it’s not all that hard. Especially when you combine it with our lack of brainpower to process all the details that surround us and our resulting need to summarize. And then there is our almost hard-wired inclination to make stories out of everything, regardless of the amount of actual facts we have. But those are subjects for future posts.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is when you search for confirmation of something you believe. Finding it then bolsters your belief. In The Black Swan, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb recounts a psychological experiment in which subjects were given the number seqence 2, 4, 6, and asked to guess the rule generating them by producing other three-number sequences that followed the same rule. The experimenter would answer “yes” or “no” in response to each sequence and from that the subjects would formulate their rule.

In this case the rule was “numbers in ascending order,” a simple rule which few of the subjects discovered.  To do so, they would have had to offer a number series in descending order (to which the experimenter would have said “no”). Being focused on trying to confirm whatever rule they had come up with, the subjects never thought to try to disprove it and thus never asked the right questions…

This practice of seeking evidence that disproves one’s theory is called skeptical empiricism, and is one Taleb advocates as a means of increasing one’s objectivity in perceiving reality.  However, it is so much against our nature that it requires a fair degree of concentrative energy. Our habit, our nature is to go for confirmation rather than falsification. Given man’s fallen state I can readily attribute this to the pride of the flesh, delighting in the cleverness of its own ideas and not at all pleased at the idea of being wrong

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes…”  Pro 12:15

“He who corrects a scoffer gets insult for himself.” Pro 9:7

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”  Pro 26:12

Taleb says you can find confirmation for just about anything you want to believe. Confirmation in circumstances, confirmation in “references,” confirmation in events. Confirmation from other people.

The day before I read this section of the book, I was talking with someone who was advocating a health product whose method of operation and results I found difficult to believe. When I expressed my skepticism the person offered several incidents of the personal testimony sort as “proof” the product was legitimate and worked as advertised. As soon as I read about confirmation bias, I realized I’d just seen it in action.

In Frank Peretti’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Visitation, there is an incident where the protagonist was certain that God wanted him to go to the Billy Graham headquarters in Minnesota and offer his services. He was totally unqualified and really had no “services” to offer (except perhaps janitorial), nevertheless he was convinced it was God’s will and direction that he do this. He found confirmation on the side of a boxcar in a train he happened to pass as he started out on his bus trip to Minnesota. There on the side of the car was a number that just happened to be the same as the street number of the Billy Graham offices. Proof, he exulted, that he was indeed following God’s lead.

 Unfortunately when he arrived at the headquarters he was turned away without appeal… Which left him confused. Had God not been leading him after all? I’d say no. It was merely confirmation bias at work.

Complicating this tendency to want to confirm one’s theory or belief rather than to disprove it is the tendency to focus on the incidents that do confirm, while blotting out those that do not. Taleb calls this the silent evidence. You hear of the 10 people who were cured of cancer using this innovative technique, not the 1100 who died using it. You hear of the 100 writers who succeeded using such and so marketing technique, not the thousands who did not.

Sometimes, scientists just throw out the experiments that don’t confirm their theories while trying to force the ones with promise to do so… The recent CRU emails give some examples of this, and I distinctly recall an article I read a few years ago by Richard Lewontin, maybe, about exactly this. We are aghast at the practice, yet if we’re honest I think most of us will find we do the same thing, if on a lesser scale perhaps.

I’ll use an example that I’m familiar with. Let’s say I fear that deep down I believe that I’m not really a very good writer (my theory). I can get twenty very positive comments on my writing, from people I know and respect and yet, it’s the one negative comment, often from a total stranger, that I recall most vividly. Why? Because it’s corroborating my “I can’t write” theory. That’s also why the negative comments are the ones that tend to surface when I’m struggling to write the next book, corroborating my resurrected fear that I really can’t write after all. “See? Not only am I having trouble with the work in progress but some reviewer on Amazon confirmed that I really am just an imposter.”

Thankfully God’s growing me out of this ridiculous scenario, and this whole idea of confirmation bias is a very helpful concept in doing so. It also answers questions I’ve had about doctrinal or faith-based differences between believers. But more on that tomorrow.


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