The “Bias Of The Gaps” Is Something That Happens To Everyone

Image via Nick Youngson under Creative Commons 3.0

Many atheists are probably familiar with the “God of the gaps” argument. It’s essentially a bias that theists use when they cannot explain something and assume God must have done it. So any gap is filled in with God. It’s very useful mental gymnastic to avoid admitting when religion can’t explain something.

Yet, we are all guilty of this kind of thinking with cognitive biases. Confirmation bias is a common one. It’s basically when we pay more attention to information that supports our argument and ignore information that conflicts with it. There are many, many other types of cognitive biases, but confirmation bias is a broad one that can often be seen when dealing with complicated issues. So that’s the bias I’ll be focusing on in this post.

There often isn’t a clear answer when discussing complicated social issues. Usually, we have incomplete data at best for an issue that requires also requires understanding lots of definitions and context.  This is when we can be particularly vulnerable to the bias of the gaps because such gaps are easy to fill with superficial arguments.

I am hesitant to provide an example of a social issue because I don’t want to pretend only one side does it. But here are some things I think could make those bias gaps harder fill with poor arguments.

1) Provide clear definitions

Seems obvious, but there have been many times that I see people arguing online when much of their argument stems from a difference in definition. If you are going to use a term that’s central to your argument, just define what you mean first because too often people have many definitions for the same word. It takes an extra Tweet or two, but I think it’s very much worth it.

2) Use scientific evidence when possible

It’s amazing how often anecdotes are used for evidence. Again, when discussing complicated social issues, sometimes that’s all we have. But if you can find *some* study that supports your argument, use it. Even if that study has flaws, it’s better than not anything. If there is no scientific study, then statistics can also help (though often more dubious). Just saying “too many X do Y” isn’t as helpful as giving some stats. Again, even if the stats are murky, it provides a concrete picture to start with.

3) Use important terms with precise propositions (often including a direction of causality)

So we defined our term X and we think it causes a decrease in Y. Why not explicitly state that? “Based on what we know about X, it seems that it increases Y because of this study.” That is much more helpful than making value judgement such as “X is bad.” Communication is hard enough (especially online). So why not try our best to make our arguments concise and direct?

Now of course this is an overly simplistic attempt of guidance. The tricky part of cognitive bias is that it can overcome many things! Research shows how even highly intelligent people not better at overcoming blindspots. They can use their intelligence to rationalize information that fits their argument!

However, I still think using the simple tricks above has utility. Doing so presents your argument the best way for critics to try and attack it. We shouldn’t try to obfuscate our arguments if we believe they are strong. When people say things like “do your own research” instead of being able to clearly explain their argument, it’s a huge red flag for me.

If we have two people who are seriously invested in hearing the other side, trying to keep our argument open and transparent is going to help everyone involved (including those reading the comments). Though again, if someone is seriously ideologically motivated to argue something, then they will likely rationalize their point with any shred of evidence they can find. However, if we care about truth, then we should try to make it harder for our brains to trick us by filling in gaps with cognitive bias. We can at least attempt to make those gaps as small as possible and hope we can self-correct as much as possible.

Let’s see if I can follow my advice and summarize my post in more simplistic terms!

Relevant definitions:

“Bias of the gaps” = relying on cognitive biases to fill in for a lack of evidence in your argument. Example: “It’s very cold today so global warming must be a hoax!”


As the properties of an argument become more vague and ill-defined, the bias of the gaps is more likely to occur.

Scientific support for argument:

This study shows that cognitive sophistication does not create immunity for cognitive biases. However, another study shows that asking people to explain a detailed mechanism of their argument leads to more moderate attitudes! So perhaps asking for clarity of one’s argument will force them to cut out more of their extreme points and rely on substance.

Now, I’ll admit this argument I’ve presented here isn’t very intensive. It’s more of a suggestion based on some anecdotal evidence (my experience debating people online) mixed with some findings that broadly support cognitive bias happens to everyone, but that explaining one’s argument in detail can reduce polarization. But hopefully my argument is easier to understand now! And if people want to go and criticize my points, it should be easier to do. Finally, I can take that criticism and either update my argument or abandon it all together.

PS: I now have a Patreon if you’d like to support my writing and podcasting.

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