Struggling to Stay Rational

When I heard about what happen to Adrian Peterson’s child I felt sick. How does a grown man “assault” a two year old boy to the degree that the boy dies? There is a part of me that wished for him to be sentenced to five minutes – alone with Adrian Peterson. But that is not consistent with my stance against the death penalty; rather it is a natural emotional reaction to a horrible crime. Since my objection to the death penalty is based on rational reasoning, I have to keep my opposition to putting to death a man, even one who killed a two year old boy.

This brings a larger issue to mind. We are emotional creatures. It is part of our makeup and we should not deny it. But we also should seek to be as rational as possible when making choices in our lives. How do we embrace our emotional nature and still make rational decisions? Work on confirmation bias indicates our tendency to consider our arguments rational even when they are not. Is there any way we can make sure that our thinking has not been poisoned by what we emotionally want?

There are no certain mechanisms by which we can assure that our emotions do not bias our decision-making. Think about the logical fallacies we observe all the time in the comment section of blogs (including Black, White and Grey) and articles. Think about how hard it is to agree with the referee’s decision when it goes against your sports team. Think about how the same politician attacks those of the other party for lying, adultery, being unethical, and yet dismisses the same things in his/her own party. We see evidence of confirmation bias and emotionally based decision making all the time. Our emotions generate presuppositions that often lead us away from a rational consideration of events and issues.

We can try hard to overcome such biases. As it concerns the death penalty, I came to the decision that it is not rational to deliver the ultimate punishment given incomplete knowledge. A criminal justice system we know is corrupted by racial and economic influences will inevitably have unjust propensities. The death penalty multiplies the level of injustice in our society as certain individuals (the poor, racial minorities) will be more likely to suffer the ultimate punishment. Beyond such injustice, there are powerful arguments that the death penalty does not deter crime and is more expensive than life in prison. If this blog was basically about my position about the death penalty I would go more into depth of these issues, but these are the concerns that have led me to the sober conclusion that the death penalty is not good for us. Having concluded that the death penalty is not best, I reason that if I allow my emotions to drive me to support the death penalty for the killer of Peterson’s son then I am throwing away my logical reasoning. If Peterson’s son’s killer is put to death then we have the question of where to draw the line on the death penalty. Is it for killers of children? Is it for those who kill multiple times? Can it be used for crimes that do not include murder? If my emotions allow me to leave my previous considerations then I start down a path leading to justification of a capital punishment system containing the elements of injustice I am concerned about.

Does this mean that anyone who supports the death penalty is illogical? It would be arrogant for me to believe that I make no mistakes in my reasoning and that all who disagree with me are wrong. I accept that my conclusions are the best I have come up with given what I know at this particular time. I also accept that although I tried to come to these decisions as rationally as possible, that my emotions and social position have presupposed me to develop certain conclusions about the death penalty. For example, perhaps because I am an African-American, I am more sensitive to possible criminal justice dysfunctions making me less supportive of the death penalty. It is wrong for me to think that those who disagree with me on this, or other issues, are being illogical, but it is fine for me to expect them to explain their logical reasoning if I discuss the issue with them.

This pondering about how to deal with information in a non-emotional manner takes on particular importance since I teach. How do I relate that information in light of the biases I, and everyone else, bring to teaching? Since I teach race/ethnicity classes can I do so without the biases I bring to it as an African-American? What about sociology of religion classes since I am a Christian? I see two honest different approaches to this. I can be upfront about my biases and freely exhibit them in the classes. That way the student can factor my biases into their consumption of what they learn from me. Or I can do my best to be as balanced as possible and even go out of my way to present perspectives that differ from my own in a fair manner. I have chosen the latter approach although there is nothing wrong with the former approach. What would be dishonest is to overtly teach the course in a biased manner but to claim that I am unbiased. I have a hard time respecting professors using that approach.

Ultimately, what is called for is an honest appraisal of our ability to overcome our emotional biases. When we forget the powerful mechanisms of confirmation bias and how our presuppositions shape our decisions, we become overconfident in the decisions we make. Ideally our appraisal of our cognitive abilities should lead us to be more careful about making proclamations about what we know. If you have followed my blog, you know that I have not been shy about making controversial arguments and being around to defend those arguments. I prefer to stick around and discuss those issues, as long as those I am having those discussions with do not degenerate into insults and/or stereotyping, so that I can see how my ideas are being challenged and to learn if I need to revise them. That is not a guarantee that I will be able to see the flaws in my reasoning, but it is one way I can protect myself from being overconfident in my assertions. Naturally I do not expect everyone to expose themselves to debate in such ways. But ideally all of us will find mechanisms by which we can be careful to counter our proclivity to allow our emotional responses overshadow our attempts at rational reasoning.

Christian Privilege?

A couple of weeks ago a facebook friend showed me this link discussing Christian Privilege. I remember the first time I heard of this concept. I had just finished doing research systematically documenting the disadvantages conservative Protestants have in academia. So when I heard of this concept I literally Laughed Out Loud. I realize that my reaction was primed by my research findings and not the most appropriate one but it was hard to take seriously claims about Christians having privilege when I had just discovered that academics are willing to discriminate against them for their religious beliefs.

However, if my reaction was not appropriate, many comments that follow the article are at least as bad. It is fair to say that a great deal of Christian-bashing characterized these comments. Having done race/ethnicity scholarship, I am quite familiar with the discussions surrounding white privilege. Those discussions were usually not opportunities for white bashing but rather were forums to discuss unknown advantages whites have. The difference in reaction is a strong clue that attempts to link Christians to the same majority group status that we do for men and whites are not empirically sound. Amore nuanced discussion of the social position of Christians is needed, one that is more sophisticated than my laughter or Christian bashing.

One clarification is necessary before diving more fully into this topic. When we discuss Christian privilege, we generally are discussing the possibility of privilege for conservative Christians. In the context of the culture war, we generally envision conservative Christians as the ones at war with progressive secular individuals. Christian privilege becomes a concern since this privilege may produce an advantage for conservative Christians in the culture war. Thus as I assess the possibility of privilege, I will be looking more at conservative Christians than other subsets in the Christian population.

Looking at Christian privilege helps us to develop some nuance for such a discussion. Some of the claims of Christian privilege simply are not true. For example, the first one is, “You can expect to have time off work to celebrate religious holidays.” But as a professor, I am legally required to recognize the religious holiday needs of students no matter their religious tradition. I cannot allow a Christian student to miss a test for his/her religious ceremony but force the Muslim or the Jew to take a test on his/her religious holiday. No I will not let a student named Sam take the test off for worshiping the religion of Sam, but for any established religious holiday, a student can get the day off. Neither is it accurate that “It is easy to find your faith accurately depicted in television, movies, books and other media.” I would like to know the last time a conservative Christian was portrayed in the media without the accompanying stereotypes of them being either ignorant, intolerant, or hypocritical. I have little doubt that individuals in other religions perceive themselves misrepresented by the media, but Christians have just as much right as others to have such sentiments. In my unofficial assessment claims from statements 6, 8, 15, 17, 20, 31, 32 and 33 also are not accurate or apply to other religions as well while statements 9, 11, 19, 23, 25, 26, 27, and 29 are only sporadically accurate depending often on where one lives in the United States.

But this is not to say all of the Christian privilege statements are myths. Statement 2 is “Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible.” Clearly it is easier to find Christmas shows than Hanukah shows on television. Statement 12 is “Politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith.” It is noteworthy that all of our Presidents have claimed to be Christians, including the present one. Claiming Christian belief certainly produces political advantages. These advantages are why in the past I have argued that Christians in the United States should avoid talking about being persecuted, although discussion of religious discrimination is clearly appropriate. An accurate assessment of the concept of Christian privilege is that it does operate in some instances but in other situations there is no privilege and there even can be disadvantages in being identified as a conservative Christian.

There are critical differences in white or male privilege when compared to the concept of Christian privilege. For example, it is fairly difficult, although not impossible, to consider ways in which whites or males have disadvantages. It is not that difficult to find institutional disadvantages for Christians. In addition to their potential disadvantages in academia, it is reasonable to assert that media images of Christians, particularly conservative Christians, are not very flattering. In addition to these institutional disadvantages, whites and males have higher levels of SES and educational attainment than people of color and women. The same is not true for Christians. One of the markers of having majority group status is the systematic ability to use that status for material gain. This is clearly not the case as it concerns Christians.

Here is another way to consider the relative status of conservative Christians. A few years ago I published an article indicating that the religious group rejected the most was atheists. The group suffering from the second highest number of rejections is Christian fundamentalists. But those who rejected Christian fundamentalists are more likely to be white, well-educated and male. One way to conceptualize this is that more people reject atheists than conservative Christians but those who reject conservative Christians have more per-capita social power than those rejecting atheists. This does not mean that conservative Christians are constantly at a disadvantage in society. The fact that those with anti-atheist sentiment outnumber those with anti-Christian sentiment indicates the sort of political advantage accounting for the lack of atheists, or other types of nonChristians, in political positions. But the tradeoff of numbers versus per-capita social status does account for the disadvantages Christians have in elite educational organizations. This sort of nuance has to be taken into account as we consider the social place of Christians in the United States.

Are Christians the majority group religion in the United States? Yes, but not in the same manner that whites and males are majority group members. In certain social dimensions, we still see that Christians have advantages of prestige and respect. To be a Christian can be a card one can use to create connection and trust. But it is a huge mistake to assume that Christians have the type of institutional advantages we associate with other majority group members. The creation of the notion of Christian privilege is an attempt to link conservative Christians to the same status as whites and males. Such linking is inappropriate. It also fails to account for sophisticated ways status as a Christian differs from racial and gender status. I do not laugh like I did when I first heard of the concept of Christian Privilege. But I still perceive it misguided in its attempt to link Christian status to racism or sexism. Similar to claims that Christians are being persecuted in the United States, assertions of white privilege stifle a sophisticated discussion on the status of Christians in society. In a society where Christians no longer have the type of dominant status they once had, it is important to have accurate assessments of Christian status not devolving into claims of Christian privilege or persecution.

Science and the Questioning of Our Biases

You never know when an article will catch your attention. I ran across this article concerning how individuals will not change their mind even when facing information that directly contradicts their argument. Our presuppositions are so strong that even when we receive evidence that they are wrong, we hold onto those assumptions. This tendency has been called confirmation bias and it is a part of our human nature. Understanding this bias is important to fully understand how science works.

Confirmation bias is so strong that often we do not recognize when it affects us. We just think that our beliefs are the way things are without seriously questioning if we are wrong. Thus, we have to make a conscious effort to combat confirmation bias to engage in critical thinking. I have learned how hard it is to question one’s beliefs. Even though I grew up going to church, I remember a time when I was struggling with my faith. Things had not worked out the way I thought they should and I questioned whether following God was what I wanted to do. But I did not want to make an emotional decision based on my life’s current circumstances. So I thought deeply about the apologetic information I had collected and the arguments against theism I had heard over the last few years. I was in graduate school at the time so I had learned a lot of anti-theistic arguments by then. After a lot of thinking and questioning of my faith, I came to the conclusion that theism was the most logical alternative. Once I made that decision then some more thinking led me to reaffirm that Christianity was the most logical decision. I came to those decisions but for a time was emotionally spent because of how difficult it was to look at those issues.

Although that was a very painful time for me, I am glad that I went through that period of questioning. Going through it allowed me to at least temporarily test the presuppositions I had developed. This questioning is not a guarantee that I overcame confirmation bias. I am responsible for continuing to seek out new information that may alter the previous conclusions I have drawn. But the emotional pain I experienced from reconsidering my religious beliefs showed me just how hard it is to confront our personal assumptions about reality. That difficulty goes a long way to explain the findings in the linked article about individuals holding on to beliefs even when confronted with disconfirming evidence.

This gets us back to thinking about the institution of science. What is true for the individual can be even truer in a community that reinforces previously accepted corporate assumptions. Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists develop paradigms based on previous ideas. This paradigm is accepted and defended until it reaches a point when there is so much disconfirming evidence that it becomes nearly logically impossible to believe in the paradigm. But usually the paradigm goes relatively unchallenged and scientists attempt to defend it against all attacks. According to Kuhn, the normal state of affairs is scientists fighting to maintain the paradigm against all attacks instead of looking for all possible answers to research questions. We like to think of scientists as individuals open to all possible answers. But the result of the article reinforces the reality that scientists, like others, when looking for answers to research questions tend to look for those that fit their presuppositions.

There is no easy way to deal with confirmation bias. The best we can do is to struggle to make sure that our ideas are driven by evidence and not merely what we want to find to be true. I have seen this occur in my life in more than in dealing with my faith but also in looking at the results of research. One of the topics I used to study was interracial romantic relationships. Being interracially married, I was eager to disprove the myths some of my Christian brothers and sisters had about interracial couples. One of the “myths” was that interracial marriages are more likely to end up in divorce. However, as I looked at the research I saw evidence that interracial marriages are indeed slightly less stable than same-race marriages. I could look at the enduring racism in our society as a reason for this relative instability, but more than one study indicated that this instability was real. The only honest approach was to alter my message to accept what science was telling me.
Not all of us are scientists or scholars. But all of us have opportunities to deal with confirmation bias in our lives. It may be in how we approach our politics, how we think about our interpersonal relationships, or how we consider our beliefs about the supernatural. I fear that most individuals will not take advantage of our opportunities to deal with this bias since it is painful and difficult to confront our presuppositions. The advent of the internet allows us to read only the ideas that reinforce our own ideas. So instead of the internet exposing us to philosophies that differ from our own, it merely allows us to remain sheltered in our own ideological cocoon. And when we do encounter those we disagree with, we do so in comment sections of web articles, or on Facebook we engage in “debates” that provide more heat than light. On the internet we do not have to show any common respect to individuals who remain anonymous to us and so discussions with others in online forums often prove to be unfruitful.

When I was in graduate school I was taught many different skills. I was taught statistics and social science methodology. I learned how to read the classic sociological theorists and contemporary academic literature. I was trained in how to construct a research question and organize an empirical project to study that question. But there were no lessons on controlling my confirmation bias and making sure it does not get in the way of my work. Professors did talk about critical thinking but much of that training merely reinforced the ideas professors had previously accepted as the results of his/her “critical thinking.” Most scholars are not any more prepared to deal with their presuppositions about reality than anyone else.

In an ideal world science would be what we expect it to be. It would be an open search for truth. But given the reality we have today, it is a mistake to expect scientists to be able to consistently overcome their confirmation bias. It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss instances where it was clear that this bias played a major role in how science is done. However, I have seen enough in my chosen field of sociology to know that scientific results can be the outcome of presuppositions rather than rigorous study. Given that I know this to be true in sociology, I have to wonder how much this is also true in other scientific disciplines. Given the power of confirmation bias, I must wonder what our limits are in accumulating scientific knowledge.

The Non-Private Society

The NSA spying story highlights an interesting changing aspect of our society. Right now I have no interest in debating the role of information gathering except to note how this controversy illustrates the loss of privacy in our society. Over time technology and social factors have operated to erode the level of privacy we enjoy. Even if we are able to rein in the NSA, it is unrealistic to believe that our privacy will not continue to be eroded. The new reality is that we are all public figures to some degree.

Think about how much can be found about you by someone who wants to help or hurt you. Anything you wrote online, such as this blog or comments to online articles where you have to provide a user name, may be tracked down. Your posts and comments on Facebook are fair game as well as your tweets on Twitter. We know that there is technology that records the websites you visit (Have you noticed how Facebook puts up ads on the topics you searched for on Google?). Anytime you are outside your home or office, you are fairly likely to be filmed by someone’s smart phone or a public camera. Ask Mitt Romney if talks to individuals at private events stay private (remember “47 percent”). There are a variety of ways in which people can gather information about you and not all of that information will be flattering.

It was not too long ago that a person could go around saying and doing stupid things. It is what most of us humans do. But in this day and age doing that will catch up with you as we live in a society where your utterances and actions are recorded for future reference on your character and qualifications. Think of the dumbest thing you have done in your life. How would you like the entire world to know about that? Welcome to our non-private society.

Now I may be exaggerating a little bit. There are a few places where I can have an expectation of privacy. In my house no one should be recording what I say or do without my direct permission. The same goes for my office when the door is closed or any hotel room I am temporarily renting. My personal communications with physicians, counselors, lawyers and my spouse remain confidential. Otherwise everything I say or do I must say or do as if I expect others to be watching me. They may not watch me now but if I write a book they do not like or take a stand in a speech that they dislike, then I would expect that my detractors will gather information on me with some of the techniques described above.

Clearly our technology has greatly contributed to our loss of privacy. Smart phones and internet cookies allow for a degree of tracking that simply was not possible twenty years ago. However, there are also cultural changes exacerbating this trend. The proliferation of reality television indicates a desire for voyeurism that has become part of our societal values. The recipients of this voyeurism are not always troubled by it. When I grew up there were talk shows where some individuals had no problem coming on the show to discuss why they were having an affair on their spouse, lied to their friends or engaged in some other socially deviant behavior. I always wondered if they knew how bad being on those shows made them look and why they would air such dirty laundry. But looking at some of the reality shows we have today indicates that the desire for fame still persuades individuals to do and talk about stupid things in public.

In addition to our inquisitive hunger, we are in a highly polarized society where there is powerful incentive to “dig up dirt” on our political and cultural enemies. This makes our lack of privacy worse since individuals seek to find information to put others in the worst possible light. If you want to make a statement on a controversial issue today you had better be purer than Caesar’s wife. It appears that having a pristine past is a requirement for us to make public comments if those comments are to be taken seriously.

I wish there was a public policy option to pursue that would remedy this situation. But the genie is out of the bottle and there is no way to reverse it now. We have to accept it and work with it to the best of our abilities. I know that in my situation that I am careful with what I put on Facebook or Twitter. I write as if I expect those comments to go public at some point in the future. They likely will not but you never know in a non-private society. I am constantly amazed at what some individuals place on Facebook. They make incredibly intolerant comments or bemoan some ex-lover or family member as if they do not realize the sort of public image they are creating. Word to the wise. When you are mad at the world, or men/women, is not the best time to vent on Facebook. We have to live as the public figures our technology and intrusive society has made of us and be smart in our self-presentation.

Beyond being careful of how we present ourselves is there anything else to take from the lack of privacy we have in our society? I can only speak for myself, but I have become a little more sympathetic to those who are caught making a politically incorrect statement or have done some juvenile action earlier in their life. Let us be honest. We have more tolerance for mistakes for people who support our causes than those who support the causes of our political opponent. Whether President Bush’s or President Obama’s past drug use bothers us is likely correlated to whether we are politically liberal or conservative. So if we can give grace to those we agree with, then can we not also provide grace to those who disagree with us? I try to give people the benefit of the doubt regardless of whether I agree with them or not. Sort of a “but for the grace of God goes I” approach. I hope as more people realize how vulnerable we all are to having our worst actions being used to create uncharitable images of us, that more individuals may become forgiving of the past shortcomings or verbal missteps of others.