Evangelicals Admit Confirmation Bias for David Barton

So you may remember that a few weeks ago Thomas Nelson pulled David Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies, upon learning that the book contained inaccuracies. Historians have known for years that David Barton does shoddy history. What is new is that a growing number of conservative evangelical organizations that before took Barton’s words as gospel truth are now questioning him. And why this is happening is fascinating – and instructive.

David Barton is the Ken Ham of history. He’s got an agenda – proving that our founders were all proto-evangelical Christians intending to create a Christian nation – and he lies and distorts and just plain makes up quotes to back it up. He’s been doing this for decades now. And when they deign to recognize him – just like Ken Ham doesn’t actually practice science or have any advanced training in it, Barton neither actually practices history nor has training – mainstream historians and other scholars have pointed this out again and again and again.

So why are conservative evangelical organizations just now starting to doubt Barton and question is facts? Well, recently historian Warren Throckmorton of conservative evangelical Grove City College and other conservative evangelical historians have begun criticizing Barton and pointing out that his works are chock through with inaccuracies and misinterpretations – exactly what mainstream historians have been saying for years. So how does this changing things for conservative evangelical organizations like World Magazine? Because – no wait, I’ll let you hear them say it in their own words.

Left-wing historians for years have criticized Barton. We haven’t spotlighted those criticisms because we know the biases behind them. It’s different when Christian conservatives point out inaccuracies.

Interesting, no? Here’s what Chuck Colson’s organization has to say in a column on it:

If the signs have been there for some time, why then did we love Barton so? And is it possible that we share the blame?

Barton fended off criticism by blaming it on the liberal academy’s antipathy to Christianity. That had more than a little believability to it. I am quite sure that liberal academics often hold to an ideological agenda that motivates them to discredit Christianity’s part in our nation’s history. Thus, it was easy (and it still is) to be suspicious of their criticisms in this case.

But the ideology defense is no help when it’s conservative Christians making a case against Barton—especially when it’s a case as verifiable as this is proving to be. It’s not political opinion that’s stacking up against him now. It’s well documented facts.

This is something I saw over and over and over again as an evangelical devoted to Christian Right causes. Any study or book or what have you that backed up our position was accepted with little scrutiny. And if the other side called it bull? Well of course they would say that! Thus any study or data that opposed our position was questioned as some sort of liberal distortion or fabrication.

It’s part of something called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Even as confirmation bias led conservative evangelicals to accept Barton’s work uncritically, they turned around and attributed mainstream scholars’ criticism of Barton’s work to, you guessed it, confirmation bias. They assumed that mainstream scholars were overly critical of Barton’s books because what Barton was saying didn’t fit with their beliefs about the past. Ascribing confirmation bias to the other side and refusing to see that they were guilty of it themselves created a perfect storm which allowed conservative evangelicals to accept Barton’s work as gospel truth.

The column from Chuck Colson’s organization gives a nod to the reality of confirmation bias in its very title: “He Gave Us What We Wanted.” But the author of that column wasn’t content to simply write a mea culpa.

This is a human tendency, and of course I am not only speaking of Christians but also of skeptics….

“Skeptic” is one of their favorite words, by the way: They claim never to believe anything on anything less than solid evidence. They would never overrun the facts on the way to certainty. Except that (speaking of facts) they don’t practice their skepticism at all consistently. “Skeptic” magazine, for example, reported favorably on a thoroughly discredited “research” study purporting to show that the most secular countries in the world were the best ones to live in—even after the journal that published the study followed it up with a retraction. So much for making sure of their facts.

I don’t know anything about the research pointed to here, but who was right in that case isn’t the point. And I’m not going to get into a discussion about who suffers the most from confirmation bias, because that’s not the point either. The point I want to make is that no one is immune from confirmation bias. In other words, confirmation bias isn’t something only conservative evangelicals have to deal with. It’s something everyone has to deal with. It’s a human tendency.

If you’re aware of what’s going on you can start to notice it in your own life. When reading about gun control, for instance, I’ve noticed that I’m a lot more likely to believe the statistics that favor my position and to question the data that go the other direction. How do we combat this? Well, first of all by being aware of it. And then, of course, by working to correct it. We need to be willing to subject all data to scrutiny, not just the data we don’t like.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Hazelnut

    Hi- long time lurker first time poster here!
    I can’t tell you how much this issue irritates me. I’m a graduate student in American history (and liberal), and David Barton is all of my greatest frustrations with how many non historians view history all rolled into one. Why is it so hard for people to believe that history is something that you need training in to do well- that it isn’t just some weekend hobby? Also, Chuck Colson’s statement, “It’s not political opinion that’s stacking up against him now. It’s well documented facts.” – as if no person with liberal political beliefs can also produce well documented facts? How would they even know, since they never bothered to examine the liberal critiques against Barton? I wonder if this critique is actually a reflection of their own tactics, projected on their opponents. If they are accustomed to knowingly misrepresenting evidence to force it to fit their preferred narrative, then it makes sense that they would assume the other side would do the same thing.

    The most confusing thing, to me, about this whole Barton debacle has been why conservative Christians find it so important to always attribute everything they perceive to be good in American history to Christian motivations. Throughout American history Christians have done important good things and they have also done important bad things. Then, there are lots of important things that have had nothing at all to do with Christianity. The writing of the Constitution pretty clearly falls into the last category. Sure, there were Christians who were involved in writing the Constitution. There were also people who had blue eyes, or who lived in cities, or who preferred cider to wine. None of these things was particularly relevant to the writing of the Constitution. What is so radical about that? Why should that bother modern American Christians one bit? I honestly don’t get the fixation they have on this issue…

    • http://Patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Also, Chuck Colson’s statement, “It’s not political opinion that’s stacking up against him now. It’s well documented facts.”

      Yes, I didn’t even bother to respond to that in the post – it’s the SAME facts as before, what changed was just who was saying it – some of their own, whom they couldn’t just dismiss as biased. And yes to everything else you said too . :-)

    • BabyRaptor

      Because if they can get “America was created to be a christian country” planted firmly in the general mind, whether it’s true or not, then they have the background necessary to enshrine christianity in law and start stripping non-christians of their rights.

    • Rosie

      Forgive me if your questions about why they want all good to be attributed to Christians is purely rhetorical; the answer is pretty evident to somebody raised in the tradition but might not be to somebody who was not. It’s because conservative Christians need to believe they’re right. They have staked their lives in this world and the next on their particular ideology, on believing there is only One Right Way and only One True God, and it’s theirs. Not only that, their Holy Book states that only their God (and they, with his help) can possibly be good. Ever. So if it’s shown that people can do good without God, somehow, the whole thing starts to fall apart. Which is really scary, because it’s the foundation of How the World Works for them. So they continually have to find evidence that people who did good actually did believe in God–the conservative Christian God–or that the so-called “good” really wasn’t so good. Which is what I think Barton was about, though I’ve never read any of his stuff.

      • Hazelnut

        It was sort of half-rhetorical :) What you said makes a lot of sense. I was involved in a conservative evangelical “youth group” (more like a cult, and I don’t say that lightly!) through high school and college, so I am familiar with this burning desire to see America as a Christian nation, but even back then I never really understood it. My position was that Jefferson’s beliefs had no bearing on whether Jesus had died for our sins or not, but that sort of thinking was quickly shut down in my church so I kept quiet about my skepticism (which would eventually lead me out). The idea that all good things must eventually be attributable to Christianity does ring true though. I remember having debates with others in that church about whether some secular musician was secretly a Christian or not- their mindset seemed to be if they liked and identified with the music, then the artist must be a Christian, even if he or she never publicly claimed to be one.

      • Rebecca Newman

        Oh, my goodness! Pet peeve! As someone who grew up steeped in the homeschooling Christian beliefs of the far right and then attended a Christian college and who reluctantly resides in the Bible belt, of course virtually all of my acquaintances are Christians. And what gets on my nerves is how frustratingly ENTITLED so many of them are – they just can’t grasp that not all good things are firmly rooted in Christianity. It’s why they claim they think they have the right to say who should get married, because God gave them marriage. They insist that morality would not exist without the influence of “Judeo-Christian traditions” (you’re welcome, world!). And of course they own this country and its history as well. Where do they get this stuff?!

      • Stony

        “And what gets on my nerves is how frustratingly ENTITLED so many of them are – they just can’t grasp that not all good things are firmly rooted in Christianity. ”

        I come from a very devout upbringing that included Methodist, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and Freewill Baptist. I’ve taught SBC Sunday school, sung in choirs, led youth groups, Baptist Young Women, the works, and I know whereof you speak. I am to a point where I simply do not want to associate with this “side” any longer. I’m shocked that my brother thinks that gay marriage will “cheapen” his hetero marriage (where they are both divorcees, go figure). I’m tired of everything that was set in motion when the Moral Majority came into being and tied religion and politics. I am tired to death of the claims of moral authority bandied about by the right while pastor after pastor after politician after politician shows their ass in some glaring way or another. To that end, luckily, I stepped back and examined what it was that I really believed and if it held up under scrutiny, only to find out that much of it did not. I now consider myself Agnostic, and am happy with that for now.

        I think more of us need to answer the constant “why aren’t you a Christian/why aren’t you in church more/why don’t you agree with us” questions this way: You’re just not nice.

        (Sorry Libby, for this derailing comment, but it has been simmering for some time now.)

    • empty valley

      Fundamentalists rely heavily on AUTHORITY rather than facts and logic. People with faith based beliefs, rather than fact checked world views are very dependant on looking around themselves and seeing that those around them think and believe the same thing they do. Believing in BS is often difficult, so people of faith like to be reasured that other people, especially important people, believe as they do.

  • machintelligence

    Great post, Libby Anne. The main advantage that skeptics have is that we (at least occasionally) ask : What if we are wrong? Recognizing sources of bias is one of the most important things that science does. Richard Feinman put it very succinctly, “You must be very careful not to fool yourself, because you are the easiest one to fool.”

    There is also a term “disconfirmation bias”

    In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers. Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end — winning our “case” — and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.
    —Chris Mooney, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” Mother Jones, April 18, 2011

    The combination of confirmation effect and disconfirmation effect acts as a ratchet which binds us tighter and tighter to our already held beliefs.

    • machintelligence

      BTW Your link to “thoroughly discredited” results in a 404 error.

      • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

        The Wikipedia article on Greg Paul (who gets cited fairly often in atheist circles) notes some of the criticisms of his work (whether it rises to the level of “thoroughly discredited” I wouldn’t know). But Gilson’s (the author of the Breakpoint article, and the broken link points to his own site) use of it there is just a tu quoque. If Paul’s work doesn’t stand up, well that sucks but it stands or falls on its merits or lack thereof, and I don’t care whether the critics are liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist. The damning point about Barton — which Gilson admits — is they didn’t want to hear about Barton’s flaws until their own “side” started pointing them out, even though they’re every bit as obvious as the flaws in creationism (but of course, that’s another thing hard-core evangelicals don’t want to hear about).

        As Slacktivist keeps pointing out: it’s not about facts; it’s barely even about ideology; it’s about self-justifying tribalism and knowing who to despise.

  • http://pslibrary.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    This becomes a huge issue when we talk about, for example, the news. Thanks to the different channels being so biased, there are now essentially two Americas, each with its own totally unique narrative of facts. Even where the facts are the same, the interpretations of them are irreconcilable.

    So how can we sit at a table and talk through our issues with people who literally see the world in a fundamentally different way?

  • ScottInOH

    This is incredibly important, and I see by your post and the good responses already that I’m not the only one who thinks so.

    To me, the issue in this type of instance (reaction to outright scholarship) is this: Yes, we all employ confirmation bias in our daily lives, but that’s why scholarship has to exist, both as a method that individual analysts employ and as a community that critically reviews its members’ work. This is exactly what allows us to weed out bias and correct errors over time.

    The appeal to “bias” as a counter-argument (i.e., “I don’t have to listen to that expert because s/he’s biased”) throws that completely out the window. I really don’t expect a layperson going through his or her day to weigh all the evidence, but I do think that’s the responsibility of an organization giving its imprimatur to something (like World Forum saying Barton is right or wrong). Arrrgh!

  • http://singingwithcrows.blogspot.com Marian L. Shatto

    I’ve followed Chris Rodda’s blog for several years, have read volume one of “Liars for Jesus,” which refutes and dismantles a number of Barton’s lies and distortions, and am eagerly awaiting the pending publication of volume two. A lot of her work is also on YouTube ~ just search for Chris Rodda David Barton. One thing that gripes a number of us who are aware of the huge amount of thorough research that Chris does is that Warren Throckmorton clearly relies on some of her work in his own book, but nowhere in it is her research referenced or acknowledged.

    • Erp

      Strictly speaking Warren Throckmorton is also a psychologist not a historian; his big advantage both here and when working against other conservative Christians on LGBT issues (he has been very active against the Uganda anti-gay bill) is that he is very much a conservative Evangelical Christian at a conservative Christian college so claiming liberal bias does not work very well against him. However, it is definitely Chris who has been doing most of the muck digging to get Barton’s lies documented and she should be credited for that.

  • Stony

    This is pretty much every conversation I have with my conservative family, edited to make us sound much more urbane than we surely are:
    Family: claim about something evil someone did or is trying to do that will cause societal destruction
    me: I’m not sure that’s valid, as the CDC or NOAA or MIT or someone has data that says just the opposite of what you’re contending, where did you get your facts?
    Family: the Heritage Foundation and/or Fox news
    me: I believe your source may be slanted towards a highly conservative and/or religious position that I can no longer view as unbaised or even fair.
    Family: YOU’RE JUST BITTER!
    curtain.

  • machintelligence

    One thing that gripes a number of us who are aware of the huge amount of thorough research that Chris does is that Warren Throckmorton clearly relies on some of her work in his own book, but nowhere in it is her research referenced or acknowledged

    Given his audience, maybe he doesn’t dare?

  • Besomyka

    I thought I’d add, as anecdotal evidence that confirmation bias does indeed happen on all sides of an issue, recently Chris Hayes on his weekend morning show said – I’m paraphrasing – that while the GOP itself wasn’t racist, racists overwhelmingly identified with with them rather than with Democrats.

    I admit that I’ve held that belief as well, and I let it go uncritically, nodding to myself.

    This last weekend he issued a retraction. When polled about specific racist actions (like passing laws to prevent interracial marriage), it turned out to be evenly distributed among political ideology. You can see his retraction here: http://video.msnbc.msn.com/up-with-chris-hayes/48788079#48788079

    There are important differences in policy actions, and how vocal people are, but.. still. Not as clear cut as I would have liked.

    • ScottInOH

      This is a great example. My bias is with yours, Besomyka, and in fact, I’m probably not going to change my mind based on this one instance. I quickly start to think: maybe the results are partly because of old Southern Democrats; maybe it would be better to ask about conservatives & liberals than Republicans and Democrats; maybe it’s something else.

      It’s possible, though, that I’m wrong, and there are as many racists in my ideological camp as in other ideological camps. OVER TIME, the numbers will show that. It is, after all, an empirical question. I’m not going to do the research, because I don’t have time, but someone will (or has), and I will allow myself to be convinced. That’s the difference between appreciating the scholarly profession and being an ideologue; you don’t have to change your mind every time someone reports a finding, but you may have to as evidence accumulates. That difference needs to be understood (perhaps most importantly by journalists who want to “tell both sides” or “report the controversy”).

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  • smrnda

    I don’t think it’s possible for anyone looking at history to have no biases, but part of being a real historian is understanding that and trying to get an opposing point of view now and then and not blowing evidence that helps your case hugely out or proportion.

    Though one thing, I dislike the ’2 sides’ interpretation of all things, as if there are only just two sides. Part of this is just that we have a 2 party system, but I think many issues go beyond an exclusive either/or binary. Then again, I know that nuance isn’t a strong point among some people and I know that religious belief especially tends to argue in favor of this sort of division.

    • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

      I think people also need to be honest about the political nature of history. It’s hard to be apolitical about a subject that studies human beings, which are, as they say, political animals. I’m not saying that history should be pressed into the service of a political agenda, just that people need to be upfront about their theoretical perspectives. What Barton does is just bad scholarship, but we all view the world through a particular theory or lens, and I think it’s generally better to confront that. At least, that’s what they told us in International Relations, and I think it holds true for History as well.

    • Christine

      I agree with you about the “two sides” issue. It threatened us getting rail transit up here – there were three camps. The largest (by a bit) wanted LRT, some people wanted BRT and other people just felt that building new roads was somehow cheaper, so we should do it. Just before LRT got affirmed (yet again) by council, the other two groups tried to force a referendum on the LRT issue. Even though the LRT group was the majority, by framing it as a two-sided issue (LRT or not?), could make the LRT crowd look like a minority.

  • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com Christine

    Unfortunately, the evangelicals have it sort of right that many skeptics/opponents have a bias against them.

    There is an absolute abomination of a book called “A World Lit Only by Fire” which purports to be a medieval history. The author is NOT a historian, he’s a journalist, and the medieval world is presented in the worst possible light. If you read this book, you’d become convinced that the entire medieval population hovered on the brink of starvation all the time, peasants were little better than slaves, witches were burned at the stake every weekend – and that the Catholic church was a brutal, repressive regime that makes Stalin look positively cuddly.

    Any time someone who actually knows anything about medieval history, particularly church history, criticises this book, they generally get dismissed as a Christian apologist. Check out 1-star reviews on Amazon and you’ll see what I mean. And the problem is, the author can’t write proper history to save his life, but he does have a very engaging style so the book is very easy to read.

    And don’t get me started on Richard Dawkins.

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    I am an evangelical Christian, was a history major in college, and have seen a couple of David Barton’s film presentations, and thought they were pretty awful.
    I don’t think you have to have a PhD to be a “professional historian,” and there’s even a place for advocacy in historical writing, as long as you make it plain that that is what you are doing. Barton does come up with a lot of interesting facts and information, but he typically lacks the overall context to put in in its proper perspective. America was, in some sense, a “Christian nation,” but not because of the Founding Fathers. It was the early colonists, especially in New England, who brought Christian civilization to the New World from England. The main contribution of the Founding Fathers was to separate church and state, not quite the type of “American exceptionalism” Barton has in mind. To the extent that there was a Christian influence on American ideas about government, it probably owes more to John Knox and Oliver Cromwell than to Thomas Jefferson.
    But it is also true that there is a liberal bias at work on the other side as well. The public schools in particular have to be very careful in how they discuss religion, and this makes the teaching of American history difficult. Some of the most influential figures in American history never get mentioned because, well, they were religious figures. I was astonished a number of years ago to visit Northampton, MA and happened to talk to a passerby about the town’s history. He had never heard of Jonathan Edwards! (Edwards had pastored the !st Congregational Church just a few blocks from where we were standing.). How many Americans have ever heard of George Whitefield, Charles G. Finney, or D.L Moody? And yet in their times they moved the masses and inspired social reform movements.
    [Interestingly very few presidents, as far as I can tell, were personally devout, although a number of them were raised in devout Christian homes. They acquired a strong sense of values from their upbringing, but I think that it is difficult for a genuinely committed Christian to engage in the rough and tumble of partisan politics. Successful politicians like Lincoln and FDR were moral, but not too moral! They could dissemble when the occasion arose. Does that tell us something about what we expect out of our politicians? Isn't the real reason we have such a huge federal debt crisis is because WE, the people, are not willing to face reality?]
    So I sympathize with what Barton tried to do, but deeply lament the way he tried to do it, and in the end he only succeeded in discrediting himself.

    • machintelligence

      Bob Wheeler:

      Interestingly very few presidents, as far as I can tell, were personally devout, although a number of them were raised in devout Christian homes.

      I suspect that some of them were atheists, but could never admit it publicly.

      My favorite president/religion story involves Woodrow Wilson, a man of few words: Returning from church, where he had heard a nearly two hour long sermon, he was asked about the topic of the sermon. “Sin” was his reply. Asked to elaborate on what the preacher had said about it, he responded “He was against it.”

      • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

        The version of the story I heard attributed the remark to Calvin Coolidge. There is an interesting article in World magazine about colleges and universities that began as Christian institutions and became secularized in the early 20th Century. The of the examples they cited was Princeton University under Woodrow Wilson, who was a convinced Darwinist.

      • machintelligence

        You may be right. I didn’t try to track down the story.
        The early 20th Century saw lots of changes of a similar nature. Advances in medicine caused schools based on homeopathy or osteopathy to change their curricula to become almost indistinguishable from standard medical schools.

  • B.B.G

    The problem with Christianity in America is intellectual laziness . I say this as a professing christian . If it’s dumbed down to a 5th level and easy to digest its from God .Christian nationalism ? It doesn’t stack.

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