Evangelicals Admit Confirmation Bias for David Barton

Evangelicals Admit Confirmation Bias for David Barton August 27, 2012

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.

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