I am an American liberal atheist. I believe in the absolute separation of church and state. Like Senator Marco Rubio, I’m not a scientist, man, but I nevertheless believe in climate change and evolution, and the explanatory power of the scientific method generally. I believe in social, economic, and political equality for all citizens, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. I sometimes put “believe” in quotes to show that my beliefs are proportioned to the evidence, as philosopher David Hume once advised, and not based on wishful thinking or blind faith. I find the positions and posture of the Right Wing in America abhorrent.
And yet I read the Drudge Report every day.
(Image via Wikipedia Commons)
This may seem like an exercise in masochism, or seem intentionally provocative, but there are a few reasons why I read Drudge every day—the main reason being the desire to combat my confirmation bias.
David McRaney, author of the 2011 book “You Are Not So Smart,” notes that confirmation bias is “a filter through which you see a reality that matches your expectations,” and that it “causes you to think selectively.” He also notes that pundits as diverse as Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, or Ann Coulter and Keith Olbermann, are in the business of providing “fuel for beliefs,” and that they “pre-filter the world to match existing world-views.”
I think this is obvious. But the thing about confirmation bias is that we think our favorite talking heads are giving us factual descriptions of events despite the fact that we know they’re just as susceptible to the same bias as we are. If you’re hearing things coming out of your TV, iPad, or radio that align perfectly with your own opinions and feelings, it’s likely that they’re drinking the same flavor of Kool-Aid as you. This doesn’t mean that the Kool-Aid is necessarily bad for you, or that the ingredients don’t match the label, but it’s probably a good indication that you should expand your palate.
Many of Drudge’s headlines sound outrageous, and turn out to be blatantly false or over-exaggerated, but sometimes on further examination there is a kernel of truth in there. Cultivating the patience to sift through the chaff can serve us well. Confirmation bias is pernicious, and it’s much easier for us to simply go with the flow than to take the time to examine—really examine—the basis for our beliefs and opinions.
In his 2013 book “Thinking,” literary agent John Brockman presents the transcripts of a talk organized by his Edge Foundation that included the leading lights in the field of moral psychology. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but one thing in particular caught my eye: social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talking specifically about the need to combat confirmation bias.
In his talk, Haidt laments the fact that his field is overrun by liberals. Not that liberals aren’t doing a good job at it, mind you, it’s just that the nature of confirmation bias makes it very difficult to see the whole forest when you’re all standing around the same trees. In other words, everyone’s dipping their glasses into the same punch bowl. Haidt says, “We have a very, very biased field, which means we don’t have the diversity to really be able to challenge each other’s confirmation biases on a number of matters.”
And if the professionals have difficulty overcoming bias, what hope is there for workaday schlubs like the rest of us?
Think about this. Let’s say you’ve arrived at a set of beliefs and opinions about all things political. To you, the strength and veracity of your beliefs are self-evident. Yet the funny thing is, you can’t immediately offer up the reasons or thinking processes that led you to those beliefs when someone asks you to, at least not for more complex issues. You just know what you believe—and you know that you’re right.
Now, it may be true that, at some point in the past, you did go through a rigorous reasoning process to arrive at your informed opinion, but can you really be sure? And can you be sure that your reasoning was sound, or that you considered all facts and evidence? Memory is a notoriously unreliable function of your brain’s cognitive repertoire.
Having convictions is a brain shortcut we can’t really do without. There’s just no way we could survive if we had to re-think or re-reason our way through every belief we have. We’d be paralyzed by inaction. We’d be so busy doing mental gymnastics that we’d have no time to eat or drink—or procreate.
So when it comes to beliefs, political or otherwise, we come to an initial conclusion and that’s that—we move on. And what’s more, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people, both socially and at work, as well as on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, where we dutifully and self-righteously share and retweet articles, gifs, and memes that express beliefs and opinions with which we wholeheartedly agree.
We all do it. I do it, too, lest you think I’m claiming to be the only enlightened citizen in our midst, a sort of first Buddha of the Body Politic, or the first one out of Plato’s Political cave. I regularly read The Daily Beast, the feed from The Rachel Maddow Show, as well as The Colbert Report. (The latter is the perfect antidote to the histrionic hysteria of Drudge and all his FoxNews kits with bright eyes and bushy tails ready to pounce on the latest liberal outrage.) And that’s the other nice thing about The Drudge Report: he has a huge catalog of links to news outlets of every ideological stripe on his site. It’s very convenient. I can click through to The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and Mother Jones, too.
But we should regularly vet our convictions. And ideological convictions are different from the conviction that you’ll catch more flies with honey, let’s say, or that wrestling an alligator might end up with you having fewer limbs. We don’t have nearly as many ideological convictions as we do run-of-the-mill, existential convictions as we live our day to day lives. So I think we can spend whatever leisure time we can manage to wring out of the saturated towel of life examining them.
But even if we manage to do this, the question remains: why do we want to combat confirmation bias? Is it because we’re only concerned with the truth of things—or with the Truth, as it were? That so long as Truth wins out we’re happy? Well, not completely.
As McRaney also pointed out in his post, “you want to be right about how you see the world, so you seek out information which confirms your beliefs and avoid contradictory evidence and opinions.” Being right about how we see the world isn’t really about pursuing truth for it’s own sake, an endeavor that is thought to yield something like an internal, private feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction. We want to be right about the world mainly because we are competitive, territorial, divisive creatures, and being right yields feelings of power and control. Being right gives us the power to ridicule, to devalue our opponents, and thereby make ourselves feel more valuable. Incorrigible convictions provide a scaffolding where one can be in control despite the constant current of chaos. Or so we think.
But what the world doesn’t need is that type of mindset that confirmation bias reinforces to an astonishing degree, the kind best exemplified by a certain type of devout religious believer who says that nothing could ever make her not believe in God, for example. Every event she experiences allegedly testifies to the perfect will of an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent being. Her conviction is so solidified that it provides an unshakable foundation from which the most intoxicating feelings of power and control can grow. And certainty is intensely satisfying.
But convictions are prisons, as Nietzsche pointed out in the aptly named “The Antichrist.” And confirmation bias guarantees that your prisons remain safe and secure. Unfortunately, you can’t really make much progress in the world or with yourself when your time is spent shuffling from prison to prison.
So among the beliefs I stated at the beginning of this piece, I’ll add one more: I think you should also read The Drudge Report everyday, intentionally exposing yourself to as many opposing news outlets, even extreme ones, that you can make time for. I believe this type of exercise can temper our reflexive tendency toward confirmation bias, and in the process also ensure that our convictions maintain a much needed element of plasticity in a complex and rapidly-changing world.