Hi and welcome back! The other day, I showed you an odd little essay by Amy Laura Hall, a Duke University ethics professor. In it, she twice displayed a cognitive bias called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias, if allowed to rule people unchecked, can prevent their ability to learn and grow. Today, let me show you what confirmation bias looks like in the wild — and how to check its rule.
Confirmation Bias: A Quick Refresher.
A cognitive bias is a reference to various quirks and irrationality in humans’ thinking. Hooboy, there are a lot of them.
To save processing time, our brains make a lot of quick judgment calls and interpretations of available data. Most of the time, these time-savers work out just fine. Either they don’t matter, or any minor damage they cause can be quickly cleaned up. Or they’re applied to people who don’t want to hurt us, so any harm we might have suffered gets bypassed.
Of all these biases, confirmation bias might be the worst and most common of the lot.
Humans tend to seek out, interpret, and then remember information that confirms whatever we’re thinking about that topic. (We also tend to forget and avoid engaging with information that might challenge or refute our opinions.) The closer we feel to the topic, the more controversial it is, and the more we believe that it’s a certain way, the more of a risk confirmation bias becomes — and the stronger it’ll be.
It’s important to remember that everyone is subject to confirmation bias. This isn’t a logical fallacy, which irrational people choose to use to shore up a false claim. Rather, our brains naturally fall prey to confirmation bias.
Thus, it’s very important to remember that it’s a thing when we evaluate a topic related to our beliefs or strongest opinions.
Examples of Confirmation Bias in That Essay.
I noticed Amy Laura Hall doing this one thing twice in her essay: if she hasn’t personally witnessed something, then it categorically does not exist. Furthermore, we are all bad people for assuming it does. Here are the two examples of the thing:
By April 2020 I began seeing stories about “anti-mask” rallies, even though no one I knew personally was against masks. [. . .]
Every Republican with job security and health insurance I know personally was vaccinated as soon as their turn came up.
She also points out this fact, though her entire essay exists in the first place so she can chide people for doing exactly what she has never actually seen:
I do not know personally anyone gloating over someone who has contracted COVID-19 after resisting or missing the vaccine.
Amy Laura Hall is a tenured white Duke University professor with serious social-justice leanings. And strangely, against all odds, she has completely forgotten about her own risk of confirmation bias.
Where Have We Seen This Confirmation Bias Before?
Some years ago, the Religious Right discovered Phil Robertson, the rage-consumed patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan of werewolves. I’m sure they thought he was the answer to their prayers. He was a good ol’ boy living by TRUE CHRISTIAN™ principles, steering his clan like a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ patriarch should. Sure, he kept saying racist and bigoted things, but it was all stuff they agreed with. So it was okay.
For those outside of the tribe, it wasn’t anything new or unique. At the time, a lot of white evangelicals were talking just like him.
Eventually, he said something that got everyone outside of white evangelicalism up in arms. Meanwhile, everyone in the tribe just tried to ignore it. He had a hot take about historical racism, you see, that he just had to share. And in 2013, in an interview with GQ magazine, he shared it:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Ah, okay. So Phil Robertson, who grew up in a small Louisiana town during Jim Crow, couldn’t remember having personally seen any Black people mistreated. Nor had any Black people taken the serious risk of telling him, a white guy, about any mistreatment they suffered. Therefore, his town had not been racist at all.
And he therefore thought that modern Black people’s complaints were invalid.
This Confirmation Bias Can Happen to Anyone.
On Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander marveled in 2014 at how compartmentalized his social circle had somehow become:
According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.
And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.
In 2014, equal marriage was a serious culture war for white evangelicals. Here is his realization about his social circle on that count:
About forty percent of Americans want to ban gay marriage. I think if I really stretch it, maybe ten of my top hundred fifty friends might fall into this group. This is less astronomically unlikely; the odds are a mere one to one hundred quintillion against.
His social circles sound about as selective as those of Amy Laura Hall.
And yet he’s not out there claiming that no Americans are Creationists, or that way fewer people than we think oppose equal marriage.
Falling Into a Confirmation Bias.
Somehow Scott Alexander avoided a confirmation bias mistake on those two topics. But Amy Laura Hall fell right into one.
She, personally, knows no Republicans resisting the jab, nor any anti-maskers. Therefore, there are only a tiny number of people like that — if any at all.
Confirmation bias led her only to remember people who think as she does about these topics. Somewhere on Duke University’s campus or social-media accounts, there’ve probably been students or parents who are COVID denialists. They sprout everywhere, and they aren’t exactly shy about announcing themselves in any venues.
No matter how many there are, though, they don’t count — because Hall has not personally met them.
Sidebar: A Selection of Anti-Masker News in That Area.
Here’s a selection from news in Amy Laura Hall’s area — just about anti-mask numnuts:
In May this year, one of her colleagues, Dr. Gavin Yamey, wrote an essay for MedPage Today that compared anti-maskers to the Nazis of World War II. (In fact, some of those anti-maskers wore yellow Stars of David.) He’s a professor of global health and public policy, so I’m sure he could have told Hall a few things about registered Republicans and anti-maskers specifically.
Last September, anti-mask protesters rallied in South Carolina. That’s one state over from Duke University (in North Carolina). In July, anti-maskers there disrupted a school board meeting over mask-wearing. She missed these events too?
On August 5, almost two weeks before Hall published her essay, 55 of the 68 North Carolina House Republicans asked hospital executives in the state to reconsider mask mandates for employees. I assume all 55 are “registered Republicans.” (A couple of NC Republican politicians reversed course yesterday.)
Three days before Hall published her essay, dozens of North Carolina anti-maskers disrupted another school board meeting regarding masks.
But no. She’s personally met none of them.
Why Amy Laura Hall Needs Her Confirmation Bias to Be Real.
If people don’t believe that a serious problem exists, then they don’t normally want to take action to fix it. In this case, if anti-maskers or COVID denialists represent only a tiny fraction of Americans, then suddenly it becomes somewhat unvirtuous to send tons of memes around mocking such people or shaming them. Suddenly, the vast majority of people who refuse to mask or get the vaccine become virtuous.
And Amy Laura Hall goes into great detail about knowing lots of those folks. She lists off 4 such groups:
- People working two jobs without insurance
- Undocumented immigrants fearing deportation
- POC and veterans who distrust the medical system
- Workers who fear getting sick from the vaccine, thus missing work and getting fired
One wonders how she met all those people. Either way, after running through this list of supposedly-virtuous unvaccinated people, she makes a derisive sidelong comment:
- “And yes, some women who take Blythe Danner’s daughter seriously.”
You can almost see her rolling her eyes.
That’s pretty dismissive, considering how many COVID denialists are out there. She barely understands anything about them — who they are, why they’re denialists, anything.
Then, A Wild Thesis Statement Appears.
After this vaccine-hesitancy roundup, one of the essay’s thesis statements finally emerges:
Mocking such a complicated situation with memes is a distraction.
For this thesis to succeed, Amy Laura Hall desperately needs for her claims about unvaccinated people to be true. If so, it would make her thesis stronger, though hardly insurmountable. It amounts to: Everyone stop bein’ mean to vaccine rejecters, cuz you don’t know their stories and they’re just lovely people, really. It isn’t much of a thesis.
Unfortunately for her, as we found out in a previous post, her claims simply aren’t true. At all. In a July AP-NORC poll, only 19% of those surveyed said they “definitely” or “probably” would get the shot. Everyone else had consciously decided not to get it.
And yes, poorly-educated Republicans — people she mockingly calls “Bubba Land” residents — tend be COVID denialists, too. All that goodwill they showed at the grocery store she visited shifted into belligerent violence very quickly. In fact, many of us have encountered open hostility from COVID denialists. It started pretty quickly, too. The CDC even issued advice in September 2020 to advise retail workers about the potential for violence that could be ignited by asking patrons to wear masks.
But none of that matters.
How to Overcome Confirmation Bias.
We overcome confirmation bias through seeking and engaging with real data. When we don’t do that, our reasoning looks downright surreal — and our recommendations just won’t work.
It’s easy to get caught up in what some scholars call anecdata. That’s anecdotes mistaken for real data. Sometimes, anecdotes can be really powerful. They can lead us to make personal decisions that aren’t always great. Heck, a host of cognitive biases involve people taking anecdata too far.
Anecdotes aren’t data. Meeting some people with a story isn’t the whole story. People accidentally or purposefully distort their anecdotes. We can misinterpret or misunderstand them as well. What we need is real data, so we can build our opinions from that data and not our own biases. That way, our suggestions look a lot closer to reality — and might be worth considering.
On that note:
But she did none of that.
Instead of addressing her essay to COVID deniers, she instead sought to control a group she found way easier to manage: people like herself, who understand the science involved and got the jab. I find that interesting, but ultimately her control-grab is not gonna work.
An Issue That Isn’t “Complicated” at All.
Because ultimately, it turns out, this issue isn’t “complicated” at all.
Nor are memes about COVID deniers “a distraction.” At best they’re useless, since COVID deniers won’t listen to them either way.
Like look, we’ve had anti-vaxxers around for years. We’re familiar with how their chief rabble-rousers operate — and what their fears and thinking processes are. To a certain extent, we know that they’re wingnuts. That term means that they operate with a self-reinforcing false worldview. It can’t be amended or fixed, only extended outward and confirmed, constantly, through stuff like anecdata.
Though infections of the vaccinated are rare, and deaths of the vaccinated rarer still, COVID denialists are nonetheless making life hard for everyone. Worse, they’re infecting the actual virtuous unvaccinated: people who can’t get the jab due to medical reasons, age, or some other similar reason. Those are the only people we should be letting off the hook here. Everyone else has either bought into COVID deniers’ false claims, or are pushing such claims themselves.
Amy Laura Hall’s essay would have been much better if she had focused on actual data about COVID denialists, then run through some of the actual science shaping the best approaches to wingnut anti-vaxxers, then finally offered suggestions based on that data.
Alas, that’s not the essay we got.
NEXT UP: All done with Amy Laura Hall! Next, we’ll take a quick segue into how actually-good marriage advice can be twisted into uselessness and worse: how oh how can a sexist, misogynistic evangelical husband convince his newly-estranged wife that he’s really totally changed this time, totally for suresies? See you tomorrow!
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One more COVID denial meme for the road…