Leading Horses to Water


Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.


#17 - Confirmation bias

American Heathen:  aired: 21 July 2012

Last time, I talked about the role of disagreement in science.  A while back, someone posted a comment responding to an announcement of our American Heathen show on Facebook.  The comment read as follows:  “Being I'm not an Atheist-Libertarian what I'm (sic) I going to gain?”  [The grammatical error remains unchanged.]  My response was:

… you will gain a perspective that's likely to be different from what you want to hear, but if you only listen to what you want to hear, then you learn nothing, but only "confirm" what you think you already know.

All of us are vulnerable to this sort of selective listening.  We all make such choices all the time.  Virtually by definition, what we want to listen to is what we typically choose to listen to.  It seems odd, perhaps, to do otherwise.  Why listen to country and western music if you’re not C&W fan?  Why tune in a political commentator with whom you disagree strongly on most things?  Why go to a basketball game if you’re bored by the game?

In many cases, our choices are driven by our past experience - you tried to listen to C&W but it just didn’t click with you.  You listened to the political commentator enough times to know he infuriates you, so why subject yourself to more of that?  You’ve attended basketball games, and found you just weren’t into the game.  These are choices based on experience, not assumptions.  In effect, you’ve collected empirical data, similar to what a scientist would do, and reached a conclusion based on those data.

My advice to the person who commented about the American Heathen posting was based on my assumption that he’d never actually listened to our show and was basing his reaction on no evidence, other than what he might know (or thinks he knows) about our show.  It’s quite likely that he indeed would find nothing in our content to make it worth his time, but one never knows without actually listening in.  His view of the world might be of the sort that he simply would be angered by our program, as I’m angered every time I listen to Bill O’Reilly on Faux News.  I don’t have a problem with disagreement, assuming it remains within reasonable bounds, and harbor no anger toward people with whom I disagree about something.  Occasionally, someone with whom I disagree offers some new and interesting argument to challenge my position.  I find that experience enjoyable, but do not enjoy hearing the same worn-out non sequitors and flawed logic repeated many times.  I like to think that American Heathen offers challenges to our listeners that may represent a new angle they’ve not heard before, or is based on something our listeners might not know.

As a scientist, however, my professional obligation is to pay attention to the arguments and evidence offered by my professional colleagues, even those with whom I’m in strong disagreement over some issue; even when I’ve heard most of their arguments before.  We scientists are required to guard against closing our minds to the contributions of others.  We need to be careful not to succumb to what is called “confirmation bias” – accepting only evidence that confirms our ideas and challenging anything that disputes our position.  The effort to avoid confirmation bias is a habit of scientific practice that translates well into the non-science world.  I have no wish to convert everyone on the planet to being scientists – far from it, actually – but I do believe that a conscious effort to listen carefully to ideas we don’t necessarily want to hear is inherently a better way to think than simply to close your mind and shut out everything that you don’t like.

Having an open mind means that some effort to understand the nature of a challenge to your beliefs is necessary.  It does not mean you have to cave in at the first challenge!  Many arguments in science have their foundations in what is called the consensus within each branch of science, as I talked about last time.  This core of agreement makes scientific arguments both possible and worthwhile.

Perhaps I’m being na´ve but I suspect our political and religious arguments could do with a heavy dose of scientific standards.  Many people I know are pretty much unwilling to be challenged about certain topics, which typically is a strong indicator that they really are not very certain of themselves or the evidentiary basis for their positions.  Challenges to such people are distressing for them, because they might eventually be forced to admit that their position is weak or even unjustified.  They’re comfortable with their delusions and illusions and prefer not to have them criticized.  “Please don’t make me think!”  Scientists can’t afford to have that luxury. 

Assumptions, beliefs without hard supporting evidence, and dogma are fit to be challenged.  If you want to challenge us … bring it on!  If you’re not willing to be challenged … shut the fuck up!


Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.