Monday, January 31, 2011

Being Sure — The Easy Way and the Hard Way

"[T]hose who believe that genetically modified foods are dangerous will be relatively unlikely to study the arguments of those who think they are safe. So it is for many topics. The vast abundance of information on the Internet and in the print and broadcast media is only likely to worsen this problem. We cannot attend to everything; we must select; we select according to our interests; we are interested in confirming what we already believe."1
Confirmation bias is the natural, unconscious tendency to pay attention to evidence in favor of what we believe while overlooking evidence which might challenge our beliefs. Even worse, we can keep our views from being challenged altogether by exclusively choosing radio stations, TV programs, and books from "our side."

It's easy to notice this happening on the "other side" of a given issue and condemn them for not taking the time to properly understand our own arguments. If they did, they might agree! Or at least they would understand our true concerns instead of caricatures of our concerns. Well, why not apply an intellectual Golden Rule? If we want others to make an effort to understand our side, we should be willing to do the same.

Taking an open look at another point of view is risky. Parts of it might make sense. You might suddenly realize one of your own arguments isn't very good. It may become necessary to adjust your view a little...or a lot. But remember, this is not an external risk. Refusing to examine alternate views is refusing to trust yourself to deal with new information.

Any major issue will have a variety of proponents on both sides. When it comes to deciding which folks on the other side to give a fair hearing, I have a bit of advice: find someone likable. This might mean talking to someone you already know and like personally. It might mean sampling speakers and writers on the other side and filtering out the jerks (unless you dig that sort of thing). It might just mean finding someone you respect for doing good work in an unrelated area. Whichever way you go, it's important to counter your confirmation bias with a positive bias. We can't get rid of our less rational instincts, but playing them against each other goes a long way toward outsmarting them.

When you do find an argument from the other side that makes sense, don't stop there. Go looking for the best response your own side has to offer. Then see what the other side's best response is to that. It's a back-and-forth process that does the most justice to both sides.

It's easy to be sure by only looking for confirmation. It's harder to be sure when taking challenges seriously, but the latter approach is a much more reliable way to not only feel correct, but to be correct.

1. Trudy Govier. A Practical Study of Argument (7th ed.). 2010. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. p 374.

1 comment:

  1. I know I succumb to the temptations of confirmation bias more often than I'd like. I think you're right that finding someone likable helps. Makes the engagement with their viewpoint feel less like an assault and more like a discussion with a friend - someone who would only want to modify your beliefs out of love.