Bias, Truth, Running Shoes and Elephants

Some reflections on our confirmation biases and seeking the truth.

Posted Nov 28, 2016

This guest blog was authored by Dr. Joseph Michalski, a sociologist and Associate Academic Dean at King's University College at Western University.

I used to love distance running, which meant needing to buy new running shoes every six months. I preferred the New Balance 600 series. I noticed after one purchase, though, that the right shoe felt a bit tight, which I assumed must have been a slight manufacturing defect. Eventually I grew accustomed to the fit and kept running. After purchasing another pair of the same shoe, I was amazed to find that once again, the right shoe was tighter than the left. I was frustrated with my bad luck and returned to discuss the situation with the store manager. We measured my feet carefully, only to discover that my right foot was exactly a half size larger than my left foot. The shoes weren’t the problem; I simply had two different-sized feet. That possibility had never entered my mind, i.e., I had a clear bias in favor of the symmetry of my own feet! Yet the data confirmed that I was entirely wrong. My inner George Costanza emerged: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Dr. Joseph Michalski
Source: Dr. Joseph Michalski

I kept that humbling anecdote in mind as I finished my PhD. Instead of gaining in self-confidence, as a young professor I often found myself questioning my own conclusions. In writing up papers for scientific journals, I spent too much time pointing out the limitations of my research—and struggled to get published. I shared my frustration with a colleague at the University of Toronto where I was teaching. He responded with the best academic advice I ever received: “Stop beating yourself up in your writing. Just focus on the strengths and contributions of your work. After all, the reviewers will be more than happy to critique you and find the flaws!” I didn’t yet have the Tree of Knowledge framework to draw upon, but I learned a vital lesson about the importance of justification systems. To be effective in science, as within any realm, one has to use the proper language, logic, and evidence to convince others that one’s claims are legitimate. Yet I always had a nagging feeling that somehow I wasn’t being entirely authentic by covering up my flaws, much like being on one’s best behavior on a first date!

As a behavioral scientist, I became fascinated by the dynamics associated with people’s intellectual blinders and, more formally, the study of “selection bias,” “confirmation bias,” and the social construction of “truth.” We live in the age of the internet and social media, which, despite all the positives, has contributed mightily to countless misleading and even unhealthy discourses. The unending stream of uncensored information that arrives daily in the public domain can be used recklessly as one’s main source of truth and knowledge. Without delving into the absurdity of the 18 months leading up to the U.S. election, I’ll simply characterize the situation as a cultural tsunami that threatens to destroy the foundations of credible knowledge production. Does everyone possess equally legitimate claims? Are all opinions equal, and equally well-informed? Does methodology matter anymore, or is there any “method in the madness”?

Perhaps most important, are there any “facts” beyond dispute anymore? Just a couple years ago, for example, a national poll in the U.S. revealed that more than one in four Americans did not understand that the Earth revolves around the Sun. The statistics regarding beliefs about the origins of the planet and our species are far more skewed in directions inconsistent with the scientific evidence. It becomes difficult to reason with someone if you are basing your claims on entirely different ontological and epistemological foundations (i.e., the nature of reality and how we can study or come to know that reality). Do we acknowledge as “real” only that which we have personally experienced, or selectively chosen to focus on? (“It’s true: I read it on the internet!”)

It would seem that much of the public discourse and informal commentaries are driven by those who have impossibly stubborn intellectual and ideological blinders. These dissuade too many people from looking beyond the horizons of what they narrowly believe or simply “know to be true.” If you start from a specific premise or conviction, the tendency for most people is to observe selectively and seek out confirmatory evidence for their positions, while discounting or attempting to invalidate any information that may contradict their position. The scientific evidence in support of that thesis is rather compelling and dates back more than a half century.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we should never gather informally and toss our opinions around, fact-based or not. Why not enjoy a beverage and have some interesting, speculative, and even inane debates about supposedly taboo subjects such as politics and religion? Have at it! But, if you’re going to have a public discussion and engage in serious dialogue, then that requires much more of an intellectual investment and a more careful, responsible use of information. Most important, one has to spend a great deal of time “listening” to the full array of ideas and evidence. I spend most of my time as a scientist constantly gathering information, absorbing, assimilating, integrating, thinking, testing, revising, scrutinizing, and only after a long pause…“speaking.”

In short, if you already have the answers rooted in the certainty of your own righteousness, then you’ve closed off a priori any real chance at having a dialogue or learning. And who typically shuts down rational discourse and open debate? Fundamentalists and extremists of all kinds, or especially those who prefer to demonize their adversaries. If you’re posting hate-filled rants about your supposed enemies on Facebook, then your approach is far closer to the KKK and ISIS than perhaps you’re aware. To be imprisoned daily in such impenetrable walls must be quite painful. We all have and need some chinks in the armor, or a crack in our walls as the recently deceased Leonard Cohen sang: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” We are crippled without that light, or if we ignore the creative processes of discovery and the pursuit of enlightenment. The day I stop questioning what I know to be true and reach my final conclusions assuredly will be my last day as well.

I’ll conclude with part of Saxe’s poetic rendition of the fable, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Each of the men grabs hold of a different part of the elephant to determine its “true nature.” I’ve left out the middle verses with each man’s unique description to focus on the core message:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Moral:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Wikicommons/Gregg Henriques
Source: Wikicommons/Gregg Henriques