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Beware the confirmation bias

Working on the ABC Radio National program, Talking Shop, has reminded me how important it is to not just look for evidence that supports your position. Knowing that you are broadcasting to a diverse, highly intelligent, and sometimes strongly opinioned audience, is a good reminder to be confident in your arguments, and also in your opinions.

Doing the show has reinforced the idea that we do need to be vigilant about the confirmation bias, which is the very human tendency to focus on data and information that confirms our currently held beliefs, and ignore (or dismiss) data that challenges it.

So, I try to work from four guiding principles when examining an issue. It is actually a useful guide when we are developing an opinion, and although I don’t plan to hand it over to taxi drivers, whenever I do get into a “discussion” with somebody with a strong opinion, I do tend to (carefully) ask them whether they have used something resembling these criteria to form their opinion. More often than not, it puts a bit of a “downer” on the discussion, because I am not arguing their points, per se, but arguing about their method, which is often flawed.

So, the four criteria/questions (which would also be useful if they were observed when making more strident Facebook posts) are:

  • Did you look for divergent patterns, ideas, options or perspectives that undermine your argument?
  • Did you identify any potential rival explanations for your conclusions/opinion? Did you seek out any negative cases that didn’t fit the general pattern of findings, and try to understand why this may not be the case?
  • Was your collection of data/information/perspectives rigorous, systematic, transparent and credible? Did you use multiple sources, that present a range of views?
  • Does your opinion/belief/contribution in some way advance knowledge or understanding?

A few weeks ago, I asked this of a colleague who was proffering an opinion about the state of Australian “youth”, and their inability to work hard, and look for a job. Rather than trying to argue against his opinion, I challenged him to provide the evidence that led to his opinion. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to provide any external evidence, other than anecdote, and I argued that I try to be careful about forming an opinion, until I am satisfied that I have done all that I can to follow those four criteria.

He said he was too tired and too busy to do this. The chat came to a grinding halt.

Many dangerous and destructive opinions come out not of challenging yourself and your peers to work harder to overcome our inherent biases. These biases, for the most part are very useful, because they help us to make quick, intuitive decisions, but if the cause or issue is important, I think it is perfectly reasonable to constantly question how people have come to those opinions that can cause the most harm.

I recognize that I have just as many flaws as the next guy in my processing of information. However, if I am going to present an opinion, or talk about research to the RN audience, or my friends or my taxi driver, I try to remind myself that I need to be able defend my perspective using the four critera, while always being ready to modify or change it if new or more evidence suggests otherwise.

But don’t take my word for it. I wouldn’t trust me.



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