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Confirmation Bias

Posted by on 09/05/2014

Confirmation Bias

Following the blogs, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the effects of confirmation bias on the thoughts and behaviour of those people of a religious bent. Confirmation bias causes people to seek out information that confirms their world view, and avoid information that conflicts with that view. It is effectively a form of ‘reinforcement’ thinking that can affect even those of us who feel that we are completely open-minded. When, for example, I read a book or watch a YouTube video that supports my opinions on religion and atheism, I feel a certain sense of satisfaction that others think like me, that I am not alone in my views, and that, whether or not I am correct, I am justified in thinking as I do.

Similarly, a scientist searching for a solution to a problem may seek out and find data that confirm his or her theory, ignoring the awkward details that do not match. That is confirmation bias, and the scientific mind is not immune to its effects.

Fortunately in science, every result that is to become part of mainstream science has to be repeatable, peer reviewed, and judged by experts who are non-biased. Faulty conclusions rarely make it through the morass of scientific scrutiny.

In the religious world, though, confirmation bias is not dealt with in the same way. Religious people rarely read the works of those who disagree with them, and may actively seek to have such material banned. They tend to have friends with the same mindset, choose partners who have similar points of view, and oppose, sometimes violently, free-thinking, freedom of speech, and secularism. Nobody within their peer group is going to point out any error in their conclusions about the world, any error of logic in their thinking, or the lack of data on which they based their conclusions.

One has to ask the question: why is this the case? The answer has to be that there is a fundamental difference in the approach of people of science and people of religion. Scientific knowledge is in a constant state of flux, always modifying and changing according to any new evidence that presents itself. Scientific knowledge has to be verifiable and to be able to be proven wrong if it is possible to do so. Some of it proves to be true, and we have thus made progress, bit by bit, learning added to learning, knowledge added to knowledge, with even Newton standing on the shoulders of giants, just to see a little further. That is progress.

Religion, on the other hand, is more or less fixed in opinion and fixed in what religious people think of as knowledge. That ‘knowledge’ generally comes from a book that may be a very disjointed collection of translated, reinterpreted, misinterpreted essays and works of fiction and mushroom enhanced delusions, from people who lived thousands of years ago in the bronze and early iron ages – the ages of superstition and magical thinking.

Science is generally rejected, there is little or no progress, and religious people seek confirmation of their opinions and beliefs from people with the same mind-set who are never going to contradict them. This is their confirmation bias. They sing songs and say prayers and give worship to their gods and prophets. That others do what they do confirms their biased belief that they are not wrong.

And yet, with no way of testing their beliefs, with nobody who within their own religion will challenge them, with no way to verify what they believe, and only reinforcement from their peers, confirmation bias ensures that their beliefs, however deluded, will never be exposed for what they are. Something that is untestable, unproven, unverifiable, and defended against any criticism, can never be knowledge and can only ever be belief. People have died for that belief rather than admit they could be wrong, but the people who have killed them have been those who had similar but slightly different beliefs. Atheists do not have the same mindset. Atheism is not a belief system that seeks to persuasively or violently convert others to the same mindset. Atheists generally don’t care what other people believe so long as they do not try to convert others to their beliefs, if such beliefs cannot be scientifically justified

Science and religion can never be reconciled, despite what religious apologists suggest. Science deals with facts. As religious beliefs are disproven, doctrine by doctrine by science, religious tenets that can be relied upon fade into non-existence. Science and religion are not different domains, because the supernatural is also a domain of science to be investigated and dismissed if there is no evidence for it.

That religion allows confirmation bias to affect the judgement of their followers instead of helping people to think independently and intelligently, is a bad thing about religion.