Confirmation Bias: Even If You Like the Cat
When I review with students the fundamentals of academic and intellectual honesty, I take it beyond the obvious perils of plagiarism. I explore with them the massive managerial task of sifting, sorting, and employing the evidence and arguments they have gathered through research, my principal focus in this context the evidence and arguments that do not support their own argument.
For the sake of entertainment – it is a performance – I recount the tale of an undergrad paper I wrote in a class on Hegel and Heidegger. My mission: to tease out all of the implications of a self-actualizing World-Spirit available to elucidation in twenty pages. I worked on the paper for weeks, straining in those last days to grasp from the mental air Hegel’s conception in all of its magnitude. Sitting at the parson’s desk in my small Manhattan studio, writing by hand, I would contort physically, seek to conduct the ideas that were slow to enter, even as now, still – hands reaching to follow my abstracted gaze – I will waive the baton at the vocabulary of my imagination. On the final day – it was always the final day, the last moment, with my papers: damned words – on the final day, there came a moment.
I was stunned.
Outside, that week, Manhattan, as always, had buzzed. Brilliant sunshine had graced the island – while I labored from my fourth floor tomb in the recesses of nineteenth century idealism. I glanced out the window at my sun-dappled Upper Westside airshaft. Oh my God, I thought.
Well, you see where I’m going. How, over the next minutes of frantic philosophical review, I came to determine with climactic relief that No, I am not wrong, I cannot now relate in detail. It is all so very dreadfully lost to history. Did I resolve the cognitive dissonance with a little turn of “love the one your with”? Had I, in fact, been wrong to think myself wrong and right when I rediscovered myself right? Who knows? But there is the dilemma.
Though it shouldn’t be a dilemma. Intellectual honesty does not permit withholding and ignoring evidence and reasoning that argue against your hypothesis or claim. This is not the academic standard. And if the students do not know it already, and if they learn it (I do what I can), they also very quickly learn that the public life of the world is in no way conducted by such a standard. Of course, confirmation bias – the mental tendency to process and prioritize information so as to confirm existing beliefs and produce conclusions to which we are predisposed – exists in the academic world too. It exists in egregious self-awareness, but the more prevalent and more dangerous form is the unconscious bias.
The political world, however, is so much the egregiously self-aware, fraudulent show. We know this. You know this. The mainstream media know it, even as they give stage, set, and microphone to the performers. From not answering the questions asked, to pretending to seek compromise, to seeking in every “exchange of ideas” to gain tactical advantage in the long war between right and left, nearly all have their established ideological bias, and few are open to a true examination of ideas. Concessions are bartered, when the legislative system seems to work a little – as it does not now, so far, on healthcare reform – but these compromises are like an exchange of prisoners in war, all the practical politics of giving in order to get, but not a foot of common ground excluded from the battleground.
At the extremes, this means that even the settled ideals and principles of the nation’s founding, over two hundred years ago, are still not truly settled, as Christianists will assert, against all the evidence of the founding documents, and the intellectual and spiritual lives of the founders, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. The right still argues against the achievements of FDR.
The extreme left is no different. American Soviet sympathizers of the thirties and forties went to their graves never fully acknowledging the Stalinist abomination they supported, or that they erred. Their remainder and their heirs still champion the Rosenbergs with folk song commemorations. They repeated their error with Mao, with – despite the misguided war – the Vietnamese communists, and they champion, still, Fidel Castro’s Cuba. They now praise Hugo Chavez. They never met a demagogue or tyrant in whose thrall they would not blindly be, so long as he sings the praise of the salt of the earth and rails against capitalist elites. They will learn nothing.
Just recently, seven days after the eighth anniversary of 9/11, Susan Sarandon commemorates the occasion by praising at the Huffington Post the “courage” of Representative Barbara Lee in casting the lone congressional vote against military action in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and eliminate the Al Qaeda training camps to which the Taliban gave haven. A lone voice such as this is either, indeed, the epitome of courage or the essence of misguided, and the ringer of the celebratory bell of praise has a fifty percent chance of being right. Note, however, how Sarandon makes no distinction between the purpose of military action then – what Lee condemned – and what American action in Afghanistan has ineffectually drifted into over the years since. Note, too, how Sarandon’s standard catchphrase summation of Afghanistan as a “quagmire” is offered, in fact, as restatement of this warning from Lee: “Let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Lee was warning of no quagmire. She was claiming that action to oppose the forces behind 9/11 and those who supported them would make the U.S. evil, and on the order of its attackers. And Sarandon is so tunneled in her vision that she cannot see this, or, if she can, recognize the true nature of it in contrast to what she claims of it.
However, what bedevils the United States just now are not the extremes of the left, but those of the right. And it is worth emphasizing again – it is always necessary to emphasize – that none of the extremism I just pointed out on the left is mainstream Democratic Party belief and policy (Barbara Lee stood alone) and that all of the extremism on the right is now the extremism of the Republican party: voiced, affirmed, or tolerated by its leaders, promoted by its media arms and voices, and encouraged among its followers. It is insufficient to contemporary conservative fanaticism to view divergent political policies between the parties within the range of traditional differences, among them the extent of government’s role in a range of areas. The right attempts to justify its extremism by projecting it onto the Obama Administration: socialist, fascist, Nazi, Hitler, Muslim, African, Manchurian and grimly reaperish in its conspiratorial designs on its own citizens – a fulsome stew of otherness and fear.
The nativism that plays so large a role in the passions of stoked up protesters isn’t unique to the U.S., but the U.S. has its particular brand. The two oceans that so long provided both defensive and cultural barrier between the United States and foreign elements produced a kind of cultural speciation event, for good and ill. The ill is that the more culturally parochial elements in American society view other cultures as not simply different and strange, but as nearly barbaric –even when, contradictorily, a kind of modern, cosmopolitan sophistication is perceived. Nativists and the politically unsophisticated are encouraged by well educated conservative hierarchies to disdain well educated hierarchies – modern, cosmopolitan, sophisticated elites, who are then identified with liberalism, or worse. This ever changing modern life – ever evolving away from comforting verities – is considered, despite it veneer of sophistication, to be decadence, a degeneration from the once-delivered world.
The word “barbarian” is derived from the ancient Greek bárbaros. Ironically, at the emerging height of Athenian civilization in the fifth century B.C.E., with its increased commerce and interaction with other civilizations, Greeks found themselves ever more in contact with foreign peoples and manners. The word Bárbaros was an onomatopoeic representation of the brutal, incomprehensible sounds – bar bar – made by these new, unfavored elements, which included, ironically, advanced peoples such the Egyptians, Persians, and Phoenicians. In a similar manner, advanced European cultures are barbarized, in the comparison of proposed U.S. health care changes to European systems, through terrifying tales of what Americans would face were Europeans (and the more familially denigrated Canadians) in any way emulated. One would think, to hear the stories and fears, that all these nations were undergoing a humanitarian tragedy of untold extent – a degenerate Black Death of un-capitally motivated health care we only are brought to recognize whenever it is suggested the U.S. try something in any way similar.
It is certainly fine for Americans to prefer their own culture and ways, to think themselves exceptional. The French do as well, the British. It is part of the integral nature of a culture to prefer itself over others. I just got a cab ride yesterday – back from the hospital to have my bike-bonked noggin CT scanned – from a Ghanaian, native of a nation lacking many of our advantages, who says he has been here “too long” and cannot wait to be home again. It is not fine – it is the promotion of ignorance – to continually believe that only American manners are superior, while all around us are slowly descending into darkness.
In France, since 1905 – ah, this should upset both left and right – and inspired by the French Revolution, there has existed in law the same separation between church and state as exists in the United States. The French, however, because of their own historical particularities, can be more aggressively secular than Americans. In 2004 – prompted by current circumstances that are not germane to my point – France adopted what is sometimes called its secularity law, prohibiting all ostentatious display of religious symbolism, including garb, in schools. All religious observance is accommodated in France. Dress and practice are free in non-institutional and religious settings. Only the institutional public sphere is maintained in secular separation. Obviously, this is contrary to American practice, where we tolerate and accommodate personal religious presentation in the public sphere, favoring none. As uncommon as is the French approach among Western democracies, however (though I like it), it is a coherent view of how to maintain the balance between secular principle and religious freedom.
We need to be able to examine issues from different perspectives, consider their worth, and grant (not all of them) their value, even if we decline them, without finding the demon in the different. That sounds so elementary doesn’t it? We would teach that to children. We tell children, too, that it doesn’t matter if others have done something wrong; it is still wrong for them to behave the same way. “He did it too” is a child’s cry. Yet that is what many on the left have cried before, of the right, and what the right cries now whenever people of supposed seriousness and responsibility are asked to denounce the demagogues and the hateful, racist ideas and voices currently soiling the national scene.
Barack Obama was elected to lead the nation. That many people voted for a black man to be President. It is an enormous historical achievement we should not quickly forget. But ugly elements are still out there – you’ll encounter them when you hardly expect it. Some are quite prominent. Some speak for the Republican Party. Some are in the Republican Party. Some lead the Republican Party. Even today, there are the unrepentant who defend Joe McCarthy, and though he may have stumbled, by an accident of character, on an appropriate idea – to oppose communist and Soviet influence in the U.S. – history has judged him for the disgraceful blight he was on the nation. It will do that, too, of those on the right who continue to enable, and do not attempt to change, the current fearful political climate. It will condemn them, and, if what they do does not lead to worse, it will forget them. History has a way of doing that to the hacks of the political process.
As Xenophanes, that notable, unbarbaric Greek said, “The gods did not reveal from the beginning, all things to us; but in the course of time, through seeking, men find that which is the better….”