How to avoid Confirmation Bias

17 Dec

Just what IS confirmation bias?  In short, it’s drawing a conclusion that you WANT, by overlooking some evidence to the contrary or picking and choosing partial evidence to support or bolster your predetermined view.

My husband surprised me last week when he acknowledged his own confirmation bias regarding the verdict of ‘not guilty’ in the trial of illegal immigrant Jose Zarate, accused of 1st degree (intentional) murder.  Mike, in fact, changed his mind after reading a report written by an alternate juror.  This citizen performed his civic duty by sitting through all the testimony and lawyer presentations for the two sides.  After the verdict, he then discussed with several jurors the verdict-arrival process the sequestered group had followed.  He concluded that the jury had indeed arrived at the correct decision because the alleged murderer had NOT in fact premeditated the shooting of Kate Steinle.

Dear clear thinking, rational friends: We must hold on to a commitment to the truth.  We must focus on ALL the evidence and follow it, even if it leads us to a judgment we don’t like.  Isn’t that why this bronze statue was cast?

Justice is blind

We Americans hold that justice is blind.  Surely we must apply that restraint to our biases and cherished pet beliefs when we are called to make a fair and impartial decision.

Again, I say, ‘Well done, Michael!’  Now may I be equally willing to embrace such fairness and evenhandedness as my husband.  After all, doing so would only be following our Father’s lead as described by the prophet Jeremiah:

……..I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:24b)

It’s the differences that count

1 Dec

Have you heard these remarks?:

  • We, humans, share 98.8% DNA with chimps; so of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct!
  • Rights for the transgendered is a civil right’s issue, just like it was for African-Americans!
  • Why is it NOT okay when a suicide bomber kills a bunch of innocent people, but the Bible condones Samson’s act of bringing down the crowded pavilion to which he was chained, killing many?

I heard this latter issue discussed the other day. The radio show host responded by putting aside the similarities and focusing instead on the differences.  As I was listening, I realized how often I had been subject to this confusion-producing tactic.  Obfuscation can occur when arguments highlight the points in common.  Often the distinctions and differences go unmentioned, yet they can quickly bring clarity to the controversy.

Trading on what appears to be a significant showstopper, the powerful appearance of similarities between examples, can be a case of redirection.  In informal logic, we name that fallacy the Red Herring.

What is a Red Herring?  It’s a tactic based on a tradition in northern coastal town markets (but likely to occur anywhere deception is needed).  Imagine a weekly farmer & fisherman’s market. A policeman spots a pickpocketer.  Blowing his whistle and gathering reinforcements, he sics his hound dogs after the thief.  Speeding by a fishmonger, our criminal grabs some mackerel or other fish and throws it behind him at the yapping dogs like a stick.  The animals change course, suddenly motivated by the prospect of a tasty treat!

So what are we to do when an opponent moves the spotlight to their defended case and how it’s no different than an example, 100 % accepted by current society?

Gently acknowledge the similarities; don’t dispute them.  But then YOU redirect the discussion to the fact that differences often are critical.   Offer this example:

  • Two glasses of clear liquid.  One contains nothing but water.  The other holds water and one teeny, tiny eye-dropper-measured partial milliliter of arsenic.  I think any reasonable person would say that the invisible drop of the poison WOULD make a difference!

If you can’t think on your feet to discern differences between examples, then ask your interlocutor some clarifying questions to uncover what he thinks the pertinent commonalities might be.  That will buy you some time so you can think clearly.  However, if nothing comes to mind, there is NO shame in saying with humility that you need some time to think about the issue he brought up.  Ask him if you all can revisit the topic in the near future.  The other person, someone whom God also created in His image with the ability to reason, will likely look at you with a tad more respect.  And that is gain.  Then go do your research and do follow up with him.  You’ll grow in your thinking skills and learn something about how your friend thinks.  And you might change his mind!

 

Thinking about middle-schoolers, moral choices, and truth

29 Oct

 

The topic of the workshop focused on advisory programs run by many middle schools.  Ideally, no more than 6-10 students are assigned to a teacher who mentors these 11-to-14-year-olds during the turbulent years of their early adolescence.

Two skills the presenters emphasized as crucial for the development of youth were a) developing perspective and b) managing one’s emotions.  The overall premise was that social-emotional awareness and strengthening were foundational to and preceded academic success.

One or two barely perceptible groans slipped out of from among us attendees as the co-presenters ‘invited’ participants to leave their chairs and come forward to experience an activity designed to broaden perspective.

Here’s the scenario:  You’re on your way to work and you get into a minor traffic accident with another vehicle. Clearly, it’s the other driver’s fault.  She turns out to be a 95-year-old lady who pleads with you to ‘just exchange insurance information’ and NOT call the police.  For she is sure her license will be revoked.  Fortunately, no one is hurt, but your bumper is damaged.  What do you do?

We were directed to move to one side of the room or the other.  Those who would call the police stepped to the left and those who heeded the elderly woman’s plea chose the right.  As I stepped leftward, some of the others called out in jest, “heartless!”

The facilitator then called for a volunteer from the ‘compassionate’ side to explain his decision.  And then someone from the ‘cold-hearted’ side (my labeling) was invited to respond empathetically to the reasoning just articulated.

“I have an elderly dad and I know how significant it is to lose this last vestige of independence!” flowed one person’s reasoning.  Surely a compelling reason NOT to turn in this driver.

When it was the turn of someone on my side, one gal mentioned that although no one was hurt THIS time, someone very likely might be injured or even killed next time.  An equally compelling reason, for surely that elderly driver would not want to injure or kill someone.  A burden like that would be FAR worse than growing more dependent on others for help with running errands.

This activity was eye-opening and reinforced the notion that sincere people have very good reasons for their decisions.  I don’t dispute that at all.  But what the facilitators presented as the goal of the exercise caused me to ponder a possible unintended consequence, hence this post.

One of the gals reminded us of how middle-schoolers tend toward concrete, black and white reasoning.  The middle school years are when they need to learn that there are shades of grey.   She continued to say, “This is all part of growing more aware of differing perspectives, which grows compassion and empathy toward others.”

I completely agree that we must be open to the reality that others don’t think like we do.  And to expect the world to draw the same conclusions as I do is naive and self-centered.  Yet, I did wonder if our young teens might be led to the following kind of thinking:

  • Recognizing differing viewpoints means everyone has a ‘valid’ reason for why he or she thinks the way they do. (And ‘valid’ as a concept is often taken to mean ‘true’)
  • In fact, as long as I have a reason for what I am doing, this grounding is sufficient to stop YOU from telling me I’m wrong.
  • And if I am right and you are right, then maybe there is no such thing as ultimate rightness or wrongness.

Now are those conclusions what we want our young people to hold?  That just because we build an understandable and ‘reason’-able foundation for how we think and choose a course of action, no one can call us out on our decision?  I don’t think so.

For example: Not confronting a friend when you notice her cheating on a test  (or not telling the teacher confidentially) might be the choice you make as a student BECAUSE you think you could lose your friend. And that reasoning might be ‘valid’ because your guiding principle is to do anything to maintain a friendship. But the choice you have selected IS wrong.

Do you think it is plausible that if young teens are trained to acknowledge possible perspectives, they might ALSO think that there are possible ‘truths’, all of which emerge from one’s ideas of what matters most?

We might be aiming to grow our students from that pre-adolescent view that all of life is binary, but there are indeed some things that ARE binary.  The law of non-contradiction backs that up.  A and non-A cannot both be true in the same way at the same time.

I’m not going to assume that the workshop presenters do NOT believe that some absolute truths do exist.  I am pointing out that we as educators and parents must be careful as we train the next generation to think clearly.  Yes, training in recognizing others’ perspectives IS important.  But we must not neglect to teach our kids that some decisions ARE right or wrong because some absolutes do exist.   A challenging endeavor, no doubt, in a culture where few ground values in God.

Language Clarity or Confusion? The Protestant Reformation

10 Oct
October 2017 has arrived and along with it another century’s culminating celebration of the birth of the Protestant Reformation.  Books, articles, conferences, and tours have focused on educating and further reforming our generation of believers who are 500 years closer to Jesus’ return.
My favorite British podcast, ‘Unbelievable’ hosted by Justin Brierley recently featured a polite conversation between a nominal Protestant-turned-believing Catholic and a religiously-raised Catholic who embraced historical and Biblical Protestantism.  Speaking with restraint, both sincerely believe their church’s doctrine and did indeed explain their beliefs with clarity.
My curiosity mounted as I waited to learn what compelled the current Catholic to hold to what appears to me as false teaching.  At first, he ticked off what my reformed denomination holds is true:
  • We are saved by grace alone, through Christ alone
  • Jesus alone saves; our works don’t earn us salvation
  • Salvation is a gift of God, even the faith to believe God is a gift
So far…..so good. But then came the ‘hic’, the point of diversion:
  •     We must ‘cooperate’ with God’s grace.
Voilà!  Here is one place where historic, Biblical Protestantism parts company with Rome and her teachings.  What in the heck does ‘cooperate’ mean and how is that a gift or good news?
I imagine a spectrum, a continuing line of required effort.  On one end the energy to be expended is minimal:  “Don’t hinder,  interfere with or try to block God’s work”
Moving along the COOPERATION line I picture the next bit of advice: “Actively work with God!”
Passing that polite but not yet desperate midpoint, the pleas for greater exertion and more good works grow insistent: “If you don’t join in, God won’t be able to succeed in placing you in His eternal presence!”
Really?  Does the Catholic Church actually think we dependent, derivative, created beings have the power to thwart Almighty God’s purpose?
Cooperating with God’s grace sounds nice, non-threatening and civilized.  But as a concept that Catholic leaders use to teach and encourage their followers, it misleads millions about God.
Words matter.  Especially about eternal issues.  Either God saves us and our forever destination depends solely on Him as the Bible teaches OR we have a key role to play in the outcome. This is how the issue must be framed.  By the way, this hypothetical proposition is called a Disjunctive Proposition.  In the way I believe this argument must be framed, either the first disjunct is true or the 2nd one.  They both cannot be true.
Whatever degree of human effort the Catholic Church teaches is necessary for salvation, this idea that one must ‘cooperate with God’s grace’ continues to mislead generations toward eternal separation from God.  Words can be cruel albeit comforting in their confusion.  And the Bible teaches that God will judge teachers harshly who have twisted His word.
Since words matter and can have eternal consequences, let us as logic lovers be careful in how we use God’s gift of language.

Fly-by Sound Bytes

24 Sep

I shouldn’t be surprised.  After all, our son who posts ‘how-to-record-music’ instructional videos on YouTube has stopped checking viewer comments.  People leave hurtful, derogatory, and often unfounded remarks.  What could be so controversial about the music recording industry!?

My husband reports on tech innovation for a national news organization.  He spends hours researching, interviewing, and writing about interesting and new products, services, trends, and industries related to technology.

The other day he held a two-way radio conversation with one of the program hosts bringing her and listeners up to date on thorium, a chemical element that can efficiently and safely power a nuclear reactor.  The 8-10 minute segment was a follow-up to one that aired two years ago in which he interviewed a former NASA engineer about thorium reactors.

Within 6-8 hours of the most recent radio program, a listener had fired off a feedback email.   Invective and name-calling combined to shame the program and the tech reporter.

However, the dissatisfied letter-writer offered nothing of substance.  The editor of the news program responded to the email politely asking for specifics and initially getting no response. Eventually, he did write a detailed rebuttal with some reasons for his sharp reaction.

When my husband analyzed each point, he saw clearly that the listener had misinterpreted much of the report.

How can that happen?

Actually, it’s not all that unusual.  Have you ever heard of confirmation bias?

Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

 Confirmation bias…… is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

As logical Joes and Janes, we must give people the benefit of the doubt before we jump to a conclusion.  I admit that I have leapt to hasty judgments because I have wanted to think the WORST about someone and their viewpoint.  Not only is that unfair, it is unkind.

So, dear friends, let us be generous and ask questions before we leap to conclusions and criticize.  And never is there an appropriate occasion to unload a putdown on someone. Take issue with the point, not the person.

 

 

What does ‘progressive’ mean?

20 Aug

I heard a news story that Cal State Sacramento decided to drop their Intermediate Algebra requirement for non-math/science majors.  Having to add remedial Intermediate Algebra to one’s course load has hurt the institute’s graduation statistics. Apparently, the number of undergraduates completing degree requirements in the normal 4 years is at an all-time low of 21%.

When asked in an interview about the change in required courses, one of the school’s administrators apparently explained:

“It’s a little radical. It’s a change. It’s progressive, but we think that it’s really needed.”

Progressive – that’s a term one hears bandied about.  I happen to teach in a school that prides itself in its adherence to ‘progressive education’.  When pushed to explain what that means, the usual answer is to juxtapose our ways of learning as different from ‘traditional’ schools, those who focus on delivering content via textbooks or lecture to mostly passive students.

As any logical Joe or Jane knows by now, step one of any discussion is to define one’s terms. So let’s start with this current adjective, ‘progressive’.

The top hit on Google defined progressive this way:

  1. Happening or developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step.  “A progressive decline in popularity”
  2. (of a group, person, or idea) Favoring or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.  “A relatively progressive governor”

Next, I scrolled down a bit further and landed on Merriam-Webster’s site: 

Possibility c seems to fit with the Cal State guy’s reflection:

a :  of, relating to, or characterized by progress  b :  making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities  c :  of, relating to, or constituting an educational theory marked by emphasis on the individual child, informality of classroom procedure, and encouragement of self-expression.

If we look at description a – having to do with progress, the first question that springs to mind is:  What are we progressing TOWARD?  What is the goal?  Does anyone even know?  Simply moving in a direction away from the way things have been done in the past does NOT imply a wise or good choice.  Deliberate thinking to evaluate what truly is in the best interests of the constituents is what counts.

This emphasis on constant movement and change brings up a very real danger that often leads to error.  That pitfall is called the Chronological Snobbery fallacy.  This sloppy thinking occurs when people automatically privilege something new JUST because of its newness. The counterpart can be equally faulty – valuing something JUST because it is old!    “The latest model!”  “A classic!”  Newness or oldness hold no value in and of themselves.  We must examine the benefits of an object, service, practice or idea to determine if it is praiseworthy.

Anyone with a legitimately good product or idea will not fear standing up to that kind of scrutiny.  Let’s not just reject or embrace something because it’s ‘progress’.

 

 

Logic in the Music Industry World

9 Aug

A man I know teaches home music recording.  He writes blog posts, records, and mixes songs, markets tutorials, and mentors small groups of musicians who write their own music.  His fellow musical artists tend to be a content group.  Nothing too controversial occupies their common blogosphere beyond personal preference for certain equipment.

A while back, as he tells me, he published his views on pirating music software.  He presented a case along with supporting reasons: that downloading a tool called a plugin without paying the technicians who labor months to create, test and perfect such devices amounted to theft.

Chill musicians suddenly revealed previously concealed claws and let fly demeaning epithets and ugly expletive-laced insults.

Among the kinder and gentler name-calling, also known in the Logic World as the Ad Hominem Fallacy were these frequent accusations: You’re just…..

  • judgmental
  • narrow
  • high and mighty
  • too black and white

….topped off with various riffs on this line:

  • It must be nice to be rich and able to afford these products!

Why do people default to mudslinging?  It’s easy and doesn’t require thinking.  Often a responder will use character defamation in lieu of offering a reasoned argument.  I’ve noticed that more often than not these folks don’t even HAVE a compelling argument!

Well, what about our ‘high and mighty’ blogger with a conscience – how did he reply? Silence.  He simply ignored the hurtful slander.

A different group of fellow musicians apparently felt more comfortable challenging my friend’s definition of THEFT.  This approach is more commendable because the fault finder is at least attempting to THINK!  Here’s the best of those who offered a counter argument:

If someone doesn’t have the money in the first place to buy this music-creation software, then whether he ‘pirates’ it or not, it amounts to the same thing for the software company.  If he had had the money, he would have purchased it. But he doesn’t.

This responder seems to be saying in essence – ‘it’s not theft if you’re poor and you download something without paying.  It would only be theft if you HAD the money and then didn’t purchase it.’

How should a Logical Joe challenge someone who advocates changing the definition of the critical term?  A handy tool is to use the ‘Reduce it to the ridiculous’ response:

So you’re saying that if I don’t have the money to rent or buy a house, and your vacation cottage happens to be vacant, then I should be able to stay in it without paying you or without you even knowing that I am ‘squatting’?   For since it wasn’t being rented out anyway, you haven’t lost any money.  You suffer no real harm!

I know that the above is not quite an exact replica of the original argument, but you get the idea.

One other ‘it’s not theft’ justification focused on the ‘high cost‘ of the product.  According to this line of reasoning:

If the software company sold their product at a more reasonable price, then people wouldn’t bypass paying for it.

This line of reasoning shouts: ‘Arrogance and Ignorance!  For how do YOU know how much money, time, frustration and skill a software team poured into the development and marketing of their software?   At the very least it is based on speculative presuppositions pulled out of thin air!

So what is a quick Logical Jane response?  When in doubt, ask a question:

  •  And just how do you know that? (that people wouldn’t steal the software plugin if the price were lower)

By the way, did you notice how our last reasoner redefined ‘theft’ as bypass paying for it?  That’s a clever tactic that you shouldn’t let slide.

That ploy raises an important point.  If two people on opposite sides of an issue cannot or will not agree on a mutual definition of a key term, then any discussion that follows is a waste of time and energy.

Rule # 1 in Logic: A clear and mutually accepted definition of a key term is the starting point for any productive exchange of ideas.

So how did my home recording entrepreneur friend deal with this surprise dust storm of contrary views?  Besides ignoring the name calling, he did engage in measured back and forth online conversation with one man who ‘attempted’ to offer a charitable and somewhat reasoned argument on behalf of ‘bypassing remunerating’ the software engineers. But when they couldn’t agree on just exactly what constitutes ‘theft’, they had to agree to disagree.  A very reasonable way to leave such an exchange.