© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

thinking by druthers 2

[Second installment in a series on confirmation bias. Back to Part 1.]

An audience member at my Austin talk asked a good and common question. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris apparently made the case that those who do not hold religious beliefs must be willing to challenge the irrational beliefs of their friends and neighbors. (I say “apparently” because I started but didn’t finish EOF. I am the choir, he had me at hello, and I had other fish to fry.)

Dogged by doubts? Try rose-colored glasses

“So,” asked Audience Guy, “do you agree that we should more actively challenge the irrational beliefs of friends and neighbors?”

I said no.

I know this will strike a lot of y’all as heresy, and it depends on the relationship in question — but I don’t think we should make a general practice of confronting people we know and challenging their beliefs uninvited. I am opposed to aggressive evangelism of ALL kinds. And not because it isn’t “nice.” The reason is that uninvited personal critiques of belief, especially of irrational ones, are almost never effective. Of the scores of people I know who have given up religious beliefs, approximately zero did so as the result of an uninvited challenge by another person.

There are all sorts of things we can and should do to make it more likely that they challenge themselves, but you can’t force another person to think. You can help another person become curious enough to invite the discussion, in part by being a visibly contented nonbeliever yourself. Once you have an invitation from the other side, a lot is possible. Otherwise, forget it.

“But but but…I have such a great argument!” You crack me up. Sit down and listen. The very idea of argumentation is based on the premise that you’re after the truth. It works brilliantly when a person is convinced of the virtues of the scientific method, convinced that there is nothing so beautiful as reality and nothing so ugly as self-deception.

But traditional religious belief isn’t arrived at by a critical determination to avoid error. It is arrived at by the focused determination to confirm one’s biases. Now, quite suddenly, you are asking a person to switch pole stars — to reorient his or her entire way of thinking from confirmation bias to a love of reality wherever it lies.

You’re funny. No no, in a good way.

“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” said Jonathan Swift, supposedly. If you have ever tried to argue a religious point with a fervent believer, only to see the goalposts move and terms redefine themselves in midair, you know what he was talking about. But you may not have known why: the other person is working from an entirely incompatible operating system. Stop being surprised that he can’t open your attachments.

A lifetime of cherry-picking evidence on the basis of its confirmation value rather than assessing its value as evidence can lead people into unintentional hilarity. The more they surround themselves with nodding people who are busily confirming the same biases, the more hilarious it gets. The nonreligious are by no means excluded from this disease — more on that in part 3. But traditional religion, founded as it was on the principle of confirmation bias, is an especially fun source of rib-tickling.

Search ye in vain for a more perfect title

During some down time in my room before my May presentation at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst NY, I indulged in one of my favorite masochistic pastimes: watching EWTN, the Global Catholic Network. A panel discussion was under way, and a priest was going off on the evils of condoms, of homosexuality, of abortion — anything, really, other than unprotected-face-to-face-one-man-on-top-of-one-woman-he-is-married-to-resulting-in-baby-sex. (You know…like the kind priests have.) There was never a risk that the rest of the panel would do anything but nod, so of course his statements got ever-stranger and ever-less-supportable.

Finally he hit bottom. “And why do you think there is a priest shortage?” he asked. “That’s right: abortion! Nothing could be more obvious.”

Nod, nod, nod.

The next topic was end-of-life care. “Too many doctors are woefully ignorant of Catholic bioethics,” said an expert on, presumably, Catholic bioethics. “They will, for example, pull the plug on a patient merely because all brain activity has ceased.”

Nod, nod.

“What they fail to realize is that the suffering of the body in those final hours may be necessary to get that person into Heaven.”

Nod, nod.

“By denying the person that suffering, the doctors, in their ignorance, may be contravening God’s will by denying a chance at redemption.”

Nod, nod.

“And by moving so quickly, they may be denying God the chance to intervene miraculously to bring that person back.”

Nod, nod.

These are very close to verbatim. I was writing as fast as my little paw could push the pen.

An outsider looks at such a fatuously silly misuse of the neocortex with astonishment — and out spill the arguments. Wasn’t the plug contravening God’s will, and the removal of the plug restoring God’s intended situation? Does God, who exists outside of time and space, actually need “time” to perform a miracle? How much, exactly? Yes, yes, yes. Fine.

But those around her are having their own biases confirmed — so nod go the many heads, and she digs deeper and deeper for nonsense.

WE ALL DO THIS, myself included, as noted in the last installment. The key is to make yourself vulnerable to disconfirmation, to be in the room with people who will call you on it when you make a bias error, and to be properly embarrassed when it happens.

Need more? Enjoy this, remembering all the while that the arguments apply only to bananas — especially at 0:19, 0:41, and 0:51:

“Seriously, Kirk,” he says — which is how you know he’s serious.

Yes, fine, these are fairly extreme examples. But I think the essence of religious thought as confirmation bias is nicely captured, as is the essence of the difference between religion and science. Next time I’ll finish up by showing what it is that makes science work differently. And psst…it isn’t the superior moral or even intellectual fiber of scientists.

[On to Part 3.]

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This was written on Friday, 27. June 2008 at 13:45 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, humor, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Science. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. In regards to aggressive proselytizing, I agree that we are unlikely to change anyones mind whose mind is already made up by aggressively questioning their beliefs.

    If only the other side would give the same courtesy. To “them”, simply stating ones position as an atheist in mixed company is tantamount to a direct challenge.

    True story, last month I was playing in a Disc Golf tournament. In the second round, leader card in our division (novice, or the “we suck” division), our foursome sits down in the grass to wait out a 2 group backup on hole 15. Banter ensues. The topic turns various places whilst the group ahead of us fecklessly defoliates the local flora. At one point sex comes up and I mention how lucky I am to have had sex before marriage because I didn’t get married until I was 33, and I don’t think our country has good enough gun control laws to handle a lot of 33 year old virgins running around. Chuckles all around, even for
    player X, who, it turns out was a virgin until marriage. Turns out he is a youth minister and has been since his senior year in High School. Oh, I say, thats weird, in my senior year in HS is when I came out as an Athiest.

    Now I didn’t ask him to “defend the existance of god”. I didn’t bust out any of my hilarious Jesus jokes. I just mentioned in passing the I was an Atheist. And I couldn’t get him to SHUT UP ABOUT IT for the rest of the afternoon. Every time we were waiting to tee off I had to fend off pascal’s wager or admit that I haven’t yet read “The Case for Christ”. At one point he though he had me cornered and actually had the gall to say “Oh, you’re an agnostic then…”

    Jeebus! If I talked to someone for half an afternoon, got a brief glimpse of their beliefs, and the proclaimed “Oh, you’re not a methodist, you’re really a presbyterian, I’d likely get slugged. But us atheists are fair game.

    I realize this has probably gotten off topic, but I had to get it out. I was polite and nonconfrontational as I could be, but I’ve been wanting to have it out with this guy ever since.


    Comment: blotzphoto – 27. June 2008 @ 8:23 pm

  2. Your point is very well taken. None of the rules seem to apply to us. If nothing else, take quiet comfort in the fact that you are much better company for your lack of aggressive pre-emptive striking, and that on occasion people notice this.

    And just to be clear from my perspective, this guy invited your response, so you were well-justified in responding. No need to turn the other cheek once some fool has opened up on you.

    Comment: Dale – 28. June 2008 @ 8:04 am

  3. As I started reading, I instantly thought of Jonathon swift’s supposed quote. I’m glad you included it. It’s my favorite unconfirmed quote! I can’t find anything saying he didn’t say it, and many saying he did, but “supposedly” or “purportedly” are always attached.

    If we don’t put ourselves out there than religion will always have a firm grasp on humanity. If we aggressively evangelize then no one will ever listen. We must be open to discussion and offer a logical way of looking at life. I’m always there for anyone who isn’t satisfied with the dogmatic make believe world of religion. If anyone asks I’ll let them know that it’s okay to look at the world through your own eyes and no, religion doesn’t really make sense if you actually think about it. The biggest thing is that it really is okay to not believe.

    Comment: boonxeven – 28. June 2008 @ 10:04 am

  4. […] McGowan say no: I am opposed to aggressive evangelism of ALL kinds. And not because it isn’t “nice.” The […]

    Pingback: Friendly Atheist » 2008 » June » 28 – 28. June 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  5. My somewhat unspoken agreement that I have with the theists in my life are “Don’t bring up your beliefs and I won’t point out how ridiculous they are”. I say somewhat unspoken because they all have to try at least one time before they realize that it hurts when they do it…

    Don’t get me wrong, I am very open about the fact that I am an Atheist, and I have absolutely confounded many of the religious folks that I know… I’ve actually had some of them pointedly ask how I seem so content with life, successful in my job, etc etc etc. I know that this really bothers some of the more fundie-types as they struggle in their lives trying to do ‘right by god’ but not really being happy or successful. I don’t think I’ve deconverted anyone through this process, but I’m pretty sure I’ve at least made them stop and think, and if more Atheists were open about their lack of belief, they probably would have to think more often… and well we’d probably have more Atheists.

    On a related note, I have a theist co-worker who is a 9-11 conspiracy nut (brings it up all the time). I finally issued him a challenge where I would be willing to seriously evaluate all of his ‘evidence’ (I use that term very loosely) of his 9-11 theories if he will seriously evaluate of the evidence that I have that the story of Jesus is a myth (regardless of whether any historical figure is behind the stories). He immediately declined with a “I don’t think I want you believe in it that badly.” I was absolutely shocked and asked him what he was so scared of (he said ‘nothin’). So all I can make out of it is that he’s too afraid that if he were to really look at the facts that he would stop believing, and that is a terrifying thought…

    Comment: Thranil – 30. June 2008 @ 11:00 am

  6. He immediately declined with a “I don’t think I want you to believe in it that badly.”

    Which immediately reminds me of an exchange I had with a very good friend, a Christian, four years ago. She wanted to know the roots of my disbelief (invitation), so we had a nice discussion for awhile (before it disintegrated, which it almost always does when confirmation bias and empirical reasoning try to chat).

    At one point I asked a simple hypothetical: If it were somehow possible to prove that God did not exist, would that be acceptable to her? For empiricists, that’s a no-brainer: if something were proved, would you accept it? Of course. Instead, she refused to answer. “Since it can’t be proven, there is no point in discussing such a thing. It’s a useless hypothetical.”

    Useless it may be, I said — except in revealing how deeply your biases control your ability to even consider possibilities. At which point it went south, of course.

    Comment: Dale – 30. June 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  7. Update: The co-worker has agreed to my challenge! So apparently he’s not much of a reader (no surprise there), so I’m trying to figure out which video(s) to set him loose on for the first round. Any suggestions? I’m currently thinking about the BBC documentary “Who Wrote The Bible?”, but I’m wondering if there is something better..

    Comment: Thranil – 30. June 2008 @ 5:05 pm

  8. The God Who Wasn’t There is very good for this.

    Comment: Dale – 30. June 2008 @ 5:16 pm

  9. Dale, I am guessing you’ve read Pascal Boyer’s ‘Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors’ (Also see him interviewed by Jonathan Miller on YouTube).

    I think he discusses confirmation bias as one of a range of evolved mental mechanisms that support religious belief.
    To challenge someone with intelligent argument about a belief founded in evolved mechanisms that just aren’t open to reason is pointless. (I’m scared of spiders. I suspect this is due to an evolved mechanism that makes me avoid possibly poisonous creatures. You can explain all you like to me that spidey is not poisonous, that I am a gazillion times bigger than her, and that she’s probably more afraid of me that I am of her. But I am still scared of spiders.)

    People aren’t religious because they’ve thought about the issues, considered the theology and decided that, on the balance of arguments, zoroastrianism makes the most sense. They’re religious because they are brought up in an environment where religious culture and behaviour is weaved into their lives and identities.

    And it’s the ‘bringing up’ bit that’s most relevant to us parents.

    Comment: sphagnum – 01. July 2008 @ 8:55 am

  10. No, I haven’t read that. Sounds like a good one. It’s impossible to estimate how many books I haven’t read that I should have. Grains of sand in Arabia comes to mind. But it’s always fun to find that my muddling thoughts have been thunk by others smarter than I.

    Comment: Dale – 01. July 2008 @ 10:27 am

  11. Because no-one has mentioned it yet, I would like to point out that the banana Ray Comfort is holding is a cultivated banana, the product of _thousands_ of years of humans selecting for the fruit they preferred. This is supported by websites such as The Australia & Pacific Science Foundation http://apscience.org.au/projects/PBF_02_3/pbf_02_3.htm, which includes photos of wild bananas that have large seeds and are too small to fit comfortably in the hand – again, God’s design falls disappointingly short 🙂

    (Now that I have created a username, I will probably comment more as I catch up – I really enjoy this blog and often share tidbits with my friends. Maybe some of them will follow the included link and start reading too! About me – 41 years old, raised Unitarian Universalist, agnostic/atheist most of the time, humanist & free thinker loudly & proudly, no children, married, living near Olympia Washington USA)

    Comment: JaniceOly – 01. June 2011 @ 11:40 am

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