Apologetics and Apostasy Pt:2-Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance

Posted on July 7, 2010. Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Science |

Note from the Author: This post is the first of a multi-post series on confirmation bias, credulity, and cognitive dissonance and how they affect faith, belief and apostasy.

The Signal in The Noise has a couple posts up criticizing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  The links to the two posts can be found in my first post Apologetics & Apostasy Pt.1- Credulity & Confirmation Bias .
I really want to comment quite fully on Signal’s critique, but must first lay out a string of arguments to lay the foundation for my full critique. The Signal in the Noise post will likely be quite stale by the time I get to it fully, but I offer this as a primer on the direction I wish to take in that criticism.  This discussion will also tie into a post from another site, which I wish to withhold until I set the foundation for my assertions.

Cognitive Dissonance And The  Dangers of Doublethink

Cognitive dissonance can be  understood as the conflict between two mutually exclusive ideas in your head.  Cognitive dissonance might also involve a series of defense mechanisms to dissipate that conflict in an effort to come to terms with the opposing stimuli.

I talked a bit about confirmation bias in my first post, and would like to define confirmation bias as one of the defense mechanisms in play as a result of cognitive dissonance.  A bias toward established beliefs or preconceptions is a necessary function of the brain.  It is a heuristic that serves to shorten our brains response time, making our decision making process more streamlined and simple.  Bias toward certain information is a struggle that all of us share on a daily basis; I would think it disingenuous to state otherwise.

The fact remains that today we live in a very different world than the one we lived in when this coping mechanism was necessary.  We have more time and resources than we ever had at our disposal with which to come to logical conclusions, yet this heuristic persists because our brain is hardwired to use it.  Good use of logic and critical thinking should overcome our impulse to believe or internalize only that which is comfortable.

So why don’t we just do it then?

The answer to this question is a bit tricky.  There are many reasons to discount or rationalize when faced with uncomfortable information.  Pride can be a cause.

I can imagine a blogger who spent the last five years blogging about Anthropogenic Global Warming becoming quite cognitively dissonant if AGW were tomorrow found to be just plain wrong.  Imagine how much research, posts, words, hours go into a five year old blog.  Now imagine that the premise of the majority of that blog was proven to be unfounded.

What reaction could that person have other than to deride the evidence regardless of how strong it was?  Five full years of arguing with people you thought were ignorant denialists culminates in their position being vindicated.  Countless hours of reading books, watching videos, surfing sites, interpreting papers…..all to be humiliated by a group of trolls whose only understanding of climate science came from a church basement lecture.

People become invested in their ideas.  When we internalize any fact that gives us a sense of purpose or community or camaraderie or wonder we become intellectually married to these ideas.  Just as with our spouses, we hurt when they hurt, some part of us dies when they die, we would do almost anything to benefit them.

It’s instinctual, it’s primal, it’s understandable…..but it is wrong.

That’s not the worst thing that can happen though.  The most despicable manifestation of a reflex to cognitive dissonance is doublethink.  This comes in many forms; from believing simultaneously, for example,that the bible is the inerrant word of God while accepting science, or that the medieval warming period disproves AGW while saying that global temperatures haven’t changed at all.

Doublespeak is the act of internalizing two mutually contradictory ideas and arguing both without seeing the full-scale irony of holding to both positions.  A good example would be here, where the author maintains that you can’t really take a position on anything unless you are an expert, but I assume felt none of the irony of labeling “Darwinists” as dogmatic with only  a B.A. in Economics and Philosophy.

Ed. Note-Perhaps, though, he feels as though he is an expert on dogmatism as he has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics.

He likes the argument that we should not hold opinions on anything that we are not experts on while he is fully willing to make claims such as:

Isn’t the solution clear? If overpopulation will bring about human extinction, then the only way to prevent human extinction is to depopulate them. We can head off the elimination of human beings by eliminating human beings.

You gotta love science.

That, to me sounds like an opinion.  It sounds like an opinion on a scientific issue.  I must have missed his degree in the life sciences. Yep, that must be it.

Cognitive Bias: Why I Feel Comfortable Exercising It In Relation To Science:Or What Makes Faith In Science Different

I want to start with an analogy, one that I hope will not go over my audience’s head.  It uses some math, but I think it works well.

This guy I know, Dick, is a wizard at math.  He teaches math at a local high school.  He says that for any natural number greater than 2,  the sum of  the number of all unique fractions(ie. ones that cannot be reduced) will always be an even amount.  Wow! That’s a pretty neat fact.   I don’t know the proof for this, but if Dick says it’s right, I trust him.  Just to be sure, I try a few numbers. If x=3 then there are 2 unique fractions (1/3, 2/3), if i try x=7 there are 6(1/7, 2/7, 3/7,4/7, 5/7, 6/7), x=12 there are 4(1/12, 5/12, 7/12, 11/12)  I try every number up to 21 and get an even number!

The next month I have a pop quiz in my university math class and the bonus question is”How many unique fractions can be expressed with 12,456 as the denominator?” and lo and behold, every answer is an odd number but one.  So I side with Dick’s theory.

The moral of this story is that I trusted Dick’s original assessment, when I tested his information in the real world, it always was proven right.  When it came to making a prediction based on his theory, my prediction was also right.

That is having faith in something that has explanatory power, even though I don’t understand why it has to be so.  This information has predictive use, I can make predictions and come to conclusions knowing that I have the best possible information available to me.  That is why I can harbor a confirmation bias for scientific facts.  They have explanatory power, they are predictive.  Not because I was born into a scientific family, not because science helped me to get through a rough patch in my life.

Do I have Confirmation Bias then? Yes and No.  I know the source to be reliable and it’s a safe bet I’m right.


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7 Responses to “Apologetics and Apostasy Pt:2-Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance”

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I think the difference in your case of “faith” in Dick’s math skills is actually the difference between knowledge without understanding and knowledge with understanding. I don’t think you have “faith” when you simply are relying on authority or a process that you know to be reliable for generating success. It’s when you are going beyond your degree of evidence to believe more strongly than the evidence warrants, or, worse, believing against what the evidence is clearly indicating.

But what you describe is not going out on a limb but trusting a qualified authority and knowing because you formed your belief from that reliable authority. What’s missing is understanding—the ability to explain why what you know is true, to derive that truth for yourself, etc. But I know that water is H2O even if I never come to understand how we know that. And you know that the mathematical principle Dick taught you is correct, you don’t merely have faith. You just don’t have understanding.

That is the point I was trying to make, I think you express it succinctly. I can’t possibly be expected to know from first principles all the things I trust or believe. If this were the case we should hardly be able to have opinions on anything. I was attempting to illustrate the difference between confirmation bias, where you trust information that is not sufficiently worthy of trust; and a heuristic that has a strong facility to explain and predict events.

Did you read the link? His argument that we are on the one hand not required to hold beliefs without being an expert, put beside his other posts where he believes that we should make policy decisions based on his willful ignorance of AGW is appalling and disingenuous. By his own philosophy, we are unable to hold opinions based on anything other than faith for any subject with which we are not an expert, but we also can’t trust the opinions of the experts.
Please Dan, smack this guy silly with his own philosophical red herring.

I agree with the article, but I would like to give an indication that Signal doesn’t really mean Faith in this sense. He tries to articulate it elsewhere in his blog.

In a sense he argues that we all have to act “on faith” and having faith in something is not silly but necessary.

But it’s also conflated with “faith” as a sense of relating to affective responses. “faith” as a recognition of suffering, etc.

He maintains that there is a positive quality to faith that too simple epistemological discussions hide.

Now my own take is that it’s a reconflation of terms. Legitimate but not helpful for explication.

Yes faith has positive connotations to the believer, but the conflation of emotive and epistemological component is not choosen by the critic but by the believer.

So the epistemological criticism remains intact, one can only say that it hasn’t addressed other aspects that believers hold with respect to faith.

I would suggest that this is even stronger than cognitive dissonance combined with confirmation bias. It’s actual emotional attachment. People love Jesus, love God, love the good in their faith. It’s a bond.

In a way one could say, well we can rationally argue that this child is not intelligent. What reactions can we expect from a typical parent in response? Unlikely the response will be: Yes my child is stupid and we tell it every day. And if that’s the response it would actually be rather pathological.

An imaginary friend of a kid is also not just confirmation bias, but the attachment serves real needs and a defense of the friend goes beyond a defense of a cognitively consonant world view.

In the capacity that faith is necessary, I don’t think I’m disagreeing with Signal in this post. To a degree, “faith” is a necessary component in every decision we make. Faith is in and of itself an heuristic, one that the meme of religion parasitically preys off of quite efficiently.
I would argue that the faith that you define above is a sloppy conflation of terms, that faith is by degrees more basic a concept than you describe. Just because you filter some stimulus through the prism of your heuristic does necessarily make that stimulus part of your heuristic.
I tried as best I could to touch on your argument that religion is emotional attachment with my anecdote about the AGW blogger, perhaps I came a little short.
Your feedback is certainly helping to shape future posts, I hope you will stay tuned.

Well let me just add that I do not actually defend the emotional attachment, it’s a psychological mechanism and a complication. People’s unhealthy attachments are a very serious problem, for example the battered-wife-syndrome, where abused women stay or return to their abusers is, I think, related, in the sense that it gives indication how strong unhealthy attachments really are.

[…] Note from the Author: This is part three of my series on Apologetics and Apostasy.  Parts 1 & 2 deal with defining confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and credulity in their respective roles […]

[…] me the busiest single day of traffic ever to my blog, and still gets regular hits.  My Apologetics and Apostasy series came next, followed by a sometimes rocky exchange with a theist when I commented on […]

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