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Posted by: Jon Henke on Thursday, July 06, 2006

Will Wilkinson on confirmation bias in politics...
Michael Shermer has a nice piece in Scientific American on confirmation bias, the process “whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence.” New neuroimaging studies are revealing exactly how it is that we avoid actually thinking about politics. Psychologist Drew Westin says:
Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.
I think this process is especially fascinating to libertarians like Shermer and me who stand on the sidelines of partisan political tribal warfare. Not that libertarians aren’t guilty of confirmation bias—everyone is. It’s just that less is at stake for libertarians; we don’t have any power to lose. Reinforcing and encouraging this specific kind of unreason is one way political coalitions assure their integrity and survival. The day-in-day-out of work of partisan political magazines is to explain to its loyal readers why there is basically no reason to take the other side’s so-called arguments seriously. All you need to know about the minimum wage, say, is that there is someone good at math at Princeton who thinks it’s good, and that everyone who dislikes it secretly wants to send the poor to forced labor camps. Or all you need to know about people who oppose the war is that they are flag-burning America-haters whose pusillanimous “post-modern” sense of moral equivalence leads them to secretly crave the reign of jihadist overlords. Etc.
"I believe every word that man just said, because it's exactly what I wanted to hear." [SpaceGhost] This probably explains about 95% of political commentary. Indeed, as Shermer points out in his article, it certainly explains a great deal of our construction of political 'reality'...


Wilkinson takes note of Shermer's conclusion: "Skepticism is the antidote for the confirmation bias." Would that more people were Skeptics first, and liberal, conservative or libertarian second. They would be better liberals, conservatives and libertarians for doing so.
"I believe every word that man just said, because it's exactly what I wanted to hear."
Bertrand Russell provided a useful layman's rule of thumb for contentious matters, as politics tend to be...
The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this:
  1. that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain;

  2. that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and

  3. that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.
These propositions would certainly revolutionize political life. Unfortunately, as Russell goes on to note, "people hate sceptics far more than they hate the passionate advocates of opinions hostile to their own."
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Damn you Jon Henke! I was busy writing something on just this topic referencing the various discussions on this blog (this is a big issue in my field, investment management, so I am familiar with a lot of the research)and you have stolen my thunder! Rewrite, edit aaarrrggh!
Written By: Lance
URL: http://
Write it anyway! I’d like to read it.
Written By: Jon Henke
As I said, rewrite, edit, aaaarrrrgggh! Its coming, its coming. I’ll post it sometime between now and Monday depending on my work schedule.
Written By: Lance
URL: http://
Who are the "experts" referring to? The political elite? The intellectual elite? The corporate elite? The religious elite? In some cases, the "experts" may be easy to determine. Even in those cases, how can we be sure whether the experts are biased in some way? How can I know the social/economic/physiological TRUTH? This is mankind’s long time desire and I’m not sure the "experts" truly know a fraction of it. How can I be sure? D’oh!
Written By: Nuclear
URL: http://
Definition of an expert - someone I agree with.
Written By: Unaha-closp
URL: http://

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