In a recent post, fellow blogger Jason Nitzburg comments on the need to counteract our natural tendency for confirmation bias , providing some useful tips on how to make the best of our chances to correct misinformation. The problem of confirmation bias is a very serious one with regards to our understanding any kind of dispute or debate because facts do not interpret themselves and because ready and self-interested human interpreters (myself included) are always present to place the given evidence discussed into a particular interpretive scheme with a particular perspective (or bias). None of us are unbiased observers, and we all see the facts through the lenses of our own experiences and beliefs.
If we understand that the world and the universe are far more complicated and expansive than our own ability to understand and if we recognize that there are multiple layers of truth and not just one in a given area , we are better equipped to deal with confirmation bias, so long as we are open to the richness provided by the unique perspectives of other people whose focus on different areas and whose different strengths, research, and experiences provides a point of view sufficiently different from our own to provide a fuller perspective but based on the same worldview, so that it can be properly understood and accepted as valid.
Let us examine the nature of the problem. Often our attempts to understand the world around us are in a situation akin to the blind men in the story about the elephant. One blind man feels the elephant’s trunk and finds it like a hose. Another blind man feels the elephant around the leg and finds it like a tree. Another blind man feels the ear and finds it like a fan, and so on. None of the blind men are wrong–they both feel something genuine, but they fail to realize what the elephant is like put together because none of them can see the whole picture or understand what they feel in context. The same is true of our own understandings of the world around us–being unaware of the big picture we distort that which we do see and assume that the part we see or know is representative of the whole, when this is often not so .
This problem is especially prevalent with regards to science and religion, which are vital to supporting the worldviews that people have. Questions of perspective and limitations on our understanding strike deeply at the way in which we judge and interpret the world around us. Our worldviews are essential in providing the mental filters by which we see the world around us, and when those worldviews are faulty, our ability to properly discern truth from error is limited or nonexistent , with potentially very dangerous consequences. This problem is exacerbated when one only allows the evidence of a particular type behind one’s filters whose biases correspond exactly with your own. Any such evidence gathered that way will only confirm existing biases, and will be entirely useful in developing a full picture, because the bias becomes the filter by which all “truth” is perceived.
What solutions exist to these lamentable affairs? For one, one must admit that one is fallible, and really mean it. However, that is merely to admit the existence of a problem and not to solve it, so other steps are necessary. It is first necessary to seek as complete an understanding of one’s own mental filters and one’s own worldview, and one’s own personal perspective as is possible. In doing so one will identify which evidence one is willing to accept, which people are potentially capable of providing perspective by allowing a different point of reference on the same foundation, and where one’s own blind spots exist and how they can be counteracted. To do so requires very diligent self-examination and the willingness to accept outside encouragement. If one wishes to find truth, one must have a clear set of eyes that is not willfully blind to the truths that one is going to find, an open mind but not an empty one that is aware that much of what will come into the mind or come before the senses is not unmediated “evidence” but in fact comes with a spin.
Once one realizes that one is deeply fallible because of our limited perspectives, and one has developed the capacity to recognize insight from other perspectives within the same worldview, one is better equipped to triangulate the truth from the valid perspectives one finds. In doing so, one has much greater insight and perspective than any one person has alone, and at least can come far closer to understanding the world as it is instead of as we see it, adding dimensions and balance to one’s own flat and narrow perspective. What one does with this is the responsibility of each person for himself, but the need to do so is a universal one.