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04 June 2009

Confirmation Bias

I am an ardent fan of The Atheist Experience, and I read several atheist blogs regularly (The Everything Else Atheist, Pharyngula, and Blag Hag being my favourites). After a while (or immediately, depending on whether one is paying attention), one begins to notice a certain pattern to the chatter among critics. Sceptics are frequently dismissed as reactionary and childish by believers, which has always seemed to me a little like the pot calling the kettle black. (Or, more appropriately, the pot calling the sliverware black.)

My parents are not the sceptical sort; oh, my father will go on and on about "scientific method this" and "peer-reviewed study that" and suchlike, but he's a New Ager through and through (and a semiretired doctor of homeopathy, I'm told). My stepmother (ex-stepmother, actually; long story) is a massage therapist, as well as a practitioner of ortho-bionomy and craiosacral. I kid you not, when I have my parents over for dinner, she will take my cat onto her lap and "spin his chakras". He struggles, briefly, but eventually seems to realise that it is just easier not to argue. I sympathise.

With all of this nonsense in mind, I began to grow concerned. After all, I did seem rather sure of myself, didn't I? Were the critics of scepticism right? Was I simply being reactionary?

This line of thought troubled me often: it certainly seemed possible that my ardent scepticism (or skepticism, to you Americans) might be a sort of rebellion-response to the equally-ardent credulity of my parents (to whom, if they are reading this, I must apologise for my bluntness). But upon further examination, I don't believe that this is so.

When I was younger (perhaps fourteen), I remember telling my friends very confidently that milk wasn't good for you. Its calcium was all bound up, I said, and couldn't be properly absorbed by the body. (This was something that I had learned from my father, the Smartest Man Ever.) It was a big conspiracy on the part of the dairy industry; they were suppressing the evidence. (Very intelligent people tend to be the most susceptible to conspiracy theories, in my own statistically-insignificant opinion; as far as I can tell, my father never met a conspiracy theory that he didn't like. I'm not the first to opine that it may be due to oversensitive pattern-matching, an evolutionary biproduct helpful to our survival.)

Anyway, when I told them about the milk, my friends looked at me in bewilderment (as did my teacher), and I felt very oppressed. From that day forward, I spent much time looking for confirmation of my hypothesis. I did a DogPile after DogPile search (ah, sweet nostalgia for the days before Google had indexed every piece of information on the planet; funny how I've never come across any Google conspiracy theories...), and eventually I found some!

I read a short paper that described a genetic anomaly present in us folk of European descent that enabled us to continue to metabolise lactose after weaning (I've heard it suggested that this is due to the relatively early domestication of cattle). If it were due to a genetic anomoly, surely it couldn't be natural!

And so it went.

It only occurred to me much later (after some reading) that this was not the way to go about determining the veracity of a claim. I was picking and choosing my evidence, searching for confirmation of my beliefs, rather than following the evidence, wherever it may lead. This is probably the most common fault I find with creationists. Their response to any evolutionary claim or finding seems to be: "Oh noes! I bet [insert apologist here] has a response to that!" Thankfully, I did finally discover that to be intellectually honest, I needed to apply the same sceptical rigour to every facet of my life that I do to religious beliefs.

Question everything.

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