Monday, July 30, 2012

A good discussion of confirmation bias

In an Atlantic blog post written last week Robert Wright has composed a detailed description of what looks like a series of confirmation bias errors in reporting a speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Wright's careful description, what appears to have happened is that several linguistic choices were made during a set of translations that changed a general statement into a particular one. (There were several steps in the process, and some interesting linguistic contrasts.) How could this happen? The individuals read things into the language that they wanted to find there. The errors, if that's what they were, were compounded by some not-so-critical thinking. As Wright puts it:
A striking thing about human self-deception is how diverse and subtle its sources can be. The classic form of confirmation bias is to choose the most convenient among competing pieces of evidence . . . But look at some other elements of self-deception that seem to have been at play here:
1) Unreflectively narrowing the meaning of vague or ambiguous words.  . . .
2) Accepting evidence uncritically. . . .
3) Making slight and essentially unconscious fudges.  . . .
I'm interested in the analogy, not the politics, here, which is why I've elided Wright's discussion of the facts (I do recommend reading the full post). I've described confirmation bias before, here, for example. It's very easy to pull examples from data to "prove" to yourself that what you believe is true. (See, for example, the climate change debate.) It's much harder to look at what your numbers, or other evidence, is telling you without all sorts of unconscious biases pushing you to interpret them in certain ways. So I'm going to repeat the advice I pulled from Leonard Mlodinow's book "The Drunkard's Walk."
 1. Remember that chance events can produce patterns.
2. Question perceptions and theories.
3. Spend as much time looking for evidence that you are wrong as you spend looking for evidence that you are right.

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