Philosophy Science

Shermer critiqued over his recent piece in SCIAM on confirmation bias

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Graeme Hunter (a philosophy professor at the University of Ottawa examines Michael Shermer’s recent piece on confirmation bias published in Scientific American:

. . . Shermer tells us – or rather science does and Shermer is only its messenger – that opinionated people actually suffer from what is called a “confirmation bias”, which Shermer defines as a condition in which “we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence.”

Members of political parties, it seems, are particularly prone to this disorder. Not Shermer, though, as he tells us in the jocular, self-deprecating manner that makes his article such a joy to read:

“Pace Will Rogers, I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a libertarian. As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.”

Isn’t Michael clever to have avoided the bias that has undone so many of the rest of us! And by so simple an expedient! Just imagine! All you have to do is take one half your beliefs from the dogmatic Republicans and the other half from the caring Democrats and you’re home free. What a lucky coincidence that that old confirmation bias affects only wholehearted liberals or conservatives, but spares those who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Shermer does not say whether those who are fiscally liberal but socially conservative reap the same advantage. But I wouldn’t risk it. My suspicion is that only those who agree with him on everything are going to be right all the time. . . .

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6 Replies to “Shermer critiqued over his recent piece in SCIAM on confirmation bias

  1. 1
    zapatero says:

    Hunter mocks Shermer:
    “Isn’t Michael clever to have avoided the bias that has undone so many of the rest of us! And by so simple an expedient! Just imagine! All you have to do is take one half your beliefs from the dogmatic Republicans and the other half from the caring Democrats and you’re home free.”

    Of course Shermer makes no such claim. As he says in the same article:

    “The implications of the findings reach far beyond politics. A jury assessing evidence against a defendant, a CEO evaluating information about a company or a scientist weighing data in favor of a theory will undergo the same cognitive process. What can we do about it?”

    As a former evangelical Christian who “deconverted” during his college years, Shermer would be the last to claim that he is somehow immune to bias.

  2. 2
    terrylmirll says:

    This is your basic obfuscation tactic as employed by the anti-ID crowd: when defending the scientific faith from those who question its dogma, always argue that the foundation beneath your opponent doesn’t really exist. Hunter’s strategem is to undermine Shermer’s argument by saying that if “confirmation bias” is true, then there’s no saying that Shermer isn’t just as afflicted with it as anyone else.

    The key to this strategem is an assumption of moral equivalency: from time to time, any one of us will demonstrate bias against one thing or another. If your girlfriend ask you where you could meet her for lunch and you say “I like Chinese food better than Mexican,” you’re guilty of demonstrating a bias towards Chinese food and against Mexican food. Thus, if Shermer identifies confirmation bias, maybe he’s just demonstrating his own bias, which we–hint, hint–should ignore.

    But, of course, the flaw in Hunter’s argument is easily spotted if you don’t buy into arguments of equivalency: It’s certainly true that we each have our own biases–what’s equally true is that we are not all affected by the same bias to the same DEGREE. A scientist who is a hard-core Darwinist looks at a particular piece of fossil evidence differently than a does a scientist who feels that Darwinism is questionable, and will shape whatever arguments, hypotheses, or conclusions he draws from that evidence in a different way. For decades, Darwinists have gotten away with cherry-picking the “evidence” for evolution and ignoring any evidence against it as simply inconvenient or irrelevant, and have done so for so long they’ve managed to convince themselves that they’ve uncovered the truth, when all they’ve really uncovered is an elaborate framework of speculation and guesswork. But try to tell them that the Emporer has no clothes, and they look at you like you’re a nut.

  3. 3
    Ben Z says:

    I like what Francis Beckwith said about it over at Right Reason,

    “I am forced to reject Shermer’s thesis, for it confirms everything I had thought about myself. :-)”

  4. 4
    crandaddy says:

    I have to admit, for a Darwinian materialist, Shermer doesn’t seem to be that bad of a guy. But let’s face it, he’s a yes man for the mainstream scientific establishment and a valiant defender of his materialist worldview, and in typical modernist materialist fashion, he condescendingly treats differing views as diverging eccentricities from his authoritative position of correctness.

  5. 5
    jmcd says:

    I really don’t see where Shermer can be disputed on this. Perhaps he can be mocked for stating the obvious. Does anyone really believe we are perfectly rational creatures? The world is far too complex to be rationally broken down at every step. We rely on our subconscious to make quick, unthinking decisions for us all the time out of sheer necessity. Certainly people such as judges and scientists should be as aware as possible of this so they can at least attempt to combat it where necessary, but there is nothing here for people to get offended about. It serves us all well to try and understand our biases as best we can. Maybe some people don’t want to admit there is any element of the irrational in their worldview, but this is just plain impossible. I agree that Shermer can come off as being awfully condescending, but his point is that this is universal among humans to some extent or another. He is not immune anymore than you or I.

  6. 6
    SteveB says:

    jmcd,

    The irony for Shermer and his ilk is that the partisans cited in the study (Republican and Democratic Bush and Kerry supporters, respectively) almost certainly know that they’re partisan; Shermer on the other hand, is just as partisan but apparently thinks he isn’t because, in his words, “in science we have built-in self-correcting machinery.” He goes on to describe this machinery by saying–among other things–that “colleagues are rewarded for being skeptical.”

    Fascinating comment, actually. What kinds of rewards from the objective, unbiased scientific establishment did, for example, Richard Sternberg receive for arguing that a pro-ID paper be published? The paper in question included all the stuff that Shermer is arguing for, namely, “disconfirmatory evidence, as well as contradictory interpretations of data” when seen from a neodarwinian point of view. And yet, Sternberg was run out of town for engaging in exactly the sort of skepticism that Shermer is advocating.

    In the end, I’ll give up some of my skepticism of Shermer when he starts, for example, to include–without resorting to straw-man distortions–disconfirmatory evidence and contradictory interpretations in his own papers and lectures, or when he publicly argues for Sternberg’s reinstatement at the Smithsonian. Until such time, it’s all just hypocritical pontification.

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