24 June, 2006

Sidebar: Changing our Minds - Pt. Deux

Michael Shermer offers some suggestions how to combat the problem of "Confirmation Bias." Confirmation Bias is described by Francis Bacon in his lead-in quote thusly:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises ... in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

He calls science's solution to bear, and I love the scientists' answer to this question.

Peer Review

Really, I love peer review. If I could marry peer review, I would (if you don't have teenagers, that comment may sound random.)

In a scientific "double-blind" experiment, neither the subjects of the experiment nor its conductors know what is being tested for. A step-by-step process is written up, and the experimenter follows it to the letter, having no idea why. She or he collects the data requested, and reports it to the requester of the experiment. The requester evaluates whether it confirms or denies the original hypothesis. If the experiment is successful, the results are published and so are the procedures and data. Anyone can and should evaluate not just the results, but the process and the raw data. If they think the outcome warrants it, they can even reproduce the whole experiment themselves. They should get very similar results.

An example is helpful. Some scientists thought that they had found a way to make fusion happen without the heat of a sun. They ran through the whole experimental process, loved their results and published their findings. Before the published, though, they alerted the media to their awesome discovery of table-top cold fusion. They were all set to save the world.

Other scientists took their results and their procedures, and attempted to reproduce their experimental outcomes. When nobody else could make cold fusion happen, it was declared dead. Bang. Game over. If an experiment cannot be reproduced by other scientists, then it may as well never have happened. The proponents of table-top cold fusion were wrong. They fired up a media feeding frenzy in support of their ideas, everyone wanted it to be real, it even had verifiable results; but none of that made them right. Noone else could reproduce their results, and they were sent away.

Brilliant!

Just like that, the discussion was over. The only people who still believe in the type of cold fusion disproven by scientific review are crackpots, and we all recognize them as such immediately.

But what about religion?

Shermer is writing about politics, so he faces the same problems we do. He makes some suggestions that probably won't work in politics, and wouldn't even get off the ground with us religionists.
1) Call each other on selective data mining.
If we find each other ignoring some important part of scripture, we should point out the omissions.
[Yeah. We do this enough already, and it doesn't fix anything.]

2) Demand to see contradictory evidence.
If I am a Calvinist, I should publish every Arminian verse.
[Again. This is standard operating procedure, and fixes nothing.]

3) Compel debaters to make the opposite case.
If I am a Calvinist, I should be made to argue in favor of Arminianism.
[Now this is new! But it's senseless. This reduces the most significant thoughts in the world to a mere exercise in debate. I love debate, but it should not be an exercise at this level.]

He sums up his article with these words, "Skepticism is the antidote for the confirmation bias."

I don't know how we can really do better than that.

I hope that nobody was expecting that I would have any brilliant answers to this problem. It is much bigger than I am. We lost count of the number of Christian denominations a long, long time ago.

Here is my impossible dream. I wish that we could come up with a way to submit our beliefs and practices to independent, double blind review. I don't know how it could happen. Psychologists do things like that, though. They ask people seemingly random questions about normal, every day stuff and draw conclusions about personality. It might be possible. Who knows. Any trained psych people in the crowd?

My next practical solution is to put boundaries around the problem. That means including more people in it than just me, and few enough that the conversation can be controlled. I actually proposed something like this 4 months ago or so. If one church ignored every denomination, they could start over from scratch with just the Nicene Creed and build everything else up from there. In a group small enough, the command, "let the prophets be subject to the prophets," actually makes sense. I could hope that group would bring in the deep thoughts of the ages, but slowly - slowly enough that they could be assimilated rather than merely rehearsed. It would be a very small start, but a start is better than nothing.

I might suggest that this church be formed of everyone who lived within a 5 block radius. :-) [I wonder whether anyone remembers the actual purpose of this blog.]

In my own life, I combat the problem with varying degrees of success. I actually do change my mind about things every now and again, and I have a couple of possible changes in the back of my mind right now, brewing away. With no promise of value for the reader, here are the things I do:

1) I attempt to put doctrine in its right place, rather than in the highest seat (which it seems always to get these days.) The less I overvalue doctrine, the more likely I am to be objective about it, and improve mine. The less I feel that God is going to be mad at me if I get something wrong, the more likely I am to grow and change with new revelation.

I also remind myself that we tend to choose those doctrines that fit our personality, more than those that fit the facts. Fewer intellectuals choose charismaticism than Calvinism, for example, and there are very few charismatic Calvinists (double meaning not intended). It helps me to understand why I see God the way I do, and why others see Him differently than I do. And that helps me to hold my views a little more loosely.

2) Most times another believer's arguments don't really move me. Usually, that is because I have heard those arguments a dozen times. I don't bother to feel very guilty about that. But when someone's arguments do move me, and I begin to see where she or he has a point, I do a little imagining. I see myself as holding this other position, and being very happy that I made the change. I then ask myself what it is about changing that made me happy.

If Confirmation Bias is an emotional thing, then it can best by outwitted by emotions (as Andreia pointed out.) I consciously try to counter-balance my natural aversion to changing my mind by picturing it as already changed and that I am happy with the new position.

So, thank you to Michael Shermer for making me want to talk about this. And thank you to all of you for actually being interested in such esoterica. :-)

29 comments:

Ellen said...

3) Compel debaters to make the opposite case.
If I am a Calvinist, I should be made to argue in favor of Arminianism.
[Now this is new! But it's senseless. This reduces the most significant thoughts in the world to a mere exercise in debate. I love debate, but it should not be an exercise at this level.]


I've done this. A friend and I took turns doing "calvinism/arminianism" One day I'd be the Calvinism, the next day I'd be the Arminian.

We've been through divorce and remarriage like this and we've been through gender roles like this and we've been through paedobaptism like this.

If you can argue either side (from Scripture) equally well, you know the weak points. You also end up either changing your position or you are able to fully stand in the knowledge that you have put in due dilligence in the Word and are firm in your position.

codepoke said...

I rescind my assertion that this is senseless. :-) [I would have enjoyed hearing you present the egalitarian position.]

I still don't know how I feel about it. I think I could only do that with a position I respected. Then again, I really do respect most positions. I guess could try being an Arminian for a day, but I fear it would feel like I was just playing a game.

Ellen said...

Uh..when we started the "game", I was a life-long Arminian. And started out to prove Calvinism wrong.

Same thing with gender roles.

You've already read a little bit of "friend's" positions.

;-)

Ellen said...

One word of warning:

Do NOT take a "boy home to meet your dad" for the first time in 25 years, get into a Calvinism/Arminianism debate with your brother-in-law (who happens to be an Arminian/Wesleyan pastor) and forget what side of the debate you're on and start debating on the opposite side of your "gentleman caller".

codepoke said...

LOL!

(And congratulations ... I hope things are going well for you!)

Ellen said...

Doing ok...

Andreia said...

Codepoke
As I was reading this I couldnt help but think WWJD? I know, its such an easy catch-phrase!

I am aware that we were freed from the tyrannical nature of the law with the blood of Christ, however, it seems to me that Jesus used the Jewish traditions and such to explain the nature of his church.

I dont see how we could escape this given that our doctrinal stances are in part made up from the combined experiences of our lives as well as our personalities which I might add are all God-given. (which is just rehashing what you have already said)

I can already hear your rebuttals in my head.

I find your desire to seek truth endearing. I can not help but ask myself the question: to what end?

Isnt the beauty of CHrist's love for us that we all are seeking to understand, that we all get it wrong more than we get it right? It seems as if we seek the outcome of a goal sometimes more than the process. I want to have run a marathon more than I want to train for one every day. It is the daily process of committing to the training however that refines me. It is the journey not the destination that matters.

I cant help but wonder if the process of seeking truth and getting along with those that find it in different ways is what its all about. (I like the bumper sticker that says what if the hokey pokey is what it is all about!)

Andreia said...

I came back here to edit my rant and boy I was surprised to see I had posted it. Dont you just hate that? Anyway, I had hoped to reread some of your posts that you mentioned to see if I could answer my own question. Oh well!

codepoke said...

I can already hear your rebuttals in my head.

And yet you give me no clues what they should be. ;-)

it seems to me that Jesus used the Jewish traditions and such to explain the nature of his church.
I don't understand where you are going with this. Jesus used the good Jewish traditions because He Himself gave them to them several centuries earlier in Ur, Canaan, and Mt. Sinai. He rejected the bad ones because they had added them to the Truth He gave.

I find your desire to seek truth endearing. I can not help but ask myself the question: to what end?
Unity.

It should be easier to unite around Truth than error.

I want to have run a marathon more than I want to train for one every day.
Exactly!

Pursuing Truth daily together is a small and beautiful part of what we need. Running a marathon is not your life. There are other, more important things going on for you, but maybe it is a part of it.

Knowing Him Who is Truth is our life. Knowing the doctrine that describes Him is an important small part of our life. Some of us should be really, really dedicated to that marathon. All of us should be running that race together, though.

It all comes back to community for me.

If 200 of us get together, and all live within a few blocks of each other, how do we achieve unity? There is going to be disagreement about doctrine. It's unavoidable. Someone is going to get their feelings hurt, and next thing you know, there will be division.

Part of the solution is training in not getting our feelings hurt. Another part, though, is having a way to decide what is true. To do that, someone will have to change his mind. Hence Confirmation Bias is of extreme interest to me.

I cant help but wonder if the process of seeking truth and getting along with those that find it in different ways is what its all about.
Or I could just agree with you. ;-D

Well said!

codepoke said...

It might be easier for me to find those posts than for you:

Here they are:
Post 1
Post 2

codepoke said...

Hmmm. There was another one. I never know when to shut up.

Part 3

Milly said...

I agree in the getting your feelings hurt but how do we not hurt and get hurt? When making a point we can easily hurt someone and as you know the hurt one will leave or strike back hard.

I’m all for unity, you know I am, and if you lived here I would love to get a study or something going. The thing is that so many times we slap a title on ourselves like Calvinist or something. ( I refuse those titles because I see them as closed minded. Is that a rock?) I’m a Millyist or a Moonpiest (Thinklings) I pray read and ask for knowledge and wisdom. When we shed ourselves of man made titles and open our hearts to respect each other then we might find it. With that said I do enjoy a lively discussion. Hmm

As for arguing the other side my heart wouldn’t be in it and if the other person said something I felt was wrong I’d find myself defending the side I really was on.

see-through faith said...

I think God's perspective is much larger than ours - and relationship with Him wins over most doctrinal positions anyday.

IMHO the only things we cannot compromise on is that Jesus is God (part of the trinity) and the only way to salvation. The rest ... (grin)

codepoke said...

I usually use the man-made titles because I feel so "high and mighty" when I don't. To call myself a Calvinist is a self-insult, or at least humbling. It is to say that John Calvin was smarter than me, and I respect that.

I will never have an original doctrinal thought. To me it's just a matter of whether I credit my sources honestly.

All that said, Milly:
When we shed ourselves of man made titles and open our hearts to respect each other then we might find it.
I love this word of hope. Until I hear a better one, I'm going with this. :-)

DugALug said...

Codepoke,

Peer-review only can work if you have truly non-partial peers.

If I look to a fellow believer from my church, chances are that we will have similar biases, so what we end up with is a false afirmation.

Blogs like this keep us honest. Exposure to them causes you to really think about why and how you believe, and forces you to back it with facts.

I taught a class on evangelism for children at our church. I asked them a simple question: if you died today, what would they say to God to allow them into heaven?

All 13 of them gave me a text-book correct answer and I was really encouraged. I then asked them what does that mean? Not one could answer the question.

These children were taught what to say, not why. They also weren't allowed to think and conclude. It confirmed all that I believed about how we are not teaching children correctly.

Most church-goers suffer from the same problem as these children. They believe but they don't know the vehicle by which they got to this point. I know God wants us to enter in with that knowledge.

Keep up the great work, this blog definately keeps my sword sharp.

God Bless
-Doug

Andreia said...

I taug>t a class on evangelism for children

Does this reallyhappen?!?!?! Im really not trying to pick a fight here. I am shocked!

DugALug said...

Andreai

What's shocking? I am confused?

God Bless
-Doug

Danny Kaye said...

Wouldn't ya' know it! I finally get time to come over here and read some of this great (long) meat, AND ELLEN's FIRST COMMENT STEALS MY THUNDER!!!

Oh well. I guess I'll add a diferent twist to it.

I have had the C-ism and A-ism debate recently while I was the one trying to defend C-ism. (I know! I know! Stop laughing, Codepoke!)
Anyway, since one of the things I was trying to do was to understand the whole concept, I decided to debate it like that. And guess what:

I actually was able to understand Calvinism! I didn't agree with it. But at least I could make logical arguments for it using scripture. I even stumped the group with a question that I still have not yet wrestled through which seems to back up the C-ists point of view.

I'll get to it eventually.

Andreia said...

Doug
I guess I was surprised that churches teach children evangelism. Im quite curious how that works but really dont want to hijack this discussion as I really like the path Codepoke is on.

Andreia said...

BTW does it make me a Calvinist if I find teaching children evangelism shocking?
this is supposed to be a joke.

codepoke said...

Just this morning I was thinking, "I wonder why DugALug isn't back yet?"

Great to see you, sir!

Sorry all, but there will be no comments tonight. I have done run out of time and strength, but I sure appreciate all your thoughts.

Milly said...

andreia,
In some ways we teach the children a bit of that in our quiet COC way. Go out into the world and stuff.

DugALug said...

Andreia,

Just a quick note, I think a more accurate name for the class would be 'pre-evangelism'. I taught about the foundations of faith, where traditions like communion come from, the Scarlet thread of the Bible, and a little eschatology.

To be able to share your faith, you must start by 'knowing' what and why you believe. That was my heart, and the class went amazingly well.

God Bless
Doug

DugALug said...

Codepoke,

To call myself a Calvinist is a self-insult, or at least humbling. It is to say that John Calvin was smarter than me, and I respect that.

It is amazing that all of Calvin's life is only associated (well, encapsulated) within a few principals. There was so much more to the man, it is almost insulting how we compress him into this one set of issues.

I don't call myself an 'Einstieniest' because I believe that e = mc^2 or in relativity.

Yet 'Arminian' and 'Calvanism' are clear delineations. I find that most 'Calvanists' and 'Arminians' aren't really purist. You CP, are the perfect example.

So it doesn't come down to the fact that Calvin is smarter (though he may or may not be), it is that his theory holds some weight and it is worth recognizing as such.

God Bless
Doug

Andreia said...

Preevangelism makes sense to me.

DugALug said...

Andreai,

Preevangelism makes sense to me.

Whew! Well now I can sleep easy!

-Doug

codepoke said...

Peer-review only can work if you have truly non-partial peers.

Well, kind of. Peer review can work if your peers don't know what you are trying to accomplish. In psychology, the peers are not unbiased, but they don't know what they are testing for. The test is double blind, so everyone is just doing what they are told.

The problem is that there is nothing to measure.

All 13 of them gave me a text-book correct answer and I was really encouraged. I then asked them what does that mean? Not one could answer the question.

That's why teachers earn the big bucks! ;-)

DugALug said...

CP,

That's why teachers earn the big bucks

I'm just trying to store it up where it won't go away. :)

The test is double blind, so everyone is just doing what they are told.

This is real tough when it comes to theology. Faith requires a partisan view. Scientific method require a detachment from partisanship. I don't see how the process of describing the precepts of faith can be broken into a process that doesn't require extrapolation. If you could do this, then there is no need for faith. Mere Christianity is an attempt at this, but it is based on two basic principals: Jesus was who He claimed, and that God is.

It is this very reason why I believe that most research on evolution is a crock. As was offered in our High-School textbooks. The group of scientists did exactly as you described. They looked for data to support their theory. If only they could thumb their nose at God by proving evolution. In the end, I think the joke is on them. The data shows that evolution is clearly impossible without some sort of 'outside' supervision/interaction.

God Bless
Doug

codepoke said...

That's why teachers earn the big bucks

I'm just trying to store it up where it won't go away. :)


He shoots. He scores!!!!

Nice turn of truth.

Faith requires a partisan view.

I trust that you know that this is why the post says peer review is a dream. I cannot now imagine any way to objectively measure anything, and without objective measures, it's just opinion versus opinion. We've got plenty of those.