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.
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.
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. :-)