I stumbled upon an excellent article yesterday in The New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Biased but Brilliant.” The author, Cordelia Fine, a senior research associate at the Melbourne Business School, points to research showing that confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors – is not only present in the halls of science, but it leads in a round about way to the discovery of truth.
While this may be true, it seems to me that there must be more efficient ways to arrive at the same destination.
I spent part of my undergraduate and graduate studies in France and while I was there one of my professors told me that the French love to argue (a fairly well-earned stereotype) and that the quality of the argument was more highly prized than the veracity of the position being argued. This was a disturbing thought to me at the time and in many ways still is, especially since the truth is so often hidden from view when false ideas are well-supported by confirmation bias.
Human consciousness as a whole is a crucible for creation. The lack of coordination and harmony between individuals coupled with the intensely competitive environment in churches, schools, businesses and government buildings between groupings of individuals results in progress, albeit at a great cost. We get there, but it’s messy and it’s not pretty.
As an example of this, Olympic Equestrian Anky van Grunsven won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics on her horse, Bonfire. She had trained Bonfire using a controversial method she and a partner developed called “Rollkur,” where hyperflexion of the neck (the horse’s chin is pulled back toward his chest) is used to supple the horse’s neck and back, a technique that some claim achieves its positive outcomes by means of unnecessary if not abusive tension between horse and rider.
Particularly upsetting to her critics was the fact that Anky won the gold medal despite having scored terribly in the walk, the gait that most classically-trained riders see as a fundamental building block to just about everything else riders ask a horse to do. She had a hole in her foundation from their perspective, as was evidenced by her poor performance at the walk, but she won the gold. Whether or not her approach lacked integrity I cannot say, but these types of provocative disconnects happen all the time.
At the end of the day, the truth is true, no matter how human beings act in relation to it. While our humanity complicates our discovery of truth, it also compels us to continue questing for it. Many of our efforts are clumsy, if not foolish, especially when squared against a related element of known truth.
Confirmation bias may be of some value in the larger sense, but in the life of the individual it only serves to slow the process of becoming acquainted with the truth. The truth is unbiased, it is absolute, and the means are as important as the end when it comes to the truth as the truth is never in conflict with itself. Neither is a truth in one area of living ever in conflict with a truth in another. Irrational loyalty to opinions and beliefs may bring comfort, but when those opinions and beliefs are not grounded in truth such loyalties are disunifying to the individual.
If you believe that appearances are more important than the underlying reality, then this post does not merit further consideration. If, however, you value substance over show, absolute truth over high quality copy, then take a few moments to weigh my message, not against the opinions and beliefs you hold, but against the truth that you know, the truth you have proven in your living!
9 thoughts on “The Truth is True”
I find it amazing that, despite all our searching for the truth of things, if we are wrong we are wrong and the truth is what it is regardless. Our search for the truth is an ongoing thing and has been for a long time, and I appreciate you highlighting ways that we can become more efficient in that search. Personally, I think it is important to always remain humble in the search for truth. How many times throughout history have we said “this is the truth, we know it, and any other explanation is wrong” only to be shown that is not the case? So I figure that since we probably have not reached the pinnacle of understanding yet, it would be the smart bet that things we believe that about right now might change in the future.
This is an excellent post and it raises a few important points that always crop up in the search for truth.
The first is the trap of expediency – your equestrian example is a good metaphor for what we not only see around us all the time but for acting in a way we are actively encouraged to act if we wish to be ‘successful.’. Even people who have noble ideals are encouraged to put aside their principles and compromise when trying to achieve change. They are advised that the power they will win will equip them to do the good that they wish to do. The thing is that this is not possible. Acting in an expedient way without principle is like trying to clean a window with a dirty cloth – impossible. The dirt of the cloth will, inevitably, transfer to the window, adding to its problems not detracting from them. In the same way, once we compromise on ‘doing the right thing’ we become changed and are no longer able to apply ourselves in the same way. This might all turn out fine in the end (human beings are also endlessly able to see the error of their ways, thankfully) but even if it does and even if the ‘end’ is achieved, it will be, necessarily, different to the original objective.
Another good point you raise is that of our culture of adversarialism – like the French we often enjoy a good argument but more worryingly we also seem to think we will find the truth more readily in this manner. (Michael Karlberg’s Beyond a Culture of Contest – is an interesting read vis-a-vis this belief). Socrates and Plato would have been on your side I think as the criticism of many of the Sophists and their teaching of rhetoric was that they aimed to – “make the weaker argument defeat the stronger”. It is not only not nice to live with facsimiles of reality but it is also foolish. Would you feel wealthy if you had a huge safe stuffed with money you knew was counterfeit? Of course not – nobody would. At least if you know that the few pennies you have are bona fide currency then you can rely on that to build your life in every way.
As for confirmation bias – it is important to know about it but only insofar as it confers a realisation that we are all inclined in this way and in our ongoing quest for the truth we should be careful and constantly question ourselves to ensure we aren’t blinkered by our beliefs.
Thanks for the post.
Fantastic comment, Trisha. Thanks!
Confirmation bias is, I suppose, a type of hypnosis that blinds the individual to specified aspects of the obvious. The trouble is that it is a trait that seems most apparent in others! Yes, we see it in aacademia, in business models, in medicine for sure, in religion and philosophy, but do we see it in ourselves? And if we don’t, are there people we trust to demystify us as necessary? Just wondering!
This post definitely “merits”! Thanks for the food for thought today (:
Thanks for this! It certainly makes you wonder about what has been deemed “the truth,” and how that conclusion has been reached. I’ll definitely consider this in my own living.
Truth seems to be an intrisic force in human beings, for something has to account for the desire that weighs upon people’s hearts to want to be right, to know what is true. Luckily, we do have some starting points around us to consider in the various insights provided by great men and women down through the ages, and it’s up to each individual to do what they will with their lives and consider these points of their own choosing. I do agree with a fundamental problem you mention with confirmation bias – alot of time and energy can be wasted taking that route if one is to even arrive at some notion that is true. You can go for years thinking a certain way and become defensive about it in the process, looking to always find corroboration and justification whereas you overlook or dismiss the areas where experience just does not square up to the facts and you then reason to yourself that it was because of something else. It happens in health policies all the time, especially where profit is to be made. People and organizations will defend their position at all costs in this age of great liability and litigation.
And that’s the critical point perhaps in all of this. Integrity will serve you as a compass to navigate whatever ‘map’ you have chosen for your beliefs. You’ll have ample opportunity to find if the map is flawed or if it’s proving to be a pretty good map. A good map is one in which you find there are no inconsitencies as you live – like you say, the truth is not in conflict with itself. If you sacrifice integrity, you have no navigating instrument to help tell you if you are moving correctly, or at least the navigating instrument has become defective and thus untrustworthy. I don’t know much about sailing, but I do know that at least you have to know what true north is. Gotta have a good compass before you set sail.
It’s ok to reserve the right to change your position on something if greater evidence comes to bear. It’s ok to profess to not know it all, as the hunger for the truth is it’s own reward. You’re fired up because things ultimately do make sense somehow, and coming to know that is an exciting adventure!
Appearences are like Halloween costumes, what’s underneath is quite different. Black and white stripes doesn’t mean it’s a zebra, zebra like or has been in the company of a zebra etc. The truth takes more than the eyes and ears, it takes an unprejudiced heart.
Often when people want to believe something it really doesn’t matter what the truth is. Once their minds are made up they will create a revisionist history or irrational set of “facts” to support it. That’s why trying people in the court of public opinion is so damning yet often very effective. The Internet has become a major mouthpiece for the dissemination of lies and unsubstantiated accusations. The professional media has also declared their bias or prejudice to such a degree that their news casts can be viewed thru a lens that wishes to remain loyal to an already prescribed belief system. So what are people to believe? Well I’ve come to conclusion many of the subjects don’t matter. I don’t always have to have a “view”. As for the truth, time does have a way of settling most controversies. The aggregate of our lives lies with a larger realm that is infallibly accurate. Interesting subject, thanks.