Tuesday, September 15, 2009

True believers and confirmation bias.

In the 1976 book The Psychic Mafia, M. Lamar Keene coined the phrase "True Believer Syndrome". In the original context, it dealt with people who continued to believe in a psychic's powers even after the psychic had been shown to be a fraud, even admitted in public to being a fraud.

What a quaintly 20th Century concept this is.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is given credit for the saying, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts."

Sadly, Mr. Moynihan is dead and his wisdom looks to be on its last legs as well.

People from every part of the political spectrum are convinced in conspiracies that look mad to the outside world. Orly Taitz, pictured here, is Queen of the Birthers, the people certain that Barack Obama isn't a citizen and therefore isn't actually president. In general, most people who believe any of the 9/11 conspiracy theories are from the left wing, though that isn't 100%, as many people who hate government hate it no matter what party is in charge. For example, Lyndon LaRouche's world view makes Queen Elizabeth, Dick Cheney and Al Gore all out to be horrible villains, and no one has yet successfully explained the logic of that threesome to me. With luck, no one ever will.

The original phrase true believer syndrome came from the study of psychics, and similar strongly held belief systems form around ideas from "alternative medicine". Whether the belief is from the stand point of New Age methods of healing or from the belief in the power of prayer held by some Christians, the need to believe is so strong that every success that coincides with a treatment or a prayer intervention is clearly due to that act, while failures are chalked up to not enough faith.

Either way, the believers can't lose. The patients, on the other hand, aren't so lucky.

In the modern world of conspiracy theories, people demand the right to their own facts. Any debunking can be ignored as coming from a biased source. To conservatives, people on the left are moonbats or libtards, either crazy or stupid. To liberals, people on the right are wingnuts or morans, either crazy or stupid. (Cropped out of this iconic picture is the "GO USA" sign in the left hand of Mr. Mullet with the Flag Doo-Rag.)

It's time to admit that not everyone on the other side of an argument is either crazy or stupid.

I blame the media in part. The media loves shrill like nobody's business. If there had been just general booing and catcalling during Obama's speech on health care, it wouldn't have nearly as interesting as it became when Joe Wilson shouted out "You lie!" in a voice loud enough to be heard. That supposedly objective people have disproven his claim means nothing to his supporters. As soon as someone contradicts a belief of a true believer, the gainsayer loses all claim to neutrality.

But if I had to point to the major cause for the shattered nature of our society, I would go with the Internet. It's so easy to decide in what part of the 'Net you want to spend your time. The same way that the 'Net lets folks with odd interests like My People and Our Agenda know we are not alone in the world, it also lets people get only the information that will confirm their beliefs, not the information that could make them have doubts. This is confirmation bias. It has always existed, but the Internet makes it worse than ever by being easier than ever.

Here I am, trying to be fair, but I am on the left wing side of most issues. I'm not saying I will never change, but given my age, major change seems unlikely right now. One of my major problems is that those who deny science have much more sway on the conservative side of the ledger than they do on the liberal side. That's a deal breaker for me.

Here's a video from the CollegeHumor website comparing how imperial stormtroopers feel about the destruction of the Death Star to American's feelings about 9/11. I saw it first on the Facebook page of my friend Jeremy Gross. I post it in part because I found it funny, but also because we should know that even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there were true believers and confirmation bias.


Margaret Benbow said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful post. I agree that many, maybe most people avoid critical thought because it can be hard and painful. It's so much easier for them to just believe what they feel like believing.

In regard to the Queen of the Birthers, Orly Taitz looks like a male transvestite. Those eyelashes, those smudged birth certificates, those jumbled ideas of hers: fake, fake, and fake.

CDP said...

I love this post. I've been thinking in the same direction lately, but you said it better than I could. The Age of Reason WAS nice while it lasted, wasn't it?

Jess Wundrun said...

Agreed, great post. You know what I miss? I miss the card catalog at the library the same way I miss a decent newspaper. I always found something more interesting on the card before or after the one I needed. Google just doesn't do subjects the way a good old fashioned card catalog does.

The article in a good paper that's next to the one that interests me is probably going to be the one to teach me something.


Matty Boy said...

Margaret: The first time I saw that picture of Orly Taitz was on the late lamented Princess Sparkle Pony blog. She's like the modern day version of Tammy Faye Bakker, except that at the end, I actually started giving Tammy Faye credit for having a good heart. Orly is just scary.

CDP: Kind words from you about any post of mine mean more than I can say, I am such a fan of your work.

Jess: Excellent points about card catalogs and newspapers. Microsoft touts their new search engine Bing as being more focused. What we need is just the right kind of less focused.

¡Karlacita! said...

Oh - for a great search engine, try clusty.com. It clusters info on the left-hand side in a way that's fun!

I agree about what you've said, and I'm really starting to reduce the amount of snark I consume or support. It just isn't funny any more. I left Go Fug Yourself, because even though it's funny, the "success" of it has meant that the bloggers now have to attack several people each day, M-F, to keep their lights on. No. Nope. No.

And Orly is a man, baby!

dguzman said...

Orly's a man-baby? hee hee hee

Yes, critical thinking and sifting through the insane amount of bullshit to find true fact is just too hard for most people. Maybe that's why I just don't do much on the blogs anymore. It's exhausting, and I'm exhausted. Funny? Yes. Fun? Not so much.

Still, I miss the Princess.

Matty Boy said...

I've cut back seriously on blog reading as well. I'm trying some new stuff that I don't think my readers like that much, notably the football posts, but also some of the things I thought were funny that didn't get much response.

It's still a hobby I enjoy, but I wonder how long I'll be able to keep up the day in, day out stuff.

It may be hard to discern, but I do have some standards.

Ichabod said...

I appreciate this line, "It's time to admit that not everyone on the other side of an argument is either crazy or stupid."

You bring up some valid points worth reflecting upon. I'd be a liar if I hadn't fallen into the above traps in my life and crawled out feeling a little smaller each time.

I agree on the science position, however even science has it's drawbacks. I recently read an overview about a debate between scientists, two arguing pro creationism, one for the Big Bang theory. There are scientists who think there may never have been a beginning, that it always was.

When science theorizes and publicizes guesswork, they attach to these theories the credibility of scientific accomplishments.

It is difficult if not impossible to prove these concepts. I personally am inclined to believe no beginning as in eternity, but I could be wrong.

I like this forum, first time I have been here and I enjoy your writing style.

Thanks :)

Matty Boy said...

Hi, Ichabod, thanks for stopping by. Science is certainly not perfect, and a theory is not a theorem, those little nuggets of truth we mathematicians get to play with.

What I like about science is the acceptance that our ideas must change and that it is a game with rules. In religion, there are those who believe they have immutable truth at their disposal, though religions change over time as well.

Hope to hear from you again soon.

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