Sunday, February 7, 2021

Confirmation Bias

I've been reading Range for the last few days, and for some reason it's slower going for me than I thought it would be. I suspect those reasons have more to do with general exhaustion than the book itself, which I'm really enjoying.

I just finished the chapter "Fooled by Expertise", which I think most readers will recognize as a meditation on confirmation bias. Yes, you're right to groan when you think about a certain relative or friend who is unable to change their opinion about anything but particularly their pet subjects, evidence be damned. The solution may or may not be "education"; what this chapter and really the whole book show is that the more expert you are at one thing, the more likely you are to only be able to see a narrow perspective. 

I am also in the process of reading To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu. I still think he's an amazing writer, but of course I'm disturbed -- if not completely disgusted -- by revelations about his position on what's happening to Uighurs, as well as perhaps his orientation about the Chinese government itself. He's not opposed, let's just put it that way. I'm forming certain opinions about the man as opposed to the author based on that information, and those opinions don't improve after reading We Have Been Harmonized.

Now throw into the mix Liu's short story that I read last night, "Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming". To be honest, my jaw dropped. I am not opposed to reading something from the perspective of the Russian military, and I'm not opposed to the Americans being villains, but OH MY GOD. The megalomania ascribed to the Americans here is excessive enough that I can't help but see some paranoia, especially when the author threw in a discursion about the South China Sea...

I felt both better and worse after I read that story. Better, because a pre-existing notion seemed to confirmed, and worse because a pre-existing notion seemed to be confirmed.

I don't like being wrong, and I like even less having someone telling me I'm wrong. Which is why when I see confirmation of something I've thought or said I feel a little lift. ("Look at me and how correct I am.") As if that somehow insulates me from criticism. But I don't like being correct -- being right -- as much as you might think an opinionated person would, and boy, do I find it irritating to be among people who constantly agree with me. It gives me the feeling that the world is much narrower than I've been told it should be, and that some important function I should be enjoying -- the one we usually call "learning" -- has been shut off from me, and I usually grit my teeth if I have to sit somewhere or with something that is too intellectually familiar for too long. I'm gratified to read in Range that I'm not alone.

Please don't take this as a recommendation that we should all be consuming "alternative" news so we can "form our own opinions". (There is a distinction between reality and fantasy, and it can usually be confirmed with a fact check.) And what Liu said about Uighurs is just plain wrong -- human rights are not subject to debate, full stop. What I am saying is that we should look at the same set of facts from a different perspective, preferably one we haven't been exposed to before. It's definitely uncomfortable, but not as much as always thinking you're right.


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