David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Confirmation Bias Age

May 16, 2018

The two greatest myths about modern educated humans are that we are smart and that we aren't motivated by our emotions.  Nowhere is that better argued, much to the chagrin of every college-educated person in this country, than in yesterday's USA TODAY, which published the incredibly astute "Fake news: How our brains lead us into echo chambers that promote racism and sexism."

Normally, I might summarize this piece by Jeff Stibel, but it seems more appropriate just to quote his most important section: "most of us," he writes, "have . . . encountered well-informed, sane people who share articles that are blatantly incorrect propaganda."

"Why does this happen?" he goes on to ask. "The answer lies in our brains and a little-known phenomenon called 'confirmation bias.' It works like this: When we see new information, we try to decide whether or not to believe it. Generally, if the new information confirms existing beliefs that we hold, we buy into it automatically (and hence retweet and share). But if the new information is contrary to what we already know, we’re most likely to discard it in order to maintain cognitive consistency. When information agrees with your beliefs, it takes no time to confirm it; when information disagrees, it takes many, many contrary facts before we even consider changing our minds."

I would like to believe that the most educated of us, especially those of us entrusted to educate subsequent generations, can best recognize this, but we can't.  Instead we underestimate the power of our emotions in the face of fact.  The more educated we get, the more we are told to ignore our emotions or our intuition, when one or both of those are waging war even more strongly in the "echo chambers" that Stibel also describes, those places where our limited knowledge, even moreso than just "fake news," as he writes, bounces around without counter information necessary for the due diligence of critical thinking.

Let me cite one quick example from this week's headlines in higher education.  Sweet Briar College in Virginia invited Nella Gray Barkley, an alum from the 1950's, to speak at their commencement ceremony.  The speaker proceeded to say a couple of controversial things:

  • "I have little patience with the woman who arrives breathlessly at her boss's hotel room for a so-called conference," Barkley said. "What did she think was going to happen?"
  • Further, she said, it was "only natural for men from Mars to follow the shortest skirt in the room."
  • In referencing her husband, Barkley said, "I'm no raging feminist. I actually love men, and I married one."

Much of the critical backlash after the ceremony was directed at the college president for not more openly condemning the speaker's remarks.  There are certainly lessons in both Barkley's speech and the president's neutral response that say something about confirmation bias on their own (I admit that the "I married one" joke reveals to me a thought process emptier than an echo chamber in terms of being in touch with her audience).  However, commencement speeches are such an meaningless part of academic lore, they hardly seem worth worrying about.

But, then, you look at the string of comments that follow the Inside Higher Ed article linked above and you are dumbfounded by the biases of educated readers (and I doubt I am assuming too much in that the commentators are in higher education. Why else would you freaking read Inside Higher Ed?).

  • One commentator questions the motivations of women who agree to meet their bosses in hotel rooms: "Now, in the world of LALA land, where most of this pound metoo stuff started, don't kid yourself into thinking there wasn't any forethought into what it might do for their careers. A take-one-for-the-career move."
  • Or another: "We are not a monolith, and I don’t claim to speak for all sexual assault survivors, but I don’t need a bunch of woke white girls speaking up for me."
  • In responding to a retired president's comment about how she might have handled this: "Interesting, so as a college President you would censor speeches. No wonder our education system is now in so much of a politically correct straitjacket."
  • In responding to a flippant comment, someone says, "And your calling her [Barkley] a "lady" does the same."
  • One man writes, "Looks to me as if the speaker simply made it on her own, and didn't need the assistance of a political movement. As for 'raging feminists,' I wonder what kind write books such Against Our Will, Marriage is Hell, The Baby Trap, etc., etc., etc.?"
  • And be careful of mentioning your mother, as evidenced by one commentator to another commentator: "So, your mother and the speaker are identical in experiences/education/employment/etc.? So, there is no way that people of the same generation can have differing thoughts/ideas? Wow .... guess I had better go to my next high school graduation to make sure everybody there has advanced degrees/works in higher ed/and thinks just like I do because we spent close to 12 years together .... see how logic can work?"

Each one of these educated, highly respected academics (let's assume for assumption's sake) has brought the deep snark instead of the deep thought.  And our society is none the better.

So not surprisingly it leads me to verse:

Confirmation Bias Age

We have reached that age

Where our ties to our bias are finalized,

Where our innocence is ending,

Our age of indiscretion

Is marked by our sweaty brows

Drenched in the anger of our common

Bond with those we flocked to.


We're at the age where rite is might,

Where right triggers fight,

And emotions are ripped open

When reason used to rule:

A transformation that our confirmation

Trumps the rational conversation

Of educated minds.


Forgive me, father, I have since

Recognized my brothers in arms,

And stand ready to devote my life

To the reinforcement of my fortress

Against all of those heathen forces

That dare speak of a faith

In anything but what I have avowed.