Friday, April 27, 2012

Confirmation bias: why I am suspicious of "good" news

The link between poverty and the dangers of our ecological predicament is an important one. Not only are those least responsible for causing the threat already (in general) suffering the early effects, they will (in general) be more vulnerable to worsening climate and ecological impacts. When we add in future generations and other species, then we have three groups who contribution is negligible or even zero but who are very likely to face the most severe effects. The temptation to motivated reasoning that justifies our present behaviours and cultural assumption needs to keep these groups firmly in mind if we are to assess our responsibilities honestly.

One important form of motivated reasoning in this context is confirmation bias, which is a well-established psychological pattern in which we evaluate new experiences and claims through our existing assumptions, preferences and convictions. We all tend to give greater weight to experiences and evidence that confirms what we already believe, rather than those things that disconfirm it, hence we all have a bias towards confirmation.

Particularly for those of us who are rich and comfortable (by global standards) or who hold a belief that we ought to be and/or can soon be, then we have a preference for things to stay as they are (more or less), or at least not to change too quickly. We don't want scientific results that imply doom and gloom to be true, particularly if they also imply our responsible for such outcomes and/or the possibility of mitigating the threat through modifying our habits and assumptions. We are likely to latch onto experiences and claims that help to confirm that preference and to pay less attention to experiences and claims that challenge it.

This is a moral temptation involving our perception of the world. If it is the case that gross injustices exist all around us, and that climate and ecological crises are very likely to contribute to exacerbating them in various ways, then we can be tempted to downplay the moral importance of this information. This might be by denying the science, by saying that we can't do anything about it, by saying that we should focus on a more narrowly defined set of moral concerns (e.g. purely national interest, or perhaps what is directly relevant for me and my family), by claiming that technology will rescue us from any bad consequences and so on. I would argue that part of Christian discipleship is learning to resist such temptations in order to keep having the horizon of our moral vision, to keep discovering that we are neighbours even to those who might not initially appear to be one of "us". The three groups I mentioned - the global poor, future generations and other species - each challenge us to expand the margins of our moral community, to discover neighbours we didn't realise we had. By focussing on what climate change and ecological degradation means and will mean for these groups, whose moral position is most devastatingly unfair, we can seek to foster a deeper and broader empathy and so nurture a richer moral imagination, capable of seeing more clearly the world through the eyes of others.

Asking "what's in it for me?" or "how am I threatened by climate change?" may, depending on one's ability and willingness to look carefully at the implications of the science, produce apathy, or fear and anxiety, or greed, opportunism and tokenism. But asking, "what are the implications for my neighbour, particularly those most vulnerable?" will lead in a very different direction, to a deep concern for others whose present and future flourishing is deeply dependent upon the choices we make yet whose ability to benefit us (at least in ways that generally enter into calculative reason of cost-benefit analyses) is severely limited.

In short, I believe that our climate and ecological crises are manifestations in the social and ecological realms of the visible and outward costs of the idolatry of consumerism and the hubris that sees humanity as exercising mastery over all things, rather than fulfilling the Genesis mandate in the pattern of Christ's rule: by being the servant of all. If this is true, then the temptation to read our predicament as something less than a spiritual crisis will be strong, since we don't like to confront evidence of our own moral failures. We want to believe that it is not as bad as all that, that the danger is still far off, that we are really helpless and bear no responsibility, that we'll find some techno-fix to ensure we don't need to look inside our hearts to see the pollution spreading within that is the root of the pollution without: the physical pollution we breathe and drink and eat and which is presently dissolving the bonds of the community of life.

Of course, it is possible that it is not as bad as all that, that the risk is less imminent than the science suggests, there we truly are impotent in the face of calamity, that a silver bullet (or silver buckshot) wonder technology (or suite of technologies and economic policies) will mean we can keep on going more or less as we are without challenging consumerism. But because we really *want* these things to be true, we ought to be especially suspicious of claims and experiences that encourage us to hold them, constantly testing whether we might be engaged in wishful thinking, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias. Instead, as Christians shaped by the knowledge that faithfulness means constant repentance (our daily bread is confession and reception of forgiveness as much as any wheat-based product), we ought to hold an epistemology that expects true knowledge of the world will frequently reveal us to be in the wrong and in need of repentance and forgiveness.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive account, and it is important to acknowledge that prior to fallenness comes divine blessing on human participation in naming and understanding a good world. I offer no council of epistemological despair or unending scepticism. The suspicion of which I speak serves a positive purpose in service of neighbour and represents a modulation of God's "yes" to the created order, not a displacement of it by a mistrustful "no".

Nonetheless, we walk in the path of one who warned that following him would mean denial of self and carrying a cross. Anything that suggests the path of faithfulness requires the defence of my material prosperity, ease and luxury needs to be double and triple checked. There is no route to resurrection that does not involve mortification.

I am therefore suspicious of pieces of "good news" that purport to minimise our responsibility or the gravity of our situation. Sometimes, they may well be true, but the good news is that following a crucified and risen Lord means being able to look at my and our failings honestly, confident in the knowledge that they are already forgiven, that I am already being empowered to walk a new path, one that is honest and life-giving.


byron smith said...

I should add that this account, which focused on the frailty of the flesh, needs fleshing out with a further discussion of the ways that systemic social, economic and political features of the *world* contribute to our predicament (and then we'd need to get onto the devil as well). That is, as well as being responsible moral agents facing temptation, we are also victims of forces beyond our control (and of which we are often not even conscious) embodied in systems of oppression and ideology that keep us blind and subvert the effects of even many of our well-intentioned acts. An analysis of human moral frailty and failure needs to be corporate as well as personal, without collapsing one into the other.

To this end, we could talk about the myth of endless progress, the ideology of economic growth and the all-consuming logic of the market, of the eclipse of practical reason by calculative reason, of the corrupting effects of gross inequality on a democratic political system and the complicity of profit-driven media, of the powers behind and in mega-corporations whose rapacious greed takes on a life of its own that exceeds the sum of the individuals participating in it (employees, shareholders) and of the ethical tragedy found in the novel features of climate and ecological crises that Stephen Gardiner calls "a perfect moral storm", producing a systemic corruption of our capacity to deliberate upon the common good in the face of the temptation to engage in generational buck passing. This novelty can also be analysed from a hermeneutical perspective as a test of our interpretive systems to engage a challenge qualitatively different from any previously faced.

Each of these would require significant further elaboration, but my point is simply to say that I'm not intending to imply these issues can be reduced down to an aggregation of individual greed or self-interest. The story is considerably more complex than that.

gbroughto said...

Wow. some serious reflection going on here that almost makes me fearful to wade in... (almost ;)

I think the 'neighbourliness' dimension is actually a couple of steps further in than you think. In light of the final paragraph of the post, part of the problem of my bias is that I do NOT feel the weight of my Christian responsibility to the poor, unborn and other species. This, unfortunately, has been assisted by some less-than-rigorous theologising and preaching which often confirms rather than challenge my bias.

For these and other reasons I must admit that my 'stance' towards the poor, unborn and other species is a practiced indifference, pretending that I am some kind of 'innocent bystander'. But this line of defence will only find me retreating into an ever-shrinking and homogenous world. The final fortress will be inside a virtual world of my own creation, inside my bedroom, inside my house... where in fact too many of us regularly 'retreat' to.

No, part of the call of Christian discipleship as you describe it is to name my current 'stance' as that of the 'enemy' of the poor, unborn and other species. Before I can love my neighbour I must love my enemy. And I receive no moral instruction or formation on enemy-love while inside my virtual world, inside my bedroom...etc.

The call to discipleship is equally a call to community, mission and justice. Without these aspects of Christian faith and life my 'confirmation bias' runs much deeper than what news I receive, but where and how I receive it. This is where your follow-up comment connects with the post: the social, economic and political 'location' confirms and challenges our participation in Christian community, mission and justice.

As I seek to obey Christ's command to love my neighbour I must follow Christ's life, death and rising for enemies. And this path of discipleship is always against the 'bias' which has me retreating...

byron smith said...

Thanks Geoff - very interesting comments.

Perhaps there is a sense in which we can even push things yet one more step. The true opposite of love is not hostility (which is what signifies an enemy) but indifference. Though there may be some who would rise to being able to name their stance towards the poor, unborn and other species as hostility (insofar as these are seen as explicitly threatening my prosperity and preferences through their moral claims), I suspect that for most of us, we don't even yet have the dignity of hatred. It is simply that those of in these groups do not enter our moral thinking at any point. They are treated as irrelevant, non-entities. The enemy has at least risen to the point of registering as a member of my moral community, just one whose membership is such as to attract my attention in negative ways. When the priest and the Levite walk by on the other side of the road, they are not expressing hostility towards the beaten man, but indifference; the man is not to be even acknowledged.

I agree that the company we keep is an important part of shaping our moral vision. We have to learn to see what is in front of our eyes and if we are not participating in a community of mission and justice, then our attention will not be drawn to those elements in our context that we so easily overlook.

Bill said...

Outstanding post.

I'm wondering what the world would look life if all our decisions were made with the question in mind being, "how will this affect my neighbors, particularly the most vulnerable?"; rather than "how will this affect me?"

Sounds a bit like the Kingdom of God.

Anonymous said...

The "unborn"? So you and I are the "undead"?

byron smith said...

"The unborn" is a slightly shorter way of talking about future generations. But on reflection, perhaps it's clunky. Fair enough - I'll change it to avoid being distracting.