Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Confirmation Bias Festival

We say that “seeing is believing”.  But there are far too many times when, in fact, “believing is seeing”—that is, when our interpretation of evidence or our adjudication of conflicting claims is crucially influenced by what we already believe and want to be able to continue to believe.  That is, we are happier to entertain ratifications of our ideas than challenges to them.  Psychologists have offered a technical term to describe the tendency: confirmation bias.  At the time of the posting of this essay (around six am on September 26) much of the nation is noisily participating in a Confirmation Bias Festival, and millions have self-righteously settled into a certain and fixed opinion on one side or other of disputed matters that are simply indecipherable on the basis of the evidence as yet made public.  One of the features of the PBS “News Hour” on Fridays is “Brooks and Shields”--a conversation between a “liberal pundit” (Mark Shields) and a “conservative pundit” (David Brooks) concerning the week’s news.  These conversations usually differ markedly in tone from the standard cable shouting matches by being intelligent, civil, and even on occasion witty.  On Friday Ramesh Punnuru (pinch hitting for for the regular “conservative,” David Brooks) said this: “One of the things that's most dismaying about this entire debate is that almost everybody's views about what did or didn't happen thirty-six years ago line up perfectly with what they think ought to happen to Roe v. Wade now.”

That remark took me aback for about a second and a half, until it sunk in that the man had nailed it.  The briefest moment of further thought led me to perceive that the statement would probably hold true for the whole of the current “confirmation hearings” and most other hearings I have observed in the last two decades.  What everybody is trying to confirm is not the nominee but what they already believe about the nominee.  And even though I make no claims to clairvoyance, I already knew at that moment that an inevitable “second accuser” must even now be waiting in the wings.  By Monday she had appeared in the digital pages of the Journal of Sexual Archaeology, better known as The New Yorker.

For the boy is father to the man, and a mere few weeks distance the prep school senior from the college freshman—in this instance, preppy pawing from fresher flashing.  This time the victim was a female Yale classmate who, though very pious, had unwisely joined with the nominee and others in a drinking game.  The story is too gross to repeat in a family blog.  But it is an ill wind that blows no one any good, and the reported episode has already catapulted the New York Post into the front-runner’s position in this year’s national competition for the “Most Dubious Single Journalistic Sentence of the Year” Award. “‘That’s not a real penis,’ the devout Catholic recalled thinking”.  

As a medievalist, most of what I know about the recalled thinking of devout Catholic girls comes from my professional readings in the autobiographies of notable nuns—as, for instance, the celebrated autobiography of Teresa of Avila.  That’s a really long book, and I’ve read it twice without finding anything half so arresting.  And, please, do not accuse me of making light of serious matters, or of failing to “listen”.   I would think that the prose of the New York Post is pretty risible even if we weren’t threatened by constitutional crisis.  Facing the relentless and long-term coarsening of our political culture—in the 1991 Judiciary Committee hearings the star turn involved not dildos but pubic hair on a Coke can, you may recall—the two viable choices are laughing and weeping.  It’s a tough call, perhaps, but I have to opt for the prospect of the better health outcomes associated with the former.

Partisan political passion, which we see displayed before us in nearly equal opposing force on a Senate committee, is among the most powerful stimulants of confirmation bias.  So, in another way, is my own long experience as a Princeton college master, which left me convinced that serious incidents of student sexual misbehavior are so closely connected with alcohol abuse that it is pedantic to regard them as separate issues.  Unfortunately the adjudication of such episodes sometimes fades into the blur from which they emerged.  So far, the signs in Washington are not good.  “The Democrats are working hard to destroy a wonderful man,” says the President. “I believe Dr. Blasey Ford,” says Senator Gillibrand, “because she’s telling the truth.”  These statements are, respectively, a partisan political opinion and a grammatically meaningless tautology.

I accept on faith the social science findings that false accusations of sexual assault are rare.  But if they never happened at all the Trustees of Duke University would not have had to pay out millions in damages to defamed members of an athletic team.  The Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax—swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the “quality” press and fanned by the ideological passions of prominent university professors and administrators—was an orgy of confirmation bias.  Nor could have Sabrina Erdely’s disgraceful essay “A Rape on Campus,” a grotesque Gothic fiction purportedly illustrating a national campus “rape culture” as evidenced at the University of Virginia, been welcomed to the pages of a once-respected journal of contemporary culture.

I think we can count on our politics remaining foul however this episode ends, as it must do soon.  We might be spared a little national embarrassment by going slow on the premature certainty.