The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, May 19, 2008


A few posts back, I posted a link to a story about a substitute teacher who had performed a magic trick and been fired for wizardry. If you are curious, the link is here:

Well, Surprise, surprise, the story wasn't quite kosher:

Which leads me to an interesting topic - the confirmation bias.

The confirmation bias is the tendency for us to accept information that agrees with what we already believe to be true, while ignoring disconfirming evidence. We all tend to be very good at seeing this when other people are doing it - when someone else thinks that a particular politician is far more honest and honorable than their record indicates, when someone is convinced that a particular group conforms to dubious stereotypes, when someone believes a crackpot hypothesis about how the world works in the face of devastating evidence otherwise (such as that the world is flat or that disease X is a result of a government conspiracy), and so on. It's not so easy to see the confirmation bias when we are the ones being biased.

I know plenty of people who believe that "Intelligent" Design is scientifically valid, that homeopathy (not to be confused - as it often is - with naturopathy or herbalism, which sometimes works) actually works, that homosexuals choose to be that way (and are therefore sinners deserving to be punished, and not simply different people), that any particular political or economic system (communism, capitalism, democracy, oligarchy, anarchy, etc.) will work flawlessly and solve all of our woes, that the only predictor of wealth is hard work and that circumstances beyond the individual's control have nothing to do with it, that Keanu Reeves is a good actor, and so on and so forth. And these are smart people, for the most part, not given to foolishness as a general rule. Yet, they believe these very ridiculous things. Why?

Well, that brings us back to the wizard teacher. It's ridiculous story on its face, and I should have had my suspicions aroused by the very silliness of the entire thing. Why didn't I?

Simple - I look around myself and see people not only espousing beliefs that seem rather odd to me, but trying to force those beliefs on others. Whether it be people trying to force creationism into science classes, raising my insurance premiums by pressuring insurance companies to pay for therapies and procedures that do not work or are less effective than cheaper procedures, trying to amend the constitution to enforce bigotry based on superstition, or trying to pressure bookstores and libraries into not carrying books that they think or "sacrilegious".

So, when I hear about a teacher being fired for "wizardry" after showing students a simple magic trick, that fits in with my view of my fellow humans. So, even though the story is clearly loopy, I fell for it. It confirmed my bias, and I didn't bother to look deeper. But I should have.

And, in the end, this is the only way that we can deal with the confirmation bias - to be aware that it exists, and to admit when we have been had by people peddling a false story that fits our world view.

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