Not too long ago, I entered a discussion in the “off-topic” area of a motorcycle forum I’m a member of. The discussion was on evolution vs. creation. The original poster said he wanted to keep the discussion “civil and scientific” and wanted those who believed in evolution to explain what he thought were some discrepancies in evolutionary theory.
What followed was an extremely long discussion thread, which veered from dispassionate to emotional and back again many times. Not too surprising, I guess, given the subject matter. But a couple of things struck me. The first was the amount of (what appeared to be) scientific evidence cited by BOTH sides of the argument. Much of this evidence was frankly beyond my ability to assess, but there seemed no lack of it, for either side. The second was that no one, of the many tens of people who participated in the thread (myself included), was persuaded to change their view. You might think that all the evidence brought forth over literally hundreds of posts might make someone change their mind, but it did not seem to. Why not?
The question is not a simple one to answer fully. But one thing I observed, which appeared to be a major factor, was that people simply ignored contradictory evidence. A lot of the posts were simply restatements of previous arguments. Other posters seamlessly transitioned to a new argument when evidence against their old one was posted. And no one changed their mind. No one said, “Wow, I didn’t realize X. I guess I was wrong.”
Think about it for a second. Virtually all the information used as source material in this huge, long-running debate came from the Internet. Mountains of information and yet, to the posters on that topic, it only served to confirm what they believed all along.
This is known in psychology as confirmation bias and it rears its head often when information from outside sources is used to buttress arguments, especially on controversial subjects. Think the “Birthers” who question whether U.S. President Obama is a native-born American, or the “Truthers” who question who exactly perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. If you search, you can find lots of information to support their interpretations, and some of it sounds very persuasive, very scientific. But there are two sides to the confirmation bias coin. There’s the reliance on information that confirms your view, but equally important is the dismissing of information that contradicts it.
And it’s this second element that I find most sad. With all the information to be had on the Internet, so many people use it only to confirm what they already knew, instead of using it to challenge what they think they know. After all, (in the words often ascribed to Mark Twain) it ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so!
Comments, as always, are welcome.