It seems to be quite clear to me at least that we all have a tendency to see whatever it is that we want to see. If I really like Ben Shapiro (which I do), I am going to have a tendency to favor his interpretation of a particular event. If I really do not like Ben Shapiro (many people do not), they are going to have that same tendency in the opposite direction to disagree with his interpretation of a particular event. Psychologists refer to this as confirmation bias, and it is a powerful force in all areas of our lives. We know certain things, and that prior knowledge colors our perception of future events. We want future events to continue reinforcing our own particular worldview, and because of that, we force them into a narrative that they may or may not support.
Obviously, confirmation bias does not always lead to problematic places. If I like Ben Shapiro based on my past impression of him and therefore am predisposed to agree with him in the future, if it turns out that he is right about the future event, then my bias did not cause any problem. Perhaps I ultimately agree with him more strongly than I ought to, but if he is right, then there’s no dilemma about me coming to the right conclusion.
The problem emerges for those who do not like him and have an opposing worldview. If he is right, his interpretation of a situation collides with the people of an opposite persuasion who would be predisposed to disbelieve what he says. This is not confirming their worldview, so they have a degree of tension. They cannot simultaneously affirm what he says is true while holding on to their own worldview. If confirmation bias is active, then most likely, these people are going to ignore Shapiro when he is right. That is the typical response to contradictory information when we allow our confirmation bias to get in the way.
Avoiding Confirmation Bias
There is another option however. We are able to modify our own worldview to include this new piece of information. Hypothetically, let’s say that there is a person who has never agreed with Ben Shapiro in his life. This guy is a perfect candidate to succumb to his confirmation bias and just ignore Shapiro’s commentary this time. However, he may be able to expand his worldview to include the fact. While he certainly would by no means be considered a Ben Shapiro supporter, his commitment to truth and recognizing the truth no matter where it comes from overcomes the degree to which his perspective is distorted by confirmation bias.
That is the hard part for every one of us. We get so attached to our ideas and are so heavily impacted by our confirmation bias, and we reject things that we really should not reject. That’s the problem. Obviously, we want to reject that which is false, but we end up rejecting things that are actually true and are only false in our worldview which was incorrect.
I was thinking about this idea of confirmation bias while I was reading Manalive by G.K. Chesterton. The entire premise of this book is that a rather mysterious man, Innocent Smith, comes to town and starts doing crazy things. He quite frankly seems to be insane, and as a result, ends up being put on trial to justify his actions. What appeared to everyone else as crazy was actually done for a good purpose. Upon explanation, everything made a lot more sense, but when viewed from the wrong perspective, Smith himself appeared to be a menace to society.
While he is being defended near the end of the book, it becomes evident that our confirmation bias can cause us to read certain things into a situation that are actually not there in the first place. “There is nothing wicked about firing a pistol off even at a friend, so long as you do not mean to hit him and know you won't. It is no more wrong than throwing a pebble at the sea— less, for you do occasionally hit the sea.” This example may seem to be ridiculous, but firing a pistol with no chance of hitting anything is not even reckless endangerment. It is not reckless because clearly, the shooter has full control of his faculties. He is not trying to shoot anyone and is specifically making the decision to miss. It is similarly not endangerment. The shooter knows that he is not going to hit anyone. Some may obviously question whether or not anyone can truly know they are not going to shoot someone in real life, but keep in mind that this is a thought experiment here talking about fictional characters. Don’t lose the point that Chesterton is trying to convey them by getting wrapped up in the fact that Innocent Smith is a perfect shot who is good enough to know when he is going to hit and when he is going to miss with 100% accuracy.
Chesterton’s main contention here is that we always make assumptions that shooting a firearm is going to be bad. We assume that someone must have nefarious purposes for doing so, but there can be multiple motivations for pulling the trigger, and some of them might not be bad whatsoever. Think about the difference between firing a pistol to hunt for food and firing a pistol to murder someone. Fundamentally, they may very well be the same action, but one has terrible consequences while the other does not. What would be inappropriate would be to automatically conclude that every pistol shot is either good or bad. If our worldview assumes that every shot is bad, we are going to get awfully upset at a huge population of hunters (and some people certainly do, but that is beside the point). On the other hand, if our worldview assumes that every shot is good, we will be in the uncomfortable position of assuming that a lot of violent acts are good.
The problem comes when we preemptively make assumptions about discrete, individual actions. Chesterton goes on to say, “You associate such acts with blackguardism by a mere snobbish association, as you think there is something vaguely vile about going (or being seen going) into a pawnbroker's or a public-house. You think there is something squalid and commonplace about such a connection. You are mistaken.” The associations that we make are the problem as we try to understand what the problem actually is or if perhaps there was even a problem in the first place.
I intentionally opened up this article by discussing a rather controversial political commentator. Like I said, I do happen to agree with a lot of what Ben Shapiro says, but many people do not. They may not like him because he is conservative, defends Judeo-Christian values, supports Israel or a plethora of other reasons. However, confirmation bias becomes a problem when they automatically reject Shapiro’s position on Judeo-Christian values because they disagree with his position on Israel.
Just like each individual shot fired from a pistol, some can be used for good purposes while others can be used for evil. Shapiro might be right about some things and wrong about others, but his rightness or wrongness about one issue has very little impact on his rightness or wrongness about another. He might be wrong about Israel and right about Judeo-Christian values. It could be just the opposite. He might be wrong about both, or he might be wrong about neither. Any of those situations are potentially possible, and as people who are committed to seeking truth, we need to do what we can to try and find out which situation is true.
This is a problem on a few levels that we have to address. For one thing, it takes a lot of time to go through this process. I think that is why it is so easy for us to fall into this tendency towards caving to confirmation bias. It is a lot easier for me to listen to Ben Shapiro, hear him talk about abortion, like his position (which I definitely do) and automatically conclude that everything he says must be right. After all, if he is right about something that is so important, why can’t I trust him on everything else?
The reason is simple according to Chesterton. We cannot assume association. Things very well may be associated, but they very well might not be. To make the assumption that Ben Shapiro is right about everything because he is right about one topic is foolhardy. However, it is a lot easier because I only have to evaluate him based on one issue. That is the temptation of course, but it is one we have to avoid.
There is even a Biblical precedent for this type of healthy skepticism. In the book of Acts, we hear about the Christians in Berea. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11, NIV). They were checking the Scripture every day. They didn’t just assume that Paul was right on the seventh day because he was right on the first six. They remained diligent because it mattered. In the same way, for us, truth matters. We cannot get lazy or complacent based on reputation or preconceived notions.
The second objection I imagine that you might have to this rejection of association is that it feels a little bit too much like David Hume. For those of us in the Christian community, he is kind of like that odd kid in high school who you don’t want to get too close to because you know that you’re going to get in trouble if you do. Hume of course rejected cause and effect which is slightly different than rejecting association. Chesterton did not deny cause and effect (although in Orthodoxy, he certainly did hypothesize about a world that was not bound by that law), but in this passage he is outright rejecting making conclusions about certain things based on conclusions about related things. Consequently, we want to make conclusions between like things rather than about different albeit related things. If you feel like Chesterton is getting a little bit too close to an outright rejection of cause and effect, do not fear. He is not condemning us to radical doubt. Rather, he is just reminding us that we don’t want to jump to conclusions about anything based on the evidence about potentially related but not identical causes. Again, each gunshot needs to be evaluated based on its own merits and its own intentions. It doesn’t matter very much about other, similar gunshots.
Ultimately, confirmation bias is a dangerous thing, but G.K. Chesterton provides an important counterbalance to our world that is so heavily influenced by confirmation bias that we don’t even realize it is influencing us anymore. We need to remember, no matter how time-consuming or difficult it may be, to continually evaluate ideas on their own merits. Because, at the end of the day, any one of us can be wrong. Any human ideas may fall short. I think we all experientially understand that. No one is perfect, so it is ridiculous for us to assume that our own worldview is perfect. We may have things wrong.
Fear Not! I'm not Abandoning Christianity
I know this may make my particularly Christian audience nervous. After all, am I suggesting that our Christian worldview is somehow deficient? By no means. In fact, I am so confident in its sufficiency that I think it can stand up to all the questioning we can throw at it. We don’t need to simply succumb to our confirmation bias and just disregard pieces of evidence that don’t seem to be compatible with the Christian worldview. We don’t need to be intellectually lazy. Instead, we can ask the hard questions and do our homework. I have yet to find a way in which the Christian worldview does not correspond with reality. However, there are things that I may not understand, and I would be lying to you if I said I understood everything about God perfectly. I do not. Therefore, even this process of challenging my own worldview can help me in my faith and help me understand the ways of God better.
Let me give you a brief example that may help illustrate my point. For most of my life, when I thought about the difficult parts of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about gouging out your own eye or cutting off your own hand, I will admit that I took this passage pretty figuratively. I thought Jesus was largely exaggerating to prove a point. However, I really did not find this to be consistent with the way I understand the rest of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. You can see the tension here resulting from my confirmation bias. I had a particular interpretation in my mind, but my general theological rules began to interfere with that. I could ignore my general theological rules in this context and succumb to my confirmation bias. Since it didn’t fit into my framework of understanding this verse, I could just look the other way and ignore the problem.
I had to evaluate these verses on their own merits. I didn’t just want to assume either understanding was automatically right. I ultimately came around to changing my theological understanding of these verses as a matter of fact. I do think that Jesus was being quite serious. If the only sin in your life was caused by your eyes, it would be an awful lot better to be blind than to be condemned. This is a quite literal truth, but as Christians, we understand this is not the end of the story, and this gets back to a larger understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Without Jesus Christ, we are hopeless. This audience had no hope based on their own merits, so Jesus was quite right. Because of their sin, they were headed to a very dark place, so it was vital to do whatever they could to avoid sin even if it meant something drastic. That is why the Gospel is good news after all. We do not need to worry about our own merits. God’s grace covers our sin the moment we accept that free gift. Without Jesus Christ, we would have to take drastic measures, and they would ultimately fail. This is not an exaggeration. Without Jesus Christ, we literally ought to do everything we can to avoid sin that would lead to damnation and separation from God even if it seems drastic or unbelievable. Separation from God is that big of a deal.
This is just a brief overview, but you can see how my thought process avoided confirmation bias. I didn’t assume that my prior understanding was correct and automatically reject this new piece of information that perhaps I ought to understand the Sermon on the Mount in a coherent way. I took this piece of information and tried to determine how I could fit them together in the way that most reflected reality. As a result, I had to change my interpretation, and I accepted a fact that did not fit in my worldview before. However, I think my worldview makes more sense now, and that is a good thing.
I was only able to come to this point because I rejected confirmation bias. It is that important if you want to actually think critically about your worldview. Maybe that is why confirmation bias has become so prevalent in 2018. People do not want to think and rather want to feel comfortable in their own ideas.
 G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (Stockbridge, GA: Jim Henry III, 1993), Project Gutenberg, Kindle Locations 2160-2161.
 Ibid., Kindle Locations 2166-2167.