Everyone suffers, to some degree or another, from confirmation bias. That is:
the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.
The Wall Street Journal’s recent article, A Magician’s Best Trick: Revealing a Basic Human Bias, offers an entertaining example of confirmation bias in action. Confirmation bias is a basic human frailty, but it is a manageable frailty. As the WSJ author suggests, it is important to think critically about whether you’re only intermittently thinking critically.
Once you begin to look for confirmation bias–in yourself and others–you’ll realize just how commonplace it really is. And how easy it is to succumb, accidentally, to our own biases. Cranks and charlatans routinely take advantage of confirmation biases to support their claims. For example
- Conspiracy theorists often interpret lack of evidence of a conspiracy as evidence of cover-up of the conspiracy.
- Anti-vaccination cranks interpret examples of healthy, unvaccinated people as evidence of ineffectual or unnecessary vaccines. They disregard the possibility that this is evidence of the effectiveness of the herd immunity within a predominately vaccinated population.
You don’t have to be a victim of a crank or charlatan to fall victim to your own confirmation biases. Scientists for example, go to great lengths to design blinded experiments, specifically to reduce the opportunities for confirmation bias affecting their results.
Confirmation Bias and Prayer
Still a man hears
What he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
–Simon & Garfunkel
There is one area where confirmation bias rules supreme: the power of prayer. There have been study after study looking at the efficacy of prayer. And study after study has failed to produce compelling evidence that prayer works. Yet the faithful routinely disregard these studies while citing anecdotal evidence that prayer works. E.g.: A sick person is prayed for and they get well. A parking place is prayed for and one is found–even at a particularly popular event. Employment is prayed for and a job is found.
The video above was posted by L.A and N.Y based fashion & lifestyle magazine Obvious, with the caption:
#MustSee Prayer in numbers and power of Prayer. Wow!
The video shows a dangerous tornado approaching a community who begin praying emphatically to turn the storm away. Lo and behold, the storm dissipates. As it does, the prayers are replaced with shouts of “Power of God! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you for the miracle!”
Is a prayer-inspired miracle the only possible explanation for this storm dissipating? No. Storms, in general, do dissipate. In fact, storms dissipate all the time. Might this particular storm have dissipated had there been no prayers? Of course. There is nothing “miraculous” about a storm dissipating–including this storm.
But the people in this video very strongly wanted this particular storm to dissipate. They prayed for it to dissipate and it did dissipate. Thus, these events are, in fact, consistent with what we might expect to see if prayer actually works. However, they are also consistent with what we might expect to see if prayer does not work.
Why then might one choose to conclude that this video shows the power of prayer to produce a miracle? Why not choose to conclude that this video shows the typical, natural dissipation of a storm?
As Simon & Garfunkel put it so beautifully in The Boxer:
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest