Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Confirmation Bias Exposed

I've been slowly working through Michael Shermer's book, The Believing Brain. It's a fascinating read, particularly for anyone with minimal interest in the neuropsychology of belief development. I'll probably write several posts highlighting interesting points from his book. Today I want to share one study he described on confirmation bias, which is our tendency to look for evidence which confirms our preexisting beliefs and ignore disconfirming evidence. We do this all the time. It's useful in detecting frequent patterns, allowing us to act quickly and decisively. Unfortunately, it sometimes leads to unjustified beliefs: just ask the mischievous kid who gets accused of every act of shenanigans the teacher learns about. There are times when that kid is actually minding his own business and working on his assignments!

One interesting study of die hard Republicans and Democrats showed the neurological activity behind confirmation bias:

"during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing a brain scan, thirty men-half self-described "strong" Republicans and half "strong" Democrats-were tasked with assessing statements by both Georg W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments of the candidates, Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own preferred candidate off the evaluative hook. Of course. But what was especially revealing were the neuroimaging results: the part of the brain most associated with reasoning-the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex-was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions, and the anterior cingulate cortex-our old friend the ACC, which is so active in patternicity processing and conflict resolution. Interestingly, once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable, their ventral striatum-a part of the brain associated with reward-became active.

In other words, instead of rationally evaluating a candidate's positions on this or that issue, or analyzing the planks of each candidates' platform, we have an emotional reaction to conflicting data. We rationalize away the parts that do not fit our preconceived beliefs about a candidate, then receive a reward in the form of a neurochemical hit, probably dopamine."

This helps explain how we can look at the same facts as someone else or as our self from one year ago, and reach vastly different conclusions.

When have you realized that your rational argument for something was actually confirmation bias at work?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Anatomy 101

The comments on my last post brought up the frequent misunderstanding that the Genesis account of Eve being created out of Adam's rib explains why men have one fewer ribs than women (which they don't). Even with information readily available on the internet and, hopefully, in basic anatomy classes, the myth persists than men have fewer ribs than women. I thought you might be amused to read this linkfrom yahoo.com where the question about the number of ribs is posed and comments are given by readers.

I also found an interesting article at this site
which suggests a possible source for the Adam and Eve story. There certainly are some interesting similarities between the biblical account and the Mesopotamian myth. I'll quote a section here:

"The image of God fashioning Eve out of Adam's rib may have originated in an ancient legend from Mesopotamia *. After the god Enki ate eight plants belonging to the goddess Ninhursag, she cursed him so that eight parts of his body became diseased. When he was nearly dead, the gods persuaded Ninhursag to help him, and she created eight healing goddesses. The goddess who cured Enki's rib was Ninti, whose name meant "lady of the rib" or "lady of life." In Hebrew mythology, Adam names the woman created from his rib Hawwah, which means "life." The Mesopotamian story probably influenced the Hebrew one, which became the basis for one biblical version of Eve's creation."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Are You The Tooth Fairy?"

Recently, at D'Ma and DagoodS' blogs, there has been discussion of how open to be with others about deconversion or altered religious beliefs. We all make decisions each day about how transparent to be with others. Do we share how we really feel about the dinner our spouse made? Do we admit when we're hurt by some one's comment? Constantly we're weighing the cost/benefit ratio. We ask ourselves what will be gained by telling the truth. We wonder if anyone will be hurt. We ask ourselves if we can handle the repercussions.

Last week, my husband and I faced these questions when our 7-year-old insisted on knowing if we were the tooth fairy. Back at Christmas he began intense questioning about Santa and came very close to adamantly declaring that mom and dad were Santa. At the time, we were able to turn the questions back to him and deflect the matter. This time around, he was not to be easily assuaged. We had previously determined that we would tell him the truth whenever he had clearly reasoned things out and wanted to know the truth, asking us directly. We didn't want him to question his own reasoning abilities. We didn't want to continue long after it quit being a way to infuse magical moments into early childhood when pretend is a powerful way to understand and enjoy the world. Developmentally, my son is just not there anymore. He was using the scientific method to determine whether we were the tooth fairy. Though he is still young, he has outgrown the ability to suspend reality in order to hold onto his belief in Santa. We tested his emotional readiness to hear the news, hoping he might not really want to hear it. We did this by reminding him that the exciting mystery of not knowing exactly what the tooth fairy was like would be gone if we answered his questions. Though he chose not to find out the night the tooth fairy was to come, the next afternoon he let my husband know he was ready for the answer. Though he was saddened to learn that we played the role of the imaginary creatures, he readily agreed to keep quiet for the sake of his younger brother. He was quite proud of his ability to pretend along with the grown ups. Some times really are better than others for being open and honest.

This topic of sharing the truth came up in Sunday school class today when discussing our understanding of God and what we should share of that with others. Our teacher noted that he wouldn't share with college students struggling with their faith what he has learned from recent scientific scholarship about the impossibility of humanity descending from just 2 individuals (thus no literal Adam and Eve). Because this topic is important to me, I sent him an email. Here is a portion of it:

"Also, I was interested in your Adam/Eve comment and your tendency to keep some biblical scholarship to yourself to prevent ruining others' faith. That is a difficult topic and I do sympathize with the desire to protect peoples' faith. However, there is also a way in which we're setting people up to lose their faith by basing it on a misinformed understanding of scripture which mounting evidence in the sciences can easily refute. The more educated the believers are, the more likely their faith is to fall when they have no other framework for understanding the Bible than a literalistic one that can't withstand the scrutiny of biblical criticism, ANE studies, biochemistry, geology, astronomy, etc. Over time, people will become more informed. As you mentioned, there is already a shift in beliefs based on current understandings of our world. I don't know what the answer is, but people do need to get more educated. For myself, I find it increasingly difficult to attend a church which seems to ignore large swaths of academic literature across a variety of disciplines. The fact that we can't admit in class that we accept the scientific consensus that homo sapiens didn't originate from 2 humans really bothers me. I have to hide many of beliefs at church and pretend to be who I was many years ago. I save my theological questions for those few I have found at church and online who are not only educated about the relevant issues but open to considering them from a broader framework. I'm not really expecting anything from you by writing this, I just feel strongly about these issues and feel like you're someone who can tolerate hearing what I'm saying and perhaps be somewhat sympathetic to it. I would never say anything like this in class!"

Telling the truth is a bit like walking a tightrope. Telling it the right way, in the right time, to the right people is an impressive act to watch. Telling it the wrong way can be disastrous! What do you think? What have your experiences been?

Monday, August 8, 2011


Today I've been thinking about impermanence. Today my youngest son started kindergarten. No more toddlers or preschoolers in the home. No more little ones at home to shadow me through the school day. I was a bit nostalgic this morning, reminiscing to my boys about the day the oldest one began kindergarten. Tonight in yoga we were asked to be aware of impermanence throughout our practice as we moved in and out of positions. Every breath, every stretch, every muscle pain, fleeting and temporary. Though some moments seem to last too long, like headstand poses, or for my oldest son, a school day, which lasted "a million years," others fly by when we want to hold on them, like my youngest wanting to hold my hand or kiss me "100 times" before letting me leave him at school. It's such a challenge to breathe through the unpleasant moments, reminding myself that they won't last forever while enjoying the pleasant ones without trying to make them stretch out past their healthy lifespans. My own faith journey has been one of accepting impermanence. Former beliefs exchanged for new ones which may be replaced a year from now. We are not wired to accept impermanence, at least not as adults, which is ironic given the impermanence in which we are steeped. It's a constant challenge for me to rest easy in an awareness of impermanence. What about you? Are there areas where you embrace impermanence?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

As The Worldview Turns

At the last book club meeting I attended, we reviewed the book, "There Is A God" by Anthony Flew. At one point in the discussion, we began to discuss worldview. I described how my Christian worldview no longer fits well with either the data before me or my personal experience. However, the atheist worldview doesn't fit very nicely and neatly either. A friend made an analogy that describes my current state well. It's like recognizing that both quantum physics and Newtonian physics furthers our understanding of the world, despite their conflicting ways of describing the universe, but restlessly looking for some unified theory of everything that integrates all our knowledge and makes the best sense of the world. I really don't have an expectation of developing a satisfyingly complete narrative for the life of the universe, but that won't stop me from continuing to search.

We are wrapped in a worldview by our parents at birth. Typically we understand the world through it, but sometimes it becomes so difficult to do so that we actually stop to examine our worldview rather than examining everything else through it. It can be a perplexing, confusing, and disorienting experience. Our brains hardly know what to do without a way to create narrative out of our experiences. As Michael Shermer has stated, our brains are wired to believe.

I realize that a worldview is exactly what I am seeking. No framework will explain everything, but some will make better sense than others. How to decide? Is it which one explains the most? Or is it which one can explain some vital question? Or should the criteria be more pragmatic, such as which one gives me better quality of life (whatever that exactly means)? How have you decided which world view to adopt? How well does it fit?