You’re probably wrong

Thucydides (with a stony-looking expression on his face)

Philosophers have been aware of what we today know as “the confirmation bias” for thousands of years. A Greek by the name of Thucydides (why is it always the Greeks?) first observed the phenomenon as early as 400 BCE, but it was coined in its current form by English psychologist Peter Watson. Dr Watson confirmed that people are far more likely to show a preference for confirmation over a preconceived belief, rather than a falsification. Where the Keynesian sees economic stimulus as evidence of sound economic policy, the Austrian sees it as evidence of reckless economic policy. Where the feminist sees the gender disparity in certain fields as evidence of gender bias, another may see it as evidence of biological gender differences. Not only do we see the world in a way that will reinforce our existing prejudices, but we actively surround ourselves with people who share our beliefs. Take a look at your friends. I’m sure many of them hold very similar political and social opinions to you. This is not an accident, this is human nature. Where am I going with this, you might ask?

Although I currently live in Melbourne, an extremely left-wing city, I have spent a large portion of my life in Perth, a very right-wing city. Especially during the recent federal election, it was amazing to see how the two cities differed in opinion. In Perth, the prevailing attitude was “Kick this mob out, they’re economically reckless, and just want more welfare handouts”. In Melbourne, it was, “We can’t let those racist/sexist/homophobes in power!”. The one similarity, however, was how sure both sides were of their beliefs. How certain each side was that they were “on the right side of history”. How can this be? Surely both can’t be right? Is it really possible that a large portion of Australians (about half) are simply irrational or ignorant? And the other half have managed to see the light? I’m sure some of you are reading this, screaming “YES!”, but I would beg to differ.

The unfortunate thing about politics, religion, morality, or social theory is that they are not hard sciences. One cannot prove there is no God, nor can one prove that women make better parents than men. This is especially true in economics, facetiously known as “the science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today”. The simple truth is that, although you might be right, you also might be wrong. There is nothing that makes you special. Yes, you might be well-read, highly educated, or open-minded, but this won’t give you immunity. I would like to remind you all that, not too long ago, eugenics were highly popular amongst academics … as were centrally planned economies. You should welcome the opportunity to discourse with those who disagree with you. What if you are wrong? I’m sure there are plenty of examples you could think of in your own life, beliefs you previously held that you are now ashamed of. There is nothing wrong with changing your views in the light of new information, yet we often hold an irrational attachment to them. Simply blocking out those who disagree with you and disregarding their (often equally valid) arguments, will lock you in your bubble of ignorance. There is nothing more deleterious to the rational thought process than only discoursing with those who agree with you. So to all those who are reading this, I would encourage you to get out there, read books that differ from your views, converse with friends who voted for the “other” party. Even if you don’t change your mind, at least you can understand where they are coming from, and use it to help your case. Debating with those who agree with you is never constructive, and often damaging, as it provides a false sense of superiority and righteousness. Debating with those who disagree with you, however, will almost always be a constructive experience.

lenny post

Let us, however, assume you have it all figured out. The world would simply be a better place if you were given the reins, the power to change anything and everything. That pesky democracy is merely an obstacle to the utopia you know you can build. If this were the case, if you have it all figured out, I do promise you this: You will never convince anybody of your opinion through insults and ad hominem. Yes, I know it’s obvious, but why is this something that is still so common? Why do we see insults as acceptable in political discourse? As an (economically) right-wing person, I have never had a shortage of disagreeing opinions in my time at the University of Melbourne, and for that I have been grateful. But the amount of times that insults managed to sneak their way into dinner debates at Janet Clarke Hall was a bit unsettling. Nobody will ever think to themselves “Oh, she called me uneducated, I guess she’s right”, or “Oh, he called me a racist, I guess I should change my view on asylum seekers”. These are not arguments. These are labels we throw on others for the specific purpose of avoiding their arguments. We attempt to take away their credibility of their character so we don’t have to address the credibility of their opinions. Try to avoid this, as not only does it not help your case, but it actively drives them away, and will reinforce their beliefs.

How does all this tie into the confirmation bias? Before undergoing any type of debate, before reading any political, social, economic, or religious commentary, remember that your views have been developed through years and years of confirmation bias. Interpreting the world around you, surrounding yourself with people who agree with you, has all been part of a subconscious effort to reinforce your existing beliefs, your mind telling you how awesome you are. You need to also remember that those who you interact with have similarly gone through years and years of confirmation bias. In conclusion, give them a break. Their ignorance or irrationality, if it does exist, is more a product of human nature rather than any particular wrong-doing on their part.

And most importantly, stop taking yourself so seriously, as you’re probably wrong.