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Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz Headshot

Confirmation Bias and the Ethical Demands of Argumentation

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People tend to be one-sided in their perspectives, and this can lead to poor decision making. Confirmation bias is the tendency people have to favor facts or arguments that confirm the beliefs and positions they already hold. The extreme form of this bias is referred to as "belief perseverance" when people hold onto their beliefs even after they've been proven false. Often it is due to wishful thinking or an inability to alter one's emotional attachment to an idea. In daily life as citizens and as religious people, this tendency is destructively blinding, and we must work to combat it.

A group of Stanford psychologists showed that subjects maintained their positions on capital punishment regardless of the evidence provided to them. Typically, higher standards are set for evidence that runs counter to one's current position; this corresponding tendency is called disconfirmation bias.

In addition, confirmation bias can be reinforced by only exposing oneself to media that repeat these opinions (and even distortions or discredited conspiracy theories). A 2010 study reported on their poll of Americans to determine their opinions on certain issues and where they got their news. Those who watched Fox News (known for its host and attendant partisan bias) regularly had more distorted views of reality than those who watched or read other media. For example, among all viewers, Fox watchers were the most likely to subscribe to these demonstrably false views:

• 63 percent believed that the stimulus package created no tax cuts (in reality, a third of the stimulus was devoted to tax cuts for businesses)
47 percent believed that the $700 billion bank bailout known as TARP was passed under President Obama (it was passed under President Bush in 2008)
31 percent percent more likely to doubt that President Obama was born in the United States (the disproven "Birther" conspiracy), and 30 percent more likely to believe that most scientists did not believe in climate change (scientists are virtually unanimous in this belief), versus other viewers.

This bias reached absurd lengths on election day, 2012. When it was confirmed that President Obama had been reelected, many Republicans refused to believe it because numerous Fox commentators had guaranteed that Republican Mitt Romney would win. (Romney himself had not even written a concession speech.) Fox commentator (and long-time Republican strategist) Karl Rove embarrassed himself on-air by denying that Obama had won, and another newscaster literally walked him down to an analysis room where he had to be reassured that Obama had definitely won (Obama won the electoral college by 332-206, a decisive margin of victory). This was a case of someone continuing to believe his own partisan wishes rather than evidence in front of his face.

In education, engaging in argument can help ensure the development of what has been called a "two-sided" versus "one-sided" approach (Baron, 1990; Nussbaum, 2008; Stanovich, and West, 2007; Wolfe and Britt, 2008). A two-sided argument addresses the opposing or counter-argument, rather than just making the argument to support one position. It is crucial for more nuanced argument skills that students learn to engage in evidence-based argumentation where they can provide a claim which is supported by evidence or reasons that support the claim in a principled way.

Yet even teachers may also have difficulty explaining how evidence can be applied in high level argumentative reading and writing (Kuhn, 2005; Langer, 1992; Langer and Applebee, 1987). Many have claimed that most teachers are unprepared to provide instructional support and facilitation for learning argument skills (Applebee, 1991; Hillocks 1999, 2008, 2010; Langer, 1992; Langer and Applebee, 1987; Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008). It is important that we let the evidence determine our thesis rather than let our thesis determine the evidence presented.

Where would we be if medical diagnoses were predetermined in the medical provider's mind rather than through a differential diagnosis that evaluated all the data and systematically ruled out medical conditions until the correct diagnosis was arrived at? Those who take absolutist positions while ignoring evidence pose a danger to society. Consider a study about jurors:

Certainty about verdict choice was associated with the ability to discount alternative verdicts and generate counterarguments against one's own verdict choices, although perhaps not as one might expect. Those absolutely certain were the least likely to demonstrate these skills that involve the ability to consider multiple verdicts and match evidence with different verdict choices, whereas those with high confidence but not absolute certainty were the most likely to have these skills (Weinstock, 2009).

Being absolutely certain about positions is a barrier to critical thinking and full consideration of all facts and evidence. This is an intellectual virtue that the Jewish tradition values and commends. Jewish law mandates that we see the Torah from all perspectives: "Turn it around and examine it for everything is in it" (Pirke Avot 5:22). There were many Talmudic arguments between two ideological camps (the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, for example). The Talmud says that while "both are the living words of G-d," that Hillel's positions are the ones accepted as authority. The reason given is because they studied the words of Shammai and even quoted them first when presenting their own positions (Eruvin 13b).

Challenging our own evidence with evidence from the other side not only keeps us intellectually honest and furthers our argument skill development, it also ensures that we have the humility to move from absolutist positions to more evidence-based evaluative positions. The Jewish community cannot afford to fall victim to an unhealthy civil discourse and should model balanced, open-minded, humble argumentation and learning.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."