December 2, 2014

1150 words 6 mins read

Why the Evidence Never Mattered

The danger of jumping to conclusions isn’t that you might be wrong. It’s that your brain will be unable to recognize its error.

We’ve all heard of the psychological (or just logical) fallacy of confirmation bias. It’s worth looking at three aspects of confirmation bias from Science Daily:

*1. In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors. *2. Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study. *3. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or under weigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.

In short, confirmation bias leads to error. And confirmation bias in large numbers leads to disaster.

When the CEO of a company jumps to a conclusion (“People want a sweeter, simpler Coke formula,”) their company (and stockholders and employees and customers) feel the pain, but the rest of the world goes on. Lucky for Coke, its leaders abandoned their bias quickly. It helps to have strong data analysts and angry stockholders pointing out your errors.

When large numbers of people jump to a conclusion, things can get much worse. In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, most of the town jumped to the conclusion that a group of women were witches who helped the Devil possess a group of young girls in exchange for supernatural power. One doctor’s diagnosis of “bewitchment” sent the town (and the whole colony) into a frenzy. Eighteen women were hanged that summer. Dozens of others were accused and tried.

What began as convulsions and odd behavior in two young girls became a real-life horror story. Once a person came under suspicion of witchery, their every utterance and action seemed to confirm the accuser’s hypothesis.

It’s okay to form hypotheses. Without hypotheses, we cannot explore and challenge understandings of the world. Hypotheses are the first step in experimentation. Hypothesis formation makes us human.

But forming a hypothesis is just the start. First grade science teaches us to apply the scientific method: observe, form a hypothesis, design and experiment to disprove the hypothesis, record data, publish the results so others can replicate.

Too often, though, people fail to keep open the possibility that their first hunch was wrong. And very few people have the mental discipline to formally test their hypotheses.

On August 9, 2014, a new Salem Witch Hunt began. Only this time, it began in Ferguson, Missouri. This time, two different factions jumped to two mutually exclusive hypotheses.

On the one hand were people fed up with municipalities that have, for decades, treated citizens as suckers in twisted con game. These cities use police and courts to ticket and fine people into poverty and submission. This faction declared a police officer guilty of witchery. And murder.

On the other hand were people fed up with those who perpetually blame others. This faction declared a dead man a thug and criminal who got precisely what he deserved.

At the time these hypotheses were formed, no one except the police officer and one witness knew what actually happened in the Canfield Apartments that day. Yet, lacking any credible evidence or supporting facts, millions of people across America adopted one hypothesis or another. From that moment—about one hour after the incident—most of America **searched for or interpreted information in a way that confirmed their own preconceptions. **And the Ferguson Witch Hunt was on.

Those who jumped to the hypothesis that Michael Brown was murdered by a racist cop refused to consider any data that threatened their belief. They still do.

Those who jumped to the hypothesis that Officer Darren Wilson was nearly killed and valiantly fought off his savage attacker refused to consider any data that threatened their belief. They still do.

In the 90 days between the incident and the release of thousands of pages of physical evidence and autopsies and witness testimony, the two opposing hypotheses only galvanized in people’s minds.

On the one hand, some people believed facts that are physically impossible. One person I know believes that Darren Wilson never got out of his police SUV. Instead, the officer cruised around Canfield Apartments shooting at black people out the window of the vehicle. They believe this—and they will fight you if you challenge them—despite all evidence to the contrary.

On the other hand, friends of mine swore (and some still maintain) that Darren Wilson’s orbital socket was fractured by numerous blows to the head. They based this belief on one false blog post that used a stock photo of a medical x-ray to reinforce the lie. These people believe the fractured eye socket story despite contradictory testimony from the officer himself.

The evidence and testimony released last week mostly discredits those who burned down Ferguson. The evidence largely supports those who believe the police officer acted out of self-defense.

But the evidence is completely irrelevant. Had every shred of physical evidence and every witness testimony corroborated by video and audio taken from seven different angles shown unequivocally that Michael Brown died of wounds from arrows fired from a crossbow by a 91-year-old Abe Vigoda in drag, the two camps would still go to their graves believing what they came to believe within minutes after the incident in August, Abe Vigoda’s tearful, video confession notwithstanding.

What’s worse, I see the same religious zealotry in business, in politics, and in sports. Very few people I know are willing to hold any of their hypotheses up to formal, honest scrutiny. Our society values only those who stand by their opinions. We piss on people who show their weakness by subjecting their own ideas to tests.

As a race of people, we spend our lives trying to PROVE. WE’RE. RIGHT! We are all conspiracy theorists, pointing to every speck of bird crap on the windshield as incontrovertible proof that Elvis and Jim Morrison were the first same-sex couple married in Washington State, “so don’t even tell me the King is dead!”

Over two-thirds of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. This American agrees. And I have an untested, loosely-held hypothesis that one reason we’re on the wrong track is our refusal to consider the possibility that we might be wrong about just one of our untested, loosely-held hypotheses.

Until we, as a society, learn to defend our hypotheses by subjecting them to every challenge imaginable, our cities will continue to burn, our trust in people and institutions will continue to decline, and our country will continue down the wrong tracks.

And the wrong tracks must end in complete destruction.

But, as Dennis Miller says at the end of his glorious rants, that’s just my opinion—I could be wrong.