Confirmation Bias and the Ethical Demands of Argumentation

 Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz writes : 

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.”

33 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias and the Ethical Demands of Argumentation

  1. So Wazza just wants to give up on arguing anything and make a blanket statement that Fox viewers and/or conservative theologians refuse to look at evidence? I guess it’s a lot easier.

    Maybe some people just honestly believe what they believe. I think many Republicans were absolutely naive about the last election. Not only Rove, but several people I knew thought that Obama would lose easily. But an effect of that was that a lot of people unhappy with Obama just didn’t go to vote. (Many countries don’t have compulsory voting). So many political pundits got it wrong. This article was just a hit piece against Fox news and conservatives.

    I don’t usually copy and paste, but the article below has some interesting statistics which show exactly the point I want to make.”

    Regardless of the evidence there are many died in the wool liberals who just wanted to attack Bush for everything and are silent when it comes to Obama. And regardless of the evidence, some fundamentalist -left wing people just can’t seem to accept that Bush didn’t order and purposely demolish the twin towers.

    “Fully 35 percent of Democrats believe George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fully 28 percent of Republicans believe Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

    Meet the fanatical third.

    The tale of two conspiracy theories is the tale of the most polarized among us. The two statistics are based on a poll apiece. Neither is an exact measure. Yet, lots of liberals say take the “birther” poll on face value. Lots of conservatives say take the “truther” poll on face value. So let’s listen to both sides.

    The unsurprising conclusion: you can’t reason with arch partisans.

    On Friday, I published a post wondering why the mainstream media was paying exponentially more attention to the “birther” movement now. The 2008 campaign ended about eight months ago, after all.

    The recent obsession over this fringe topic effectively blends conservatives with a fringe belief. The end result, the media has been making conservatives look like kooks.

    That’s because they are, according to many liberals who emailed me last Friday. The polar camp, the “birthers,” sent me an even larger onslaught of emails; many were infuriated that I had inferred they were kooks.

    The liberal emailers were armed with a poll. The Daily Kos, the mega-activist liberal blog, commisioned a Research 2000 poll that was coincidently also published last Friday. The poll reported that only 42 percent of Republicans believe Obama was born in the United States, while 30 percent were unsure and 28 percent said he was born elsewhere.

    Most striking, there was a broad similarity between that result and a Rasmussen poll taken in the spring of 2007. That poll found that only 39 percent of Democrats believed W. Bush did not have advance knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while 26 percent said they were unsure and slightly more than one third of Democrats believed W. Bush knew his country was going to be attacked.

    “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” was the title of historian Richard Hofstadter’s famous Sixties essay. “I call it the paranoid style,” he wrote, because “no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

    Most conspiracy theorists’ fidelity is to theory, not truth. They tend to uphold a belief despite the facts. The possible, however improbable, trumps the logical. And it’s futile to attempt to disprove their belief. It’s like debating with those who believe the world is flat.

    But about one third of Democrats and Republicans want to believe the world is flat, metaphorically speaking. Perhaps it’s that simple. Or, do these questions really serve as nets that capture extreme partisans?

    Consider that southerners are most likely to believe Obama was born abroad. Northeasterners are least likely. The former is the most conservative region, the latter is the most liberal. And it’s no coincidence that nearly all Democrats believe Obama was born in the United States and nearly all Republicans believe W. Bush had no prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.

    The disparate treatment of the two conspiracy theories is unmistakable. More Democrats fell into the “truther” camp than Republicans fall into the “birther” camp. But the mainstream media has covered the “birther” poll far more vigorously. It’s easy to understand, unless one is invested in the opposing camp, why these incongruities irk the political right.

    But the poll results stir up larger questions concerning our polarization. Neither party can wholly disavow their fanatical fringe. That fringe could, one might wager, be anywhere between a fifth to two-fifths of both major parties. And that means, this fringe is endemic to our politics.

    The culprits of our polarization are many. Between 1960 and 2005, one study found that ideological activist groups of all political persuasions increased sevenfold.

    Gerrymandering of congressional districts has maximized liberals in liberal districts and conservatives in conservative districts. This has left our congress-people more polarized.

    Today, conservatives and liberals can join vacation tours attended by only their side of the debate or join dating services to court only the like minded. At night, one side watches only MSNBC and the other side only Fox News. And when people are around likeminded individuals, one study found, their viewpoints only become that much more extreme.

    We are living the result. After his first six months in office, Gallup found that only 23 percent of Republicans approved of Obama. After six months in office, Gallup found that only 28 percent of Democrats approved of W. Bush. Now travel back four to five decades.

    After six months in office, 60 percent of Republicans approved of John F. Kennedy. After six months in office, 51 percent of Democrats approved of Richard Nixon. And lest we forget, Nixon and Kennedy both won by less than a percentage point.

    We are ever more polarized today and so may be the conspiracies. The less each base understands the other side perhaps the more outlandish the theories become, in order explain the hold of the other side.

    A few years ago, an Emory psychologist scanned the brains of self-described partisans. Partisans were able to notice the hypocritical statements of the opposing candidate but not the inconsistencies of their preferred candidate. Ideology, it was determined, showed effects similar to drug addiction.”

  2. I see it on both sides.

    And probably it has gotten worse since the internet. People choose not only what their source of news is, but the websites they do their “research” on is also skewed.

    For what it’s worth, I agree that it’s a good idea to read and examine both sides, but I hardly know anyone who does that.

    Except for my own magnanimous self.

  3. “Typically, higher standards are set for evidence that runs counter to one’s current position; this corresponding tendency is called disconfirmation bias.”

    That’s obviously true, but it holds for everyone. Even if it’s just about whether your mother-in-law is a dragon or not, or whether Billy would make a good husband for your princess.

  4. Not all of those who believe in the Bush 911 conspiracy theory are leftists.

    A lot of them are just antigovernment.

  5. That’s definitely true.

    Re-read the article again. I never said “all”. The article used statistics, so I thought I’d point out that there are people like that on the other side too.

    Every survey I have seen, shows that higher numbers of left-leaning/Democrats believe in the 9/11 conspiracy. As was in the above article. It never said “all those who believe” are leftists either. Maybe you don’t realise it, but you just became “evidence” of this phenomena.

    So it’s not a case of right-wingers/fox viewers being allergic to evidence.

    Most people have a believe and then look for evidence to support it.
    It’s universal.

    Also, remember that the good Rabbi is left-leaning, supportive of gay marriage, friend of the White House, and Wazza got the article of Huffington Post.

    Not sure if you know much about Huffington Post, but there probably aren’t that many Foxnews fans there.

    PS. just read your post. There you have it don’t you. Some people are anti-government. SO they tend to look for any evidence they can find to show that the govt is lying, and almost can’t believe the govt is telling the truth. It’s a position they hold.

    But, there are more “truthers” among Democratic voters.

    They may be right, or wrong – but it’s their base position.

    It’s like arguing whether Queensland or NSW start more fights.

  6. So was the assassination of JFK. It could be that a lone crazy guy shot him with two bullets from 80 metres away and then was in turn shot by another crazy guy before they could question him.

    And then another crazy guy shot his brother.

    Or there could be something more to it. Like the fact that Kennedy was planning the assasination of Castro at the time. Or that his Dad promised the Mafia that the government would go easy on them without telling Jack or Bobby who were doing a crackdown on organised crime.

  7. “Do Americans know that there is a world outside of the US? Has anyone told them?”

    Yes they do. Most of them have someone in their families who died saving Australia’s and the UK’s butts!

    If not for America, Australians would be speaking Japanese, and the Poms would be saying Heil Hitler when they answer the phone.

  8. Sorry to disappoint, Q, but I wasn’t fighting you, just making the observation from this and a few other US provided articles that the emphasis is almost entirely on the US. It’s the same with many US books on Biblical subjects. It seems to be about ‘Biblical prophecy for America’. But I do acknowledge their strength when they did enter the World Wars. If only they’d entered before they were pushed.

  9. Well, sorry to disappoint you all too – but really, Australia just isn’t as much on the international scene as you may think.

    Probably many people don’t know who the Prime Minister is, many people don’t know the capital city, and many Japanese don’t even know they fought Australians. They think it was just them and America. Australia basically makes the news when there are fires and floods.
    And don’t tell Bones, but hardly anyone has heard of a game called rugby league. And tell many people about Australia and rugby and they’ll say “Oh yeah, the All Blacks!”

    As for not entering wars earlier – I think that was a great thing. America wasn’t interested in fighting other peoples wars. But look at it back then. Right after ww2 everyone loved the US.

    Then decades later the US has been haunted by the concept that they should have gone in earlier – so they do. And the result? There is so much anti-american feeling, and they get themselves involved in places they know nothing about.

    Greatest country the world has ever seen.

  10. Pretty sure the US didnt beat vietnam.

    And its education and health care systems are rubbish.

    And gridiron baseball and basketball suck.

    Id rather live here.

  11. If by greatest you mean most military powerful or even economically powerful, then that is unquestionable.

    If you mean any other measure of greatness, then I’d have to disagree. Australia is greater in terms of overall living standards and equity.

    How do we know that there isnt some small country in Central Asia that is greater than the US in some other aspect? You would have to survey all the countries in the world on every possible attribute. Maybe we could get that Social Scientist who did the study on the effects of “Conversionary Protestant” missionaries to do the study, but it would take him another 10 years and he wouldn’t get funded unless he came up with the correct answer.

  12. ” They would have won if they let them win.”

    Yeah, seemed to have a hard time knocking off a bunch of backward villagers and leaving with their tail between their legs.

    What the US should have done was sacrifice even more sons of poor people and blacks for some god knows what reason.

  13. Bones, my original point was to Steve saying that the US was better off when it was reluctant to go to war.

    Vietnam would be an example of what I mean.

    But if you want to talk about Vietnam beating the US? Okay so Vietnam is amazing. Do you want to say that Vietnam defeated the US and Australia too?

    I was kidding about Rambo. Except that obviously the US wouldn’t have lost in an all out war.

    But that’s beyond dispute.

  14. My uncle was in Vietnam.

    The Vietnamese kicked out the French even though the French had superior equipment, technology and training..

    Vietnam wasn’t Normandy or the Western Front where mass technology enabled the US to defeat a better trained enemy (who were getting their arses majorly kicked on the Eastern Front) in static front lines and where they were welcomed as liberators.

  15. The Phillippine-American War is a dark stain on US history as well.

    Btw kudos to any country that didn’t want to get involved in WW1 to prop up ailing empires and colonial powers.

  16. Most countries have their dark stains.
    Even Australia.

    As for Vietnam, I know vets too.
    Also know people who fled on boats after being sent to reeducation camps and knowing their kids had no career hopes.

    America misread the situation, but
    the Vietcong were no angels.

  17. “The Phillippine-American War is a dark stain on US history as well.”

    And yet the Phillipines and the US have a great relationship.

    Same with Germany and Japan.

  18. If you kill all the people who dont like you, you tend to get a high approval rating amongst the survivors.

    Its funny how that happens…

  19. Wazza if that comment was re the US and Germany/Japan then you are even more of an off the planet extremist than I thought!

    You belong in a treetop commune!
    You could play the long haired guy on the Young Ones.

  20. I was thinking more of the Philippines, but the US after roundly beating Germany and Japan had a fairly free hand in reconstructing those societies.

    They did a pretty good job really but it dosent justify the wars.

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