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Confirmation Bias and the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham Debate

Lower your pitchforks. This is not a post about origins. Instead it is a post considering the reaction to the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate held on Tuesday, February 4, 2014. I have read dozens of blog posts and news articles which offer interpretations of who won. And I’ve read hundreds of comments on those posts, some of which were snarky, others more fair-minded.

My favorite was the series of comments left by a gentleman on Rachel Held Evans’ thread who jumped into the discussion after admitting that he hadn’t even watched the debate. Classy. Very classy.

The reaction to the debate has provided an almost textbook example of confirmation bias. What is confirmation bias?

“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. Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study. 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. As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence.” (From Science Daily)

In case it’s important to you, I don’t yet know where I stand on the age of the earth. I’m a creationist who believes that a Christian can sincerely hold to a wide spectrum on this particular issue. But since I grew up in a Bible cult where the pastor practiced information control, religious brainwashing, and confirmation bias, I have evolved antennae which vibrate when I hear selective evidence and name-calling used as battering rams against critical thinking. This doesn’t make me unbiased or objective—I too have a preferred worldview and tend to give undue weight to facts which seem to support it—but it does make me more aware of this tendency when I read about it in newspapers or in blog posts.

nye_ham_debateI watched the entire debate, including the Q&A session, and took ten pages of notes. And what I have observed generally in the reaction to the debate by the blogosphere and major media (there are exceptions, of course) is a selective hooding of information when it disagrees with the particular author or journalist’s worldview. This makes me deeply suspicious of their conclusions.

It also beautifully illustrates why Ham and Nye could work with the same data and come to very different interpretations. After all, if we all watched the same debate made up of actual words and phrases and claims and counterclaims—raw data available by watching the video or reading a transcript—and yet some bloggers only cite Nye’s use of scientific data while others only cite Ham’s, that shows that raw data may be manipulated and interpreted to create the result we desire. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is confirmation bias.

Missed Opportunities?

Many bloggers have criticized Nye and Ham for “missing opportunities” to present compelling data for their assertions. Or they have cited instance after instance of their chosen champion’s use of facts and then have only cited their hated opponent’s use of silly jokes (both Nye and Ham), appeals to biblical authority (Ham), or failure to answer fundamental questions as to the origin of matter (Nye). The most popular theme has been to decry the debate as a Science vs. Religion travesty. It wasn’t. It was a battle between worldviews where both men offered scientific data for their worldview but disagreed on the matter of authority and interpretation.

Based only on the facts presented in the debate, both Nye and Ham presented evidence for their theory of origins. Both gave rebuttals to several of the other’s claims regarding facts, and both failed to rebut several claims.

To reduce this to a Religion vs. Science debate and then selectively quote Nye’s use of fossil skulls, tree rings, speciation, and ice layers, while failing to quote Ham’s evidence of ice-entombed planes, basalt-entombed wood, and his references to astrophysics, genetics, and hydrology, represents a glaring example of confirmation bias. Equally, bloggers or journalists who make Nye seem silly by only quoting his admissions of ignorance in regard to the origins of matter or consciousness, or by showing how poorly he understands biblical textual criticism, while ignoring his reference to tiktaalik or ice cores or fossil skulls, also show their confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias: only selecting the evidence that fits your presuppositions, and masking or ignoring any evidence that confronts it or would cause you to question your worldview.

Conclusion

Both Ham and Nye can’t be right. One (or both) is fabulously wrong. And there were other interpretive frameworks which were not given a place at the table at all.

But when bloggers or reporters self-righteously criticize Ham or Nye and then proceed to give undue weight to certain evidence and completely ignore conflicting evidence, they are guilty of confirmation bias. This is both unscientific and unfair. It is also hypocritical. When a blogger quotes selectively in order to make his or her position look superior while caricaturing the other side as inept, idiotic, or irrational, he or she loses credibility and impoverishes the reader who genuinely wants to learn.

Better to present a balanced perspective giving full due to the scientific claims of both sides before offering your own interpretation.

If the truth is on your side, you have nothing to fear from such generous fair-mindedness.

9 comments on “Confirmation Bias and the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham Debate

  1. Hi all,

    I haven’t seen this programme or heard this specific debate, and so I will not be commenting upon it (sigh of relief from Steve!). I found his definition of cognitive/confirmation bias very helpful, even so.

    But…I am concerned by the fact that this sort of debate is even happening, to be honest. What does it actually matter if the earth was created in seven 24 hour days? (It can’t have been, frankly, because other parts of the Bible make it quite clear that God is outside of time and space.) A thousand years is like one day…

    Anyway, why aren’t there debates on national media outlets either side of this large puddle called the Atlantic that focus on questions like “How should a largely Christian culture respond to poverty and injustice, wherever it may be found on the Earth?”

    Or, rather more interestingly, “does organised religion in this country truly bring relief to the poor and justice to the oppressed, in accordance with the principles emphasised in the Bible?”

    Because nobody is ever going to convince anyone about the reality of God by demonstrating that the Grand Canyon was actually formed in half an hour by an angel in a hurry. It so happened that a scientist was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 the other day, and the interviewer asked him if he believed in God. (This is a very rare question over here, believe me.) The scientist said that he only believed in what could be proved, because he was a true scientist. The interviewer replied by saying that lots of scientists do believe in God, and the scientist responded that lots of them don’t. What a pointless debate…and I am not sure that the creation debate is not just as fruitless.

    Loving this blog…even thought it’s been pretty silent recently! (Hint hint from a man with lots of free time on his hands, to a man who is clearly very busy!)

    xxx

    • As always, Jon, you offer a welcome outside perspective and kind words which make me blush a little. But yes! The church should give first priority and the lion’s share of its treasure and time toward helping the poor and standing up against injustice. As 1 Corinthians 13 says, our most heroic and religious actions are worthless if they do not originate from love. But that’s too convicting, so I’m off to watch the Olympics ;)

  2. lol…..Jon are you the one with the free time??

    Stephen, I did not watch the debate but my son did and had plenty to say especially how Ham used the “appeal to authority” by bringing up his Christian friends who were physicists, astronomers, and biologists (as if this gave enough credence to his case- I doubt it because Nye could use the same argument). I have taught my sons the many fallacies that humans will come up with, so I am proud of him using his noggin. Anyway, I did not have patience enough to sit down and listen – so I myself cannot comment either ( I am having a hard time in the American Christian institutions right now, but that’s just where I am at this point).

    • Teaching your son to think critically is one of the most important and loving things you could ever do, Faith. I hope that someday we will be able to look at our children and see young people who love the Lord with all their heart and mind and strength, and who love their neighbor as themselves. Not just nice boys and girls who go to church and look real nice. Praise God for your instruction!

  3. Following through with Jon’s first observation… God created “age” – which could really throw things in a tizzy. example: The earth being created in 6 days but with the “aged” historic elements measured by science to data readings of many more 1000’s of years.
    Confirmation bias seems to be running rampant in every spectrum of our culture to date. Theology and politics, the reporting media, the Internet; the bombardment of information and disinformation, blatant lies presented as truth… Any sense of what we believe as living in a “caring community”, surrounding ourselves with others we believe we can trust, grows wider with indifference. Fear leading to hysteria, then to regrettable actions seems to be the course we continue to head in.

  4. Steve,

    Ironically, my former psychology professor approached the debate from a different (non-psychological), paradigm. I think he put the large scale, evolution v creationism, debate in a more theological perspective. If your interested: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2014/02/creation-wars-in-church.html

    Either way, I hope you have a great weekend! :)

    • Nice! Just read it. Yes, we can and should love our brothers and sisters no matter where they fall on the spectrum. And in terms of everyday living and loving God and loving our neighbor, I agree that a tacit agreement to disagree on this issue can help us move past it and work together on matters of mercy and justice. Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is very helpful, especially the bit about your own personal evolution, in which you sprout vibrating antennae! ;)

    Admitting confirmation bias is a good thing to do when you point it how many others make a habit of it. We all do.

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