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.
I 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.
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.
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.