• Confirmation Bias Stories

    Confirmation bias is when you read or hear (or search out) things (people, research, etc) that agrees with what you say or rejects what someone else says. We are all guilty of this at some point or another. It’s hard to stay on top of it and really read stuff you disagree with.

    I wanted to talk about two, truly stunning cases, of confirmation bias I’ve dealt with recently. This doesn’t include a regular commenter here who still thinks that Meyer is correct in spite of all the evidence that Meyer is a liar.

    The first, takes place on the Amazon.com discussion boards. The poster “Tammy” begins and continues for several pages, apparently getting steadily more and more… well.. bug house nuts.

    There’s a lot there to dissect, but the one I specifically wanted to bring up occurs very late in that thread. She, for some reason, starts talking about how olive tree extracts are antibacterial and anti-viral. She cites a website, that cites several peer-reviewed papers to support this claim. Of course, this is one of those “holistic healing”, “all natural”, “no chemical” groups. Anyway, when one actually looks at those papers, one of them is about the antibacterial action in brining olives (this is an agriculture paper, not a medical paper) and the other is about the antiviral action against a specific fish virus.  Yes, a virus that only infects fish.

    So, having had that pointed out to her, she then cites two doctors who have supported her ideas about olive tree extracts.

    One of the “doctors” is not an MD, though I don’t know if he has an advanced degree or not. He is certainly not listed in the California medical licensing records. He does work for a holistic healing institute though.

    The other doctor is an interesting story. He actually spent time in jail for medical malpractice and has been cited multiple times for medical issues. On one instance, a woman came to his practice, complained of a headache, and he gave her two injects of (IIRC) a blood thinner… she died later that day.

    This “Tammy” is so desperate to believe what she’s been told that she will accept the medical word of someone who has killed at least one person due to medical negligence.

    That’s a pretty stunning case of confirmation bias.

    Since she cited those two papers, I offered to give her a list of 70+ papers that showed she was wrong about speciation, so far, she hasn’t even acknowledged the comment (which is typical).

    The other case is on Google+. There is a particular commenter there who frequently brings up peer-reviewed research that shows evolution is wrong… or… at least contentious. The problem is that he presents a paper, a few quotes, and then his opinion on how that shows that some part of evolution is wrong.

    The bad part isn’t so much the quotemining, though that does happen, but he specifically selects papers from decades ago. The most recent example was from 1992, which doesn’t sound like a long time ago, but in science that’s almost to the point of irrelevance. He has gone back in time as far as 1973, presenting a paper that talks (briefly) about epigenetics.

    However, when presented with more recent work that shows his paper is no longer correct… well, he doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of those papers.

    Obviously, the imprint of science and peer-reviewed research seems important to both of these people (and some regular commentors on my blog), but they fail to understand that cherry-picking reports that agree with them isn’t how science is done.

    I need to point out one thing here. Showing how there is no evidence to support a position is not “confirmation bias”.

    Like most scientists, I could be swayed with evidence. I will freely admit that the evidence for something like an intelligent designer will have to be overwhelming. Just because something seems complex is not evidence, that’s a claim.

    Anyone else care to share some stories of confirmation bias?

    Category: Skepticism


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat

    • im-skeptical

      OK, I’ll confess my own story.

      There is an ostensibly charitable organization called the Barak H Obama Foundation, which is run by the president’s half brother in Africa (not to be confused with the Barak H Obama Foundation that was established to create a presidential library). This foundation’s charitable activities are dubious, and it evidently supports the Sudanese dictator Bashir. A story on a right-wing website tried to tie President Obama to the horrific activities of Bashir by claiming that the IRS gave favorable treatment to this foundation for tax-exempt status while denying similar treatment for right-wing organizations.

      I did a little research and found two pieces of information: the foundation did not have tax-exempt status, and that the foundation had never made an application to the IRS. That was enough for me. I defended the IRS by insisting that it had not given favorable treatment to this foundation. I clung to this position for over a year.

      Finally, I was shown a copy of the actual approval from the IRS, and had to admit that I was wrong about that. In retrospect, I now understand that a helpful agent at the IRS had created and processed an application on behalf of the foundation. As for my information on the tax exempt status, it was obviously wrong. I suspect that I had seen something that was outdated. I should have checked further, but I think I was guilty of confirmation bias.

    • Void Walker

      Smilodon, this is off topic but I’ve been trying to find a good book that delves into abiogenesis. Can you recommend any particular books for me? I’m gonna be taking a long, boring bus trip in January and I need something to devour on the way.

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        It’s older, but you would like Genesis by Robert Hazen.
        If you want something pretty technical, then you’d like The Emergence of Life by Pier Luisi… it’s thick, fair warning.

        For more general science, there’s a few I recommend. Seven Daughters of Eve (human genetic history), Remarkable Creatures by Sean Carroll (history of science, but about some real characters, not the boring kind), and The Monkey’s Voyage (biogeography, but extremely well written and interesting).

        And there’s an Amazon link at the top to the right… 😉

        • Void Walker

          Thanks, man.

          I’m gonna check out Emergence of Life.

    • RexTugwell

      I’ve got a story. The host of this blog offered a paper which attempted to refute Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemist who teaches graduate and undergraduate level courses at Lehigh University. When I offered Behe’s response to the paper, instead of reading it, he attacked Behe personally.

      • SmilodonsRetreat

        Oh good… spam all my blog posts. Tell me, where was his response published? If he response was so useful, why didn’t he put it in the actual paper? Why do mathematicians, chemists, and biologists still ignore him? Oh yes, it’s not just me… it’s everyone. It’s his own department.

        Whatever, instead of talking about the science, you’d rather attack me for anything else. You’re a fine piece of work.

        • RexTugwell

          Maybe you should look up the fallacious argument about discussing the
          credentials of people instead of their claims and evidence.

          Spoken by none other than Smilodon in Retreat

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            Yep. So let us all know when Behe presents some evidence to support intelligent design. Because he sure hasn’t yet.

            I’m sure that many scientists will look at it very, very closely and with great interest. We’ll see if it survives the experience. The rest of his “work” hasn’t.

        • RexTugwell

          As for his own department, they were being harassed and pressured by cranks and malcontents like yourself to distance themselves from him. They had to do it. Behe has no ill will toward them.

          • SmilodonsRetreat

            Citation needed.

            Although, it’s good to know that you know Behe so well you can speak for him.

            • RexTugwell

              Wow, I could almost hear your nasally, sniveling voice in my ear as I read your last reply. I’ve heard Behe speak on a number of occasions and I trust him more than I trust you who I’ve caught in a number of lies.

            • SmilodonsRetreat

              Whatever. It’s well known to everyone who reads this that you have accepted the ideas of Intelligent Design with no evidence and in spite of the lies about the actual state of science promoted by ID people.

              As far as Behe, all you have do is look at his testimony in Dover. He has no idea what’s going on.

            • RexTugwell
            • RexTugwell

              Just in case you don’t read the whole thing because of your self-imposed confirmation bias, Moran finishes by saying: “You might not be so inclined to make fun of Michael Behe after that.”

            • SmilodonsRetreat

              About ASTROLOGY… wow.

              ID is dead. It’s own supporters have made it so. By refusing to actually do the research. They want so much to be correct, but are so scared that they aren’t that they can’t stomach actually asking the questions and doing the research.

            • SmilodonsRetreat

              “Most bad hypotheses just die a quiet death when they are discredited. The transition to pseudoscience only happens when the proponents refuse to give up and insist that their theory is still valid science.”


            • RexTugwell

              Earth to Smiley. The topic was about astrology and Moran was agreeing with Behe.

              btw I’m not spamming. I’m just trying to play catch-up with all the nonsense that has transpired on the Snoozefest in the past few months. Be patient with me. 😉

            • SmilodonsRetreat

              Actually, I’m pretty annoyed with you. I’m sure that pleases you.

              But this is all a waste of time.

              Astrology was ONCE a possible explanation for events. It’s been discredited. It is now a pseudo-science. Just like ID.

              Instead of talking about Behe, why not talk about ID? Oh yeah, because there remains nothing to talk about.

            • RexTugwell

              You are thick! I’m not arguing for astrology. I’m arguing against your claim that Behe was clueless by pointing out that Moran agrees with Behe on this point. You’re right. This is a waste of time.

            • SmilodonsRetreat

              You’re thick. I agree with Behe that common descent of all organisms on the planet is correct. That’s also an argument from authority (if Larry Moran agrees with one point of Behe, that means Behe is always right). That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve heard today.

              I don’t agree with any aspect of intelligent design.

            • RexTugwell

              Are you on medication?

            • SmilodonsRetreat

              That’s your comeback? Yeah, pretty time for you to wander on. Maybe try some of these arguments at After the Bar closes or something.

            • RexTugwell

              I’ll take that as a yes.