‘[I]t is the habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.” Thucydides, ancient Greek historian, died c 395 BC.
Facts don’t change minds. That’s a fact.
Over 60 years of research has proven Thucydides correct: people believe information that confirms what we already believe, and disbelieve anything that contradicts our ideas. This is very helpful when what we believe is true, but explains why it’s so difficult to convince a flat-earther that the world is in fact a globe.
We believe what we already believe
For example, said flat-earther could read a number of articles on the shape of the earth. Just about all would provide compelling evidence, even indisputable proof, that our planet is a sphere. Very, very few could give arguments that the earth is flat. But these would be the articles that the flat-earther would take seriously. Even if the sources for these few articles are dodgy (as I assume they would have to be), the massive majority of the articles would be rejected. They would be rejected because despite being scientifically validated, they contradict the flat-earther’s belief that the earth is, well, flat.
This is called confirmation bias, and we’re all guilty of it. We agree with articles, arguments and facts which confirm the beliefs we already hold, and down-play, dismiss or outright disbelieve any information which doesn’t.
We see what we want to see
People also tend to interpret events or accounts in ways that further confirm their pre-existing ideas. For example there was an altercation between a Black mom and a White dad at a restaurant caught on video this week. Both of these adults acted like children. The Black woman called the White guy a racist and the unpleasant White guy physically intimidated the woman.
Reading the comments, there were Black people who said that this was more proof that all White people still thought they were superior to Black people. When a Black woman posted that the mom in the video was not guiltless and was obviously part of provoking the argument, she was attacked by these commentators for still thinking of White people as “baas.” There were White commentators who said that this proves that Black people always play the race card, or can’t be reasoned with.
My point is that a video of two unpleasant people being unpleasant suddenly offers definitive proof of whatever an observer feels strongly about. In our undeniably racially charged country, this video is enough to confirm ideas about entire race groups in one sweep. I would imagine that someone who dislikes eating out would take this as more confirmation that taking the family to a restaurant is a bad idea.
This isn’t due to deliberate deception, but because of automatic and unintentional strategies that happen in our minds. We are wired to explain away stuff that disagrees with our thinking.
*Please Note, this piece was written before the CCTV of the man grabbing the woman’s son was released
We can still know stuff, and people do change their minds… sometimes
This isn’t to say that we can’t know the value of a fact. It doesn’t mean we can’t be sure of certain things as practically true. It does mean we have to work really hard to assess if we believe something because we like it, or if it really is backed up by evidence. Knowing we have confirmation bias isn’t enough to make sure we’re objective. But it’s a good start.
It also doesn’t mean that people never change their minds. Especially in the West, lots of young adults leave the church. Throughout the centuries atheists have come to know Jesus, and Muslims and Hindus and people from other religions have truly become Christians. But we should hold in tension that facts play a smaller role in the beliefs we hold than we might like to admit.
As Christians, I believe it is incredibly important to know that Jesus’ bodily resurrection is a factual, historical event which took place in reality, in space-time. If this didn’t happen, our faith is useless, and we should be pitied (see 1 Corinthians 15). But I also know that it’s the way Christians love each other and treat others (Christians and non-Christians) that will provide the most convincing proof and compelling evidence for our beliefs (John 13:34).
Senior Associate Editor at The Atlantic, Julie Beck, wrote a good article with a much better headline than mine: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/this-article-wont-change-your-mind/519093/
Wikipedia has a good article on confirmation bias. It gives an accessible overview of what it is and the research that has gone into the phenomenon, along with its effects in various fields, from finance and science to the paranormal. Check it out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias
On some ways to overcome our bias, from an applied cognitive psychologist: http://www.globalcognition.org/confirmation-bias-3-cures/
Liam Doyle is an estate agent with a BA majoring in Ancient History and Classical Culture from UNISA (hoping to pursue honours at some point in the future). He has been involved in teaching ministry at his church for almost 20 years (kids, adult classes, small groups, young adults). Contact him on +27 82 569 8204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.