On Confirmation Bias and the Dangers of Certainty

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I was reading a great article by Kevin D. Randle over at his website, A Different Perspective. In the closing paragraph, the author writes something that every UFO researcher (and aficionado) should bear in mind. Here’s the quote:

In the world of Ufology the side you take up is usually the one that falls under your own belief structure. Sometimes it has less to do with evidence and more to do with what you wish to believe.

So true, and so often ignored. But why?

Perhaps it all stems from people’s desire to have their own beliefs and viewpoints confirmed. The so-called “confirmation bias.” As Science Daily puts it, confirmation bias is:

…[A] tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.

It’s a subtle and nasty phenomenon that often causes people to “actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis.” Possibly worse, the same people often “ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.”

But what about when the evidence does really, really, really seem to confirm you pre-conceived beliefs? Well, maybe the gremlin called “selection bias” is at work. This phenomenon is different from confirmation bias because it deals with the initial evidence collection. While some people actively try to keep out non-confirming evidence when they are looking into a UFO-related matter, I think it’s more likely they are unintentionally focussing only on the collection of evidence that looks “Juicy” or, at the least, consistent with the desired outcome of the investigation.

This all leads to certainty. Nothing wrong with certainty, right? Well, the great Jeff Wise (website here; Twitter feed here) says otherwise:

Still, it occurred to me that, for all the passion I had for my theory, I might be the only person in the world who felt this way. Neurobiologist Robert A. Burton points out in his book On Being Certain that the sensation of being sure about one’s beliefs is an emotional response separate from the processing of those beliefs. It’s something that the brain does subconsciously to protect itself from wasting unnecessary processing power on problems for which you’ve already found a solution that’s good enough.

“‘That’s right’ is a feeling you get so that you can move on,” Burton told me. It’s a kind of subconscious laziness. Just as it’s harder to go for a run than to plop onto the sofa, it’s harder to reexamine one’s assumptions than it is to embrace certainty. At one end of the spectrum of skeptics are scientists, who by disposition or training resist the easy path; at the other end are conspiracy theorists, who’ll leap effortlessly into the sweet bosom of certainty. So where did that put me?

Read the rest of Jeff’s article here.

It seems obvious that the problems of bias and certainty often raise their heads in the world of UFO research. How many people take various myths (and I use that word in the traditional sense, not in a derogatory sense) as proven? Roswell, MJ-12, Mothman, etc.. The list goes on and on. I am not saying these things are fake or devoid of supporting evidence. Rather, I am writing to encourage the UFO community to adopt a posture that takes all of the gremlins discussed above into account. Only then can those gremlins be neutralized and our work made sound.

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