Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Confirmation bias

Thelma the gerbil was found dead in her cage. We buried her in the backyard. She rests next to Louise who is next to Fred who is next to Jeff, in a nice circle around a tree that seems to be doing quite well. It is the Marxhausen family version of the “circle of life.” I do feel kind of bad that Arthur the giant African millipede and the fire belly toad whose name escapes me, were unceremoniously thrown into the trash. I suppose my kindergarten pets have to be mammals to warrant proper burial.

Thelma represents the last vestige of my kindergarten teaching experience. With Thelma gone, now all of my supplies, books, and memories are neatly packed away, given away or sold. I can quietly close the door on that part of my life and ministry. I love teaching and I loved spending my day with young children, but, I can honestly say that I don’t miss it. God has spared me that emotion. He has filled my day and my heart with new work and wonders.

I have been thinking about confirmation bias, lately. I am a big proponent of this shady practice. I spend my days looking for evidence that confirms what I already suspect. Of course, when I taught kindergarten, what I suspected was happening in the boy’s room, was usually correct. There is just no mistaking the sound of a five year old boy’s shoes as they hit the ground from jumping off the toilet. You do not need empirical evidence to show that boys that age consider the restroom to be an extension to the playground. It is a theory that will stand the test of time.

Confirmation bias has crept into my Monday night class. My professor likes to lecture and once he starts there is little that will stop him. Not even the look of panic on the faces of his students as we try to keep up with our note taking. Every once in a while he will throw out a controversial example of some theory and will hope that a discussion will ensue. It doesn’t. First of all, we are all brain-stunned and cannot switch from listening and writing to thinking and discussing quite that fast.

Secondly, he does not inspire a heated discussion because by the time he has presented the argument he has answered any possible contradictions making it clear to us that the issue should be seen his way. He is a philosopher and a student of logic who has an interesting habit of manipulating his definitions to suit his argument; a fascinating form of confirmation bias.

Of course I always figure out a brilliant way around his arguments – two days later when my brain finally catches up with him. In class all I can think of is “oh yeah, says who?” So far I have refrained from participating in the discussions. I seem to have honed my debating skills on the playground.

At night I lay awake and think about how this brilliant man has managed to develop this technique that sabotages what he is trying to teach us. He wants us to learn that adolescents develop when they are allowed to consider different options and reason as to what should be included in their sense of morality and their sense of identity. Yet, he has managed to keep himself safe from that happening in his classroom of adults.

When I think of him I am reminded of how every time I read about the children of Israel wandering in the desert I can’t believe that they had trouble believing in a God who spoke to them through a prophet. They had manna, and columns of fire and smoke, and two large tablets with writing carved into them and still they wondered if they shouldn’t turn around and go back to Egypt and her gods. They had a serious confirmation bias problem. They were looking at verifiable evidence of an all loving and all powerful God, but yet that golden calf looked so good, especially when Aaron gave it a spit shine.

But, then, whenever I start harping on the Israelites, who, by the way, had a pretty tough life living in tents and eating the same thing everyday, God turns my finger of accusation away from the twelve tribes and right back to me. My confirmation bias is worry. When I worry I tend to look for evidence that my worry is justified and I am usually successful in finding it. I have awesome powers of observation that allow me to look right past the real evidence of God’s love and care for me and on to reasons why I need to feel stressed. My own sinful heart has turned me away from the truth. I am my own saboteur. I am my own worst enemy.

But my God continues to love me, forgive me, and hold me in His arms. And when it is time for me to be buried beneath a tree in some cemetery, I will become a part of His beautiful circle of everlasting life. I don’t need to confirm that bias with evidence. I have the faith that God gave me.

For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,

and the complacency of fools will destroy them;

but whoever listens to Me will live in safety and be at ease,

without fear of harm.

Proverbs 1: 32-33

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