Being scientific isn’t about long words and fancy degrees – it’s about interpreting data correctly. Every day, new facts emerge. If you are smart, you should assess that information objectively, revising your beliefs about how the world works. That means changing your mind a lot.
The trap that we all fall into, is clinging to our preexisting beliefs, and actively ignoring information that does not line up with them, while fixating on data that reinforces our worldview. Known as confirmation bias, this mindset results in intellectual inertia.
I have struggled with confirmation bias when examining Swedish coronavirus data. At the pandemic’s outset, I believed that the media was exaggerating the Covid-19 threat because hysteria boosts their revenues. I thought that epidemiologists were recommending lockdowns partially because they love the unprecedented attention that they are receiving from policymakers – attention they were keen to retain.
The “proof” lay in Sweden’s data, as the Scandinavian nation had basically remained open for business. Their daily cases and deaths were low, while Italy and the UK were in a state of disarray, despite strict curfews.
The confirmation bias kicked in when Sweden’s health and economic situations deteriorated. I thought: “OK, cases are up in Sweden, but their mental health is a lot better, they surely have lower rates of lockdown-related domestic violence toward women and children, and I’m confident that their economy will quickly rebound.”
I became cognizant of my mistake when people whom I know to be selfish egotists expressed concerns about domestic violence. While the claims may be true, the only reason those individuals made arguments seemingly based on a concern for others is that they personally hated lockdowns and were feigning altruism to advance their agenda. Aided by the fact that they were young and healthy, these people were seeking any confirmatory information.
Today, I analyze data from Sweden, New Zealand, Taiwan, and other important outliers more cautiously. I have gone from forthrightly denigrating epidemiologists to humbly accepting their recommendations. My pandemic outlook is much more flexible and adaptable – “When facts change, I change my mind,” as a famous economist once remarked.
The reason we struggle with confirmation bias is our biological tendency to exhibit mental and behavioral inertia. When you live in groups, you need rules to regulate behavior. Engendering compliance is easier if people naturally behave in the same way regardless of emerging evidence regarding preferable modes of conduct. Otherwise, we would be locked in an endless cycle of negotiations regarding what today’s rules should be while a pack of saber-toothed tigers circles.
Over the course of thousands of years, our minds have evolved, and our knowledge has advanced. We understand our cognitive biases, and appreciate where they work in our favor, and where they hinder our progress. Just as we recognize the value of emotions like anger, we also realize that there are times when it is important to override our automatic desire to feel and express rage. The same is true of confirmation bias.
During the 2004 US presidential elections, supporters of incumbent George W. Bush would often criticize his opponent, John Kerry, for “flip-flopping,” – or frequently changing his mind on important policies. Bush, on the other hand, was “a man of principle” who would steadfastly stick to his guns. Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, we can see how destructive Bush’s unscientific behavior was, whether in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or the 2008 global financial crisis.
Learning to resist the urge to mindlessly reject evidence that you don’t like is a critical life skill. The truest measure of intelligence is not the number of letters that come after your name, or your score on an IQ test – it is in your ability to change your mind and behavior.