When Intelligent People Disagree
People are funny. We consider ourselves to be evolved, liberated, experienced and civilized. However, inside we have many fundamental flaws. I find one of our many faults to be rather entertaining if you can disconnect from the topic. I like watching two intelligent people empathetically disagreeing.
This is different from logically disagreeing. For example, let’s say that Tom remembers that Alan Alda didn’t star in the first season of the television show MASH. Sally disagreed and they refer to the IMBD website. Sally locates the correct information and Tom (while disappointed) concluded that he made an error. Logical disagreements occur in our lives without a second thought.
This disagreement could have taken a drastic turn. Tom could have argued that IMDB didn’t have the correct information. When confronted by another website, Tom still refuses to acknowledge his error. His attempt to prove an incorrect fact can go far beyond a simple discussion. Tom can ask all his friends until one (incorrectly) remembers that fact. Tom then searches the internet to locate an obscure reference that mistakenly confirms his fact. For Tom, this is all the proof he needs and he will harshly argue his mistaken belief for the rest of this life. Side note: A former coworker fully believed that Alan Alda incorrect fact and he couldn’t be convinced otherwise.
Now, if we can take a step back and disconnect from the topic, an exchange of this type is fun to watch. The logical, intelligent and respected Tom will put all his great attributes aside in the argument. He will grasp at the smallest thread to prove his point.
Essentially, a bad person will take over Tom and he will descend into anarchy. As the argument continues, Tom’s intelligence will diminish and he will resort to underhanded tactics. This will include lying, cheating and tossing his morals aside. Afterwards, Tom will not apologize and he will leave a wrath of destruction that poisons his image.
And this is fun to watch? From the sidelines, it is hilarious to listen to Tom’s absurd arguments. “I got a… letter from Alan Alda saying he was not in the first season.” “Really? Let’s see it.” “Oh, I just lost it.” The lies, wild schemes and silly attempts to convince others are better than any television show.
Tom has blundered into one of my favorite topics. Confirmation Bias is a part of our mind that refuses to accept a certain fact. An honest logical person will lie, destroy evidence, become hostile, make unsubstantiated arguments and refuse to acknowledge what is directly in front of them. For certain topics, Confirmation Bias overrides our morals, logic, common sense, judgement and manors. My wife calls Confirmation Bias “the science of being stubborn.”
Often the source of a Confirmation Bias comes out of a topic related to the bias. The reason that Tom didn’t correctly recall Alan Alda’s roll actually came from an article in a magazine where Anan made a remark about Tom’s favorite musician. Tom cannot confront this unrelated fact directly and instead clings to an incorrect belief.
We can see clear cases of Confirmation Bias in controversial topics such as religion, climate change, politics and alternative medicine. All humans have issues and we all have topics we feel strongly about. The difference is how we react. For example, I appreciate the band Rush for many reasons. However, I do acknowledge their lyrics are preachy and the lead singer has a squeaky voice. I also acknowledge their music is not for everybody and I respect those people who care not to listen to their music. Do I feel pain when somebody criticizes Rush? Of course. Do I lash out at them and lie? I choose not to.
On the same topic, I don’t appreciate Jazz and I prefer not to listen to it. Is this bad? Perhaps. One must pick their media battles in life. I admit that I do have a bias (or strong passion) toward Rush and a bias against Jazz. The difference is that in an argument, I can fully admit that Rush has flaws and the musical genre of Jazz has very impressive musicians. In my mind, I have a bias but not a full-blown Confirmation Bias.
What is the difference between Confirmation Bias and a passion towards a topic? A long time ago, scientists proved that the earth to be round. At the time, these scientists were ridiculed for their mistaken beliefs. These scientists passionately believed in their cause and eventually their beliefs were accepted as fact.
Did those scientists have a Confirmation Bias? Or does being correct negate the concept of a Confirmation Bias? The difference is that if the scientists used dishonorable means to prove their point, their actions certainly would fit the Confirmation Bias definition. Otherwise, these scientists simply were passionate for their cause.
Now, on to the topic of writing. It is difficult for a character to have a Confirmation Bias. Readers generally like to know the motives behind their character. “Tom refused to believe that that Alan Alda joined MASH in the first season.” Why did he feel this way? Why is he now making silly arguments? Readers get upset when they are forced fill in the blanks. In general, characters are stubborn for specific well-explained reasons or they have a well-defined backstory. In this area, books/media differ a lot from real life.
What happens when we find a Confirmation Bias in our own lives? This takes a lot of personal effort to identify, understand and confront. It takes even more effort to overcome. Tom would have to understand his deep passion against Alan Alda. Eventually, he might answer, “I used to think Alan Alda didn’t join the show until the second season.”
As for me, I am going to continue to listen to Rush and write about characters with crazy well-defined motives. Or do I have Confirmation Bias against characters that don’t have clear motives? I’ll never know.

You’re the best -Bill
May 08, 2019

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