The confirmation bias, which describes humans’ tendency to focus on information that supports our beliefs while paying less attention to contradictory evidence, may help explain how some superstitions become popular. Let’s see how this bias affects our thinking and applies to the origins’ controversy.
What do white lighters, the number 13, and the word rabbit have in common?
They’re all star players in Western superstitions.
In the lighters’ case, an urban legend arose that several musicians passed away young while carrying white lighters in their pockets.1 As a result, certain streams of pop culture adopted the superstition that white lighters must bring “bad luck.”
Speaking of “bad luck,” you may have noticed that the elevator buttons in many high-rises don’t number a 13th floor. The belief that 13 is an unlucky number pervades culture enough that the fear of 13 has earned itself a name: triskaidekaphobia (pronounced TRISK-eye-DECK-uh-PHO-bia, in case you ever need to pull this word out at a get-together).
And rabbit? Somehow, a behaviour that gained traction among some twentieth century Westerners (especially children) involved repeating the word “rabbit” aloud on certain days of the year—for good luck, of course.
These ideas about “luck”—and humans’ ability to manipulate it—clearly have no basis in Scripture, which reveals that God alone has sovereign control over the universe (Proverbs 16:33). So, superstitions tend to fail Critical Thinking Check #1 (aka, Check Scripture) right from the start. And if we pressed on to Check #7 (Check the Logic) we’d certainly have a tough time making any logical connection between these superstitions and their supposed outcomes. How do such beliefs manage to take root in culture, despite being both unbiblical and illogical?
At least part of the answer seems to lie in a quirk of psychology known as the confirmation bias. This cognitive bias, or faulty thinking pattern, occurs when people become so focused in seeking observations supporting their beliefs that they largely ignore observations contradicting those beliefs. For instance, people may pay undue attention to the handful of musicians who allegedly died young while in possession of white lighters but ignore all the instances where musicians died young without owning white lighters.
Here’s another example that I heard a professor share during a psychology class:
Imagine you’re a basketball player, and partway into the season, you notice that for almost every winning game, you’ve worn your favorite blue socks. You might hypothesize that the socks are somehow helping you win. For your next game, you decide to wear the socks again. Sure enough, you score the winning basket! The next game, however, you forget your socks, and end up losing.
At this point, it might be easy conclude that the blue socks are somehow “lucky.” But besides being illogical and unbiblical, you’re paying attention only to cases which confirmed your hypothesis that the socks were helping you win.
To avoid the confirmation bias, you’d have to equally test your null hypothesis—the opposite of your original idea—by considering all the games you lost while wearing the socks or won without wearing the socks.
In science, researchers can show a confirmation bias if they only look for and pay attention to results that confirm their hypotheses. For instance, as this online book chapter indicates, the confirmation bias may affect the results which researchers uncover regarding the ages of rocks and fossils. If researchers expect a sample to fall within a certain age range (say, around 100 million years), those expectations can help determine the dating methods the researchers choose and the ways they interpret the results.
If the results give an unexpected date, it’s common to try explaining away the discrepancy.2 For example, researchers might suggest that the sample was contaminated. Searching only for a date within the expected range while dismissing contradictory data could be seen as a case of the confirmation bias.3
Naturally, creation researchers may be subject to the confirmation bias too if they pay attention only to data which support their models. While the biblical truths behind those models do not change, the models themselves may need to be adjusted as new evidence comes to light.
When using words like evidence, you must remember that you’re talking about facts from observational science. All of us have access to the same facts—the same rocks, trees, fossils, and scientific measurements. But we interpret those facts differently as “evidence” for different conclusions depending on our worldview starting points (presuppositions).
My textbooks, for instance, began from a naturalistic starting point. As a result, they interpreted facts like skeletal similarities in mammals as evidence for evolution. But a biblical interpretation of this same observation would be that mammals share the same Designer.4
So, do biblical creationists show the confirmation bias by not accepting mammal skeletons as “evidence” for evolution? No. It isn’t the evidence itself which creationists reject—in this case, the observation that different mammals’ skeletons show some similarities. Instead, we reject the evolutionary interpretations of that evidence, which are based on naturalistic presuppositions about the past.
Some people would say that consistently interpreting evidence according to biblical presuppositions still involves using the confirmation bias. But whether our starting point is God’s Word or man’s word, all humans (including scientists) hold to some sorts of worldview presuppositions.
Within a naturalistic worldview, there’s no logical basis for trusting in any presupposition, because material worldviews do not supply a consistent foundation for certainty, knowledge, or logic. In other words, atheists can never know whether their atheistic presuppositions are valid.
Within a biblical worldview, however, we do have reason to ground our presuppositions in God’s Word as the absolute truth.5 If a loving God created a logical universe and made us in his image as rational beings, we have a consistent philosophical basis from which to know things, to reason logically, and to learn about our universe.
In turn, logic and scientific reasoning confirm that a biblical worldview is consistent both with itself and with external reality. That is, a biblical worldview passes the test of a logical belief system. (As the articles linked to this blog post explain, however, a naturalistic worldview does not.)
In the end, it’s a biblical worldview which supplies the basis for sound scientific reasoning and for avoiding the confirmation bias. We have a logical foundation from which to reason scientifically, rigorously test our models, and pay attention to observations which confirm or contradict them.6 Those models may change, but the truth of God’s Word will always stand to scrutiny. And God’s Word confirms a logical reality—and reality, in turn, confirms God’s Word.
Ultimately, because a logical God created a logical universe, we have every reason to exercise logical thinking. As a result, we also have every reason to live free of worry about white lighters, 13, rabbits, lucky socks, or any other star players of the confirmation bias. Now that’s even better than “luck” would have it.