The Dangers of Seeing Only What We Want to See

By Jim Tonkowich Published on June 29, 2017

“CNN’s brand equity is built over 37 years doing hard work in very dangerous places,” declared CNN head Jeff Zucker earlier this month, “those who rely on CNN trust CNN more than ever.”

Of course that was before three senior CNN reporters were forced to resign. One has a Pulitzer Prize. Together they created yet another bogus story about President Trump and collusion with the Russians.

As journalist Glenn Greenwald documents, in the past six months The Washington Post, Slate, C-SPAN and the Democratic National Committee all published similar phony stories.

“There are great benefits to be reaped by publishing alarmist claims about the Russian Threat and Trump’s connection to it,” Greenwald writes. Those stories “go most viral, produce the most traffic, generate the most professional benefits such as TV offers, along with online praise and commercial profit for those who disseminate them. That’s why blatantly inane anti-Trump conspiracists and Russia conspiracies now command such a large audience: because there is a voracious appetite among anti-Trump internet and cable news viewers for stories, no matter how false, that they want to believe are true.”

And so a single anonymous source — real or make-believe, reliable or nutty, honest or vengeful — can spawn outrageous stories. Such stories kill media credibility. They also do lasting harm to the republic and the democratic process.

What is Confirmation Bias?

We can all convince ourselves of nonsense while missing truths in front of our noses.

In his book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, Navy War College professor Tom Nichols goes a long way in explaining how reporters are fooled.

In the chapter entitled, “How The Conversation Became Exhausting,” Nichols discusses confirmation bias.

“The term,” he writes, “refers to the tendency to look for information that only confirms what we believe, to accept facts that only strengthen our preferred explanations, and to dismiss data that challenge what we already accept as truth.”

It is, he says, part of our human condition. We all have biases. And we can all convince ourselves of nonsense while missing truths in front of our noses.

These days, Nichols goes on, “Facts come and go as people find convenient at the moment. Thus, confirmation bias makes attempts at reasoned argument exhausting because it produces arguments that are nonfalsifiable.

Everybody knows that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are evil. Everybody knows they’re in collusion. Thus any source confirming those “facts” will be believed no matter how dubious the claim. Those who contradict the story are fools, liars, or co-conspirators.

“It is,” Nichols concludes, “impossible to argue with this kind of explanation, because by definition it’s never wrong. … Unable to see their own biases, most people will simply drive each other crazy arguing rather than accepting answers that contradict what they already think about the subject.”

Confirmation bias says we’ll see what we want to see for good or ill. By contrast, love for neighbor seeks what is actually there.

If it can happen to trained professional journalists, it can happen to the rest of us. Their story is a kind of object lesson.

In politics, in our relationships, even in our theology we can exercise our confirmation biases.

Let’s Seek to Know the Truth

Let’s be honest. Donald Trump isn’t pure evil and neither was Barack Obama. Both men are deeply flawed because they are human beings. And for that same reason both are capable of great good. We need to keep that in mind.

The same applies to that guy at the office, the woman down the street, that kid at church, and your spouse. Confirmation bias says we’ll see what we want to see for good or ill. By contrast, love for neighbor seeks what is actually there.

And as much as I’m convinced of my theology, along with Saint Paul I need to admit that, “For now we see in a mirror dimly … Now I know in part.” The time will come when we see face to face and “I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But that day has yet to dawn. Take that to the next church fight.

I’m not suggesting we lose our convictions. We need men and women with firm and reasonable convictions. I am suggesting that we think through our confirmation biases. That would go a long way to make politics more palatable. It would make our relationships more loving. It would make Christianity more winsome. We’d have less exhausting conversations. And truth would become more evident.

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