In our carefully crafted personal bubbles — where we customize which news, opinion and information we consume — we create the conditions for a confirmation bias of epic proportions. With our designer confirmation-bias blinders on, it becomes nearly impossible to consider anything contrary to our current view of the world. In the end, it makes us as citizens and neighbors not just short-sighted but nearly blind to the possibilities around us as well.
Not long ago, I took a call from a woman about the Bears Ears National Monument. The moment I picked up the phone she launched into a full-scale rant of anger and accusation that the latest move by President Trump was the last straw. She cranked up her rage as she breathlessly shouted, “I knew it. I knew it! Donald Trump is taking over the Bears Ears so he can build a golf course and resort on it!” I tried to ask a question, but the woman only accelerated her angry tirade. I think she had mastered circular breathing because she didn’t pause for the next 10 minutes.
I was baffled. It was beyond ridiculous to think the president was going to take over the Bears Ears and build a golf course. When the woman had finally expelled her last bit of venom, I tried to carefully ask why she thought a golf course was to be built in a remote area of Utah. My question reinvigorated her anger and she shot back that this act by Trump was beyond the pale and she knew it was true because she had read it in The Salt Lake Tribune.
I quickly pulled up the website to see an article by Robert Gehrke. Just under the headline in large letters it stated, “THE FOLLOWING COLUMN IS SATIRE.” It was classic Gehrke — wonderfully written, very witty, with just a smidgen of snarkiness to poke at people on all sides of the national monument issue. I don’t think I convinced her that her confirmation bias had blinded her — to the point that she saw only what she wanted to see — and prevented her from enjoying some great writing and a little humor.
The young conservative sensation Ben Shapiro will be speaking at the University of Utah on Sept. 27, fresh off a protest-filled excursion to Berkeley, where students and outside agitators threatened violence requiring a large security presence. Some of the protesters blindly spouted hate-filled rhetoric about Shapiro — even declaring him to be a Nazi. Which would be truly noteworthy, were it even remotely true, since Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew. Confirmation-bias blindness by the protesters cast a dark shadow on a campus that is supposed to be about enlightened dialogue and illuminating debate.
I interviewed Shapiro on radio this past week. I found him to be incredibly smart and insightful, and someone who is willing to challenge — and be challenged by — others’ thinking. He is one of the few political pundits whose public events aren’t primarily about him pontificating. His time on campuses is mostly spent in rigorous Q-and-A sessions with students. Those who disagree with him get to go to the front of the line. Not everyone appreciates his sometimes provocative descriptions of the confirmation bias of those on the political left, but he equally challenges the political right to toughen up, understand what they believe and have real dialogue about real issues.
If we don’t hear alternative points of view, our confirmation-bias blindness will lead us all into the ditch. I believe University of Utah students and Salt Lake City residents have the character and capacity to sustain freedom of speech and diversity of thought! Now the question is, will they rise to the occasion?
The ultimate end of confirmation bias is much more serious than a debate on a college campus or reading only the headlines that validate your current thinking. Isolating ourselves in self-designed bubbles of confirmation bias is not that much different from what takes place in totalitarian regimes. When those in power only serve up media and messages and propaganda that confirm what the regime wants the people to believe, the citizens become blinded to anything and everything else.
CNN reporter Will Ripley recently posted a rare interview with a North Korean soldier. When Ripley asked about America, the soldier responded that one day soon the North Korean army would liberate their South Korean brothers from the oppression of the evil Americans. With only the hermit nation’s government-controlled media for input, the cycle of confirmation-bias blindness is perpetuated among North Koreans. Likewise, those who become radicalized to commit heinous acts in the name of religion follow a similar slippery slope down the confirmation-bias trail. The assignment of virtue to our bubble-driven views does not enhance or excuse them — it makes them even more dangerous.
The 1779 English hymn “Amazing Grace” sums up what happens when we finally take a step out of our self-imposed darkness – “[I] was blind, but now I see.” By removing our confirmation-bias blinders, we not only can see things as they truly are but gain the vision to become part of the conversation about how they can yet be.
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.