We must strike bias in search for truth

By Jeremy Fejfar on November 22, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

We must strike bias in search for truth

Through my involvement in the skeptical community, I have learned just how susceptible we all are to bias, particularly confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to pay more attention to information that confirms what we already believe to be true, and to pay less attention to information that contradicts our beliefs. This is seen widely, from politics to religion — and everything in between.

For example, the full moon is thought by many to have effects on everything from violence and suicide to accidents and mental illness. Even words such as lunatic and lunacy come from the Latin word for moon, luna. One may sometimes hear professionals working in a hospital’s hectic emergency room exclaim, “It must be a full moon.” However, when one studies the effect of the moon phase on any of these factors, these supposed effects evaporate.

So why do these beliefs persist despite proof to the contrary? Confirmation bias certainly plays a role. For instance, if one already believes that the full moon makes for a busy night in the ER, when one looks out the window on one such hectic night and sees a full moon, this belief will be reinforced. However, little attention is granted to the hectic nights that fall on nights when the moon is not full, or on full moon nights when there is very little activity in the ER. In this way the belief is perpetuated, even when the effect is imaginary.

If we want our beliefs to accurately reflect reality, we must take care to guard against bias, while realizing that it may not be possible to remain completely unbiased.

For example, in quality scientific research the preferred research method is called a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Under this methodology, a pool of subjects is split in two. The first group gets an intervention (a medication, procedure, etc.), while the second group gets a placebo (a fake intervention, such as a tablet that contains no active ingredient). This is done so random variations in the study group can be controlled for, by comparing the active intervention group to the control group.

Double-blind means that neither the researchers nor the subjects know which individuals are receiving the intervention and which are not. Scientists discovered long ago that experiments could be swayed dramatically when a subject’s or researcher’s bias and expectation bled into the study, and only by removing this bias could the true effect of the interventions be gleaned.

Blinding is also an essential tool in the skeptic’s toolbox; incredibly simple, yet often overlooked by most. This was realized by an 11-year-old named Emily Rosa, who designed a test to see whether practitioners of “therapeutic touch” (a practice that claims to heal through the manipulation of a subjects’ aura) could detect a person’s aura, because they claim to be able to manipulate it. Once the practitioner was blinded, it became clear that she could not even detect whether a person was in front of her hands, let alone manipulate this imaginary energy field.

Blinding reveals the Ouija board to be nothing more than a child’s toy once the users are blinded and gibberish comes forth from the planchette. The supposed abilities of psychics, who use nothing more than cold reading techniques, disappear when they are blinded. Deprived of the feedback and response of the individual being read, the psychic is left to engage in pure guessing or vague platitudes.

Dowsers also do no better than chance when they are blinded. Dousing is the practice of locating underground water (or anything invisible) by observing the movement of a pointer, often a forked stick or bent wires. While belief in this brand of nonsense is typically benign, this is an example of where uncritical thinking can have unforeseen consequences.

About 15 years ago, a company named ATSC began selling a device called the ADE 651, which is now described as a glorified dowsing rod. The device was claimed to be able to locate everything from ivory and narcotics to guns and explosives. The company’s founder, Jim McCormick, sold these “devices” to many, including governments. The Iraqi government reportedly spent more than $40 million on these products, to use at checkpoints to locate bombs. It is tragic to think of how many explosives were smuggled past soldiers relying on a dowsing rod for national security.

In 2013, McCormick was sentenced to 10 years in prison for fraud. To think, all of this expense and risk could have been avoided if the purchaser had simply subjected the device to a blinded test.

By acknowledging our own biases and how they can influence our understanding of the world, and through the use of blinded testing, can we come closer to the truth.

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