Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Avoiding Confirmation Bias

With Election Day upon us I thought it was appropriate to share a few thoughts about working with students on political issues. This is a topic that can be a minefield for educators. Parents, colleagues, and other school stakeholders may have some deeply held convictions -- ones where if opposing viewpoints are shared, they might choose to express their dismay with you. Therefore, I know of a lot of educators who completely steer clear of political discussions. But is that healthy for our students?

The rise of personal publishing platforms has made it more possible than ever before to align oneself with those who share your own viewpoints. Paradoxically, it is also now much easier to avoid opposing viewpoints since there is so much writing that supports already-held beliefs.

Confirmation bias is when one studies and reviews only the resources that confirm their own beliefs. For instance, it is well known that Fox News is a bastion of politically conservative news, while MSNBC and CNN tend to draw those more liberally inclined. Similarly, their are political blogs and commentary sites throughout cyberspace that cater to those who are "true believers" for a particular perspective or cause. If one only uses those sites that support their own ideas there is never true exposure to other ideas, nor is one as able to engage in meaningful and productive dialog about political issues with only that one perspective.

Statistician and writer Nate Silver, in his recent book The Signal and the Noise, identified how the explosion of searchable information in the digital age has led to an increase in the occurrence of confirmation bias:

“The result of having so much more shared knowledge was increasing isolation along national and religious lines. The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.”

In other words, today we can completely ignore and even villify those who do not hold our own views since we can so easily find support for our own beliefs. Therefore, the political rhetoric becomes bombastic and aggressive for few take the time to understand the views of others and engage in productive dialog. This even happens in my church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, where blogs and websites have emerged that cater to various perspectives on church and theology matters.

So how do we encourage learning, individual thought, and dialog in such an age? In my judgment, it is by being intentional in helping our students avoid confirmation bias. This does not mean that we seek to change the viewpoints of students. Rather, we help them view the other side of issues in a meaningful way but encourage them to come to their conclusions, showing evidence that they have considered both sides.

Last year I taught the government class at our school. One activity I initiated was a short research project where students took an issue of which they felt strongly and then had them study the key support and objection points for that issue. In other words, the structure of the project was designed to move students beyond confirmation bias. Here were two findings of students through this process:
  • One student was very much in support of the rights of gun owners and concerned about the erosion of those rights. However, in his research, he encountered the concern about gun ownership by the mentally ill, and became interested in discussing ways to prevent guns from being misused.
  • A young lady was very much against the growing government intrusion on health care decisions. Yet in her study she found that one element of ObamaCare that really made sense to her was its focus on incentives for preventative care, designed to both better serve the individual as well as bring overall health care costs down. She began wondering how preventative care might be emphasized in other types of health plans.
This activity did not change the beliefs of students, but it did open their eyes to the nuances of issues not typically portrayed in the traditional media. It also provided them with common ground for future conversations with those who have a different political perspective.

This Election Day, my encouragement to educators is to support independent thinking and research by our students. Help them to dig deeper into various points of view and then give them a voice in sharing their ideas. Our democracy was designed for healthy, vigorous debate. Prepare them to fill this role in a productive manner. No matter where we or our students sit on the political spectrum, help them avoid confirmation bias.

No comments:

Post a Comment