Confirmation bias, in plain English, is the tendency to notice things that confirm what we already believe. It’s why it’s always so much easier to notice the mistakes of people we don’t like than to recognise their virtues. While we like to think that people’s mistakes only confirm our dislike for them, it’s more often the other way round. It’s also a terrible habit for someone in my career.
Recently I ran across an article on News24 which highlighted alleged (in the words of the headline) racial segregation at a Curro school: http://www.news24.com/Live/SouthAfrica/News/Curro-school-alleged-racial-segregation-caught-on-camera-20150618
Given that the same school was found guilty of deliberate racial segregation earlier in the year, it was almost too good an opportunity to pass up – the combination of irony and schadenfreude (subconscious, I assure you) was simply too tempting.
I’ll eagerly admit to some hesitation – I wish I could claim my instincts detected something sensationalist about the article, but it was probably just hesitance to deliver commentary on so touchy a subject as racism on Facebook.
Because I’d been “warned” by the words of the article to look out for racial segregation, I saw racial segregation. Confirmation bias. I watched the video and saw children being visibly separated by race, because it’s what I had been told to expect. There were even a few rants on my twitter feed to fuel my bias. What I didn’t see were the children split up in a manner not attributable to racial segregation. Further analysis suggests the children were split by language, according to which the choice of split makes perfect sense.
Quite apart from being reminded that confirmation bias is a terrible thing to suffer from in my field, I learned an even more important lesson. I was wrong. On the internet! And I didn’t die. One of my subconscious fears, when starting this blog, was public humiliation (oh, the melodrama!). Whereas in reality it turns out that I made a comment, someone(s) politely pointed out my mistake, I apologised after reviewing the evidence, and everyone lived happily ever after (citation pending).
Not that it’s the norm on the internet – not by miles*. There’s a catch-22 scenario in which people steadfastly hold onto their mistaken views despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and other people vociferously lambaste them, and neither side is willing to give an *inch for fear of…well, humiliation, probably. The longer you hold your view, the more humiliating it is when you are forced to cede it.
But it can be done. Turns out being wrong is not as humiliating as I thought it would be.
*Topic for tomorrow – the metric system versus figures of speech.
Here is another follow up on the Curro saga. I make no claims about the accuracy of the reporting: