Tag Archives: News

Confirmation Bias – A New Personality Disorder?

Intro:  Yesterday, I read an excellent post by Robert on his blog Seven Spheres, which was on the topic of confirmation bias.  You should check out his blog because there are some really great posts on a whole range of topics about what makes this world tick.  His post reminded me of an article I posted on LinkedIn last year, and I thought I would include it on my blog.  Confirmation bias is something we should all think about, because it affects our judgments and decisions daily and we probably don’t even realize it.  Please read on . . .

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I recently read an article titled: “Legal Ethics and Confirmation Bias.” The article begins its trek with a brief overview of how the practice of law is governed by its professional rules of conduct, provides a very good definition of “confirmation bias,” and then diverts down the road less traveled attempting to correlate racial discrimination and advancement within the legal profession. I’m not saying that the author didn’t have a legitimate point, she did. I would just like to address the elephant in the room she skillfully avoided and diverge down a different trail.

The definition of “confirmation bias,” as provided by the author, is “a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or under-weigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.” But applying this to a lawyer’s representation of a client, as the author first does (representation that is supposed to be zealous and one-sided in nature), and applying it to the determination of who gets a promotion in a law firm, as the author does next, seems to me to severely limit the application of the two most important words in the definition – “decision makers.” I will be happy to expand that application.

In the context of a discussion of legal ethics, you would think the author would discuss the elephant, or zebra or gorilla if you prefer, namely judges. I can’t think of any more important context than the individuals who “decide” the outcomes of legal disputes. If judges actively seek out information to confirm their biases, even if that behavior is so inherently ingrained they don’t realize what they are doing, as opposed to evaluating evidence openly and objectively, then certainly there will be no “justice” when a decision is rendered. This has, in fact, been one of the chief criticisms of the U.S. Supreme Court. Since that court exercises complete discretion over the cases it hears, it has been said that they only take cases that they have already decided. If true, I find that frightening in two respects.

First, the high court is not required to clear up discrepancies with the interpretation and application of federal law among the circuits of the federal courts of appeal. Thus, the federal law can be differently applied in different parts of the country – no uniform federal law for the land – and who cares, right, if that is politically expedient. Second, if the highest court only hears cases it desires and has prejudged them, and if confirmation bias permeates all of the judicial system, then there is ample ammunition for the criticism that the courts are purely political entities, with judges being mere puppets doing the bidding of their appointers or electors and not objectively applying the law as it is written. Deciding court cases is not playing pinball; these decisions have dramatic impacts on people’s lives.

Ok, I addressed the elephant, and now for my own divergence.

We first must recognize the obvious – that every individual is a “decision maker.” We all make countless decisions each day, as mundane as how often we brush our teeth or as magnanimous as whether to have children.  Next, there appears to be an overwhelming desire for people to categorize things as being black or white – not in the racial context – but an oversimplification of issues or subject matter. Where in reality there may be thirteen different alternatives, or various shades of gray in between them all, people like to think there is always either an A or B or right or wrong answer. There usually isn’t. Things aren’t that simple and sometimes the answer is all of the above.

In the age of social media this faulty logic has become epidemic, or to use the parlance – “gone viral.” It is, in reality, thinking backwards. People begin with a conclusion and seek out supporting “evidence” to validate themselves. The evidence is often questionable, and the positions fermented are polarizing; based more in inebriated blind faith than in reality.  This leads more to one-sided screaming and incivility than to any type of productive discourse. People have decided they are right, they have their evidence, and they will no longer consider any other contrary evidence. They have integrated their position, on whatever the subject matter may be, so strongly as part of very their own identity that being “right” is necessary to protect that identity – the position has become secondary. Being “wrong” would simply shake them at their core, spin their minds into a state of oblivion. They may even label the countervailing information, even if it is overwhelming, as “fake news” or “lies” or even claim it is “biased,” all the while discounting their own biases or the biases of the sources they consulted – if they had any to begin with. They are so intoxicated with the notion that their ideas are gospel and irrefutable they see no need to even hear any words but their own.

Overconfidence and an inflated view of one’s own self-importance is magnified in cyberspace where people can create their own forums and post with relative anonymity. There are no social repercussions for being rude and inconsiderate or, more to the point, being an asshole online. There is no peer group in the room to subtlety apply pressure to be civil or call out bad behavior – at least, not in a meaningful way. When “conversations” deteriorate to episodes of cyber-rage and the leveling of death threats, which I have experienced all too frequently online, I think we can safely say this is aberrant behavior – worthy of a diagnostic code in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

My advice is simple – wake up from your own delusions, think critically, speak civilly or hold your tongue and listen for a change, and be prepared to admit when you’re wrong – be thrilled to expand your point of view!

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Photo:  I found this picture on the Internet in the public domain.  I could find no other attribution for it.

LinkedIn:  If anyone wants to connect on LinkedIn, you can find me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/haroldstearley/

Update: April 25, 2018 – The ABA Journal just published an article about research demonstrating judicial bias with traditional gender roles, and I discovered an older article about implicit bias.

http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/judges_expertise_may_correlate_with_more_gender_bias_in_some_cases_study_sa/?utm_source=maestro&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=daily_email

http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/implicit_bias_is_a_challenge_even_for_judges

 

Changing the Mission

Disclaimer: I am trying not to be too political on my blog, but there are a few issues I do find important, and since I love to write, and recognize the amazing power of words, the use, or misuse, of words is one of those issues.  Bearing that in mind, please continue . . .

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”  Buddha.

Semantics or Brainwashing?

I recently read that the Housing and Urban Development Department, under the current administration, is contemplating changing its mission statement. Apparently, those is charge wish to remove the words “free from discrimination,” among others, from that proclamation and, apparently, this is decision being made without consultation with the career staff at the agency.  I mean, let’s not consider the views of those working hard to fulfill the department’s goals when making such a fundamental change.

Do words, or the eraser of words, matter?

Consider first that a “mission statement” is the summary of the aims and values of an organization.  Next consider that this agency was established in 1965 as a cabinet level department for the express purpose of combating discrimination in the availability of livable and affordable housing.

So why change the words, which does change the mission?  And this is where the analysis should really begin – ask why?

This may seem like an insignificant change, but words are extremely powerful and what this change boils down to is an attempt at revisionist history.  Future readers of the mission statement may view the agency as existing to help ensure the availability of housing.  But the historical root, that the agency was established to help fight racial and economic discrimination by landlords, has been eliminated.

So why?  One can only speculate as to motivations, but looking at the totality of current policy objectives, it would appear that the ruling class wants to brainwash current and future generations into believing this is a society where segregation and poverty and exploitation in the housing market didn’t or doesn’t exist.  So, there was no need to create an agency to address a non-existent problem.  And why white-wash the agency’s purpose? Pun intended.

A more poignant example is with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, with a history extending back to the 1890s.  Yes, the administration changed the mission statement for this agency as well.  It erased the bedrock phrase “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” from its mission.  How ironic.  Like it or not, this country was born out of a history of slavery and genocide, and the first European settlers here were “occupiers” – “invaders.”   That’s just historical fact and you can’t change that.

The only true “Americans” are the aboriginals.  And there is nothing wrong with having a heritage of immigration.  I’ve descended primarily from German and Irish ancestors, although there is a tad bit of genetics coming from the Caucasus region.  I’m not a Native American and never will be. That’s ok.

The erasure of this phrase appears to indicate a desire to foster the image of “pure-bred Americans” versus anyone else trying to come to this country from anywhere else in the world.  Us versus them.  We are no longer a nation of immigrants ensuring the country is open to immigration because the current administration is fighting to severely restrict immigration.  Promoting division.  And why is that?  Please read my post in the politics section – It’s Really About Outnumbering.  I wrote this one a while back, but I think it is still applicable.

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Actually, the change in mission statements for both agencies is a much more severe re-writing:

The Housing and Urban Development Department:

Historical: “HUD’s mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD is working to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination, and transform the way HUD does business.”

Revised: “HUD’s mission is to ensure Americans have access to fair, affordable housing and opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency, thereby strengthening our communities and nation.”

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:

Historical: “USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.”

Revised: “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”

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Photo:  This beautiful shot was take in a sculpture garden in Michigan.

 

Hello Politics . . .

Well, eventually this topic was going to come up.  It’s hard to avoid, especially with today’s newsfeed continually ticking off the latest Congressional blunders.

The diverse topics that fit into this category can be so emotionally charged that I waited a little while before adding any commentary.  But I think some of the current political issues are worthy of discussion.  I’d just like to keep it civil.  Right now, I don’t see much civility on any side of these issues.

So, let’s start off with a note about the U.S. Constitution.  This amazing, and actually short, document ensures a lot of protections for the citizens.  What some don’t understand is that these protections only apply to the federal or state governments, not to the private sector.  The Constitution is like a contact between the government, and its actors, and the people.   The government cannot unreasonably infringe upon the rights guaranteed in the document.

This is why so many other federal laws exist.  Laws such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.  These anti-discrimination laws extend to both the public and private sectors.

None of these laws would have been enacted, but for, the private sector having exploited people.  And now some of these laws are turned on their heads and have led to other forms of exploitation.  We can have a little fun talking about that later.

So just this week, the House voted to essentially gut the main provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  I don’t recall that being on any politician’s campaign platform during the election year.  I don’t recall the public demanding such action.  So why are politicians stripping away protections for the citizens to benefit big business?  And why aren’t people paying attention?  Read on to my first post in the politics section of my blog: “The Politics of Division.”

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The Politics of Division

I don’t think anyone would deny that the country is very divided on a number of political issues.  The odd thing is this, I can talk to my liberal friends and my conservative friends, and this “gap” in general viewpoints is really pretty small on most matters.  So, what’s the deal?

For the past several election cycles, both major parties have hit hard on dividing people, usually on ideological social policy issues.   Using the vast power of all forms of media, they have convinced the public that these are huge issues, that the people should be divided over them, and that the point of view held on the issues defines what party you should vote for.  They have even convinced most voters that this handful of issues are more important than going to war or ballooning the deficit to give select portions of the populous, the 1%ers, a huge tax break.

Why?  By polarizing the country on such issues, and by screaming about them, they beat the drums to get their voters, their “believers,” out to the poles to vote for them.  They drive the heard.  And then once elected, if you have noticed, neither party tries to eliminate these issues or solve them politically.  Why?  Because they need them for the next election cycle.

Abortion, gay or transgender rights, and immigration are three primary examples.  Of course, guns are in the mix too.  Looking at abortion for an illustration, under the second Bush administration, there was a four to five-year block (2003-2007) where the Republicans had control of all three branches of government.  Both houses of Congress, the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court.  Yet, they didn’t outlaw abortion, or even try to, although they claim that as one of their party’s major platforms.  They had the power to do that, but they would not have been able to use this issue in the next election cycle if they made it go away.  The Democrats, equally, play the same game.  Amazing how there is no “solution” for immigration, or was there ever really a problem to begin with?

They manipulate these issues, and the people, to get votes on issues they do not intend to fix.  Once in power, they follow their own agenda, which is usually doing things to help out their biggest campaign contributors and, of course, themselves.

The problem for the politicians that I don’t believe they saw coming, is they were too successful.  They have truly divided the country in ways that now threaten the existence of democracy.

Fear-mongering with false information is a primary tactic used to divide.  Beating the drum of White, European, Christian Nationalism is perhaps the scariest tactic I’ve seen of late.  Things are getting really ugly.  The flaming I see on the Internet is shocking.  We’ve had violence in the streets.  We have threats on the free press.

The government is militarizing the police, not just because criminals are using more advanced weapons, but because they are preparing for civil unrest.  If this purposely generated division spills into too much street violence, beware of Martial Law.

In the background of this purposely orchestrated hatred, the wealthy just received a huge tax cut at the cost of ballooning the deficit by 1.4 trillion dollars – even though 78% of the public opposed it.  Congress also just gutted the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Again, to benefit business interests over people.  It’s rolling back environmental regulations, allowing short-term corporate profits to take precedence over poisoning the planet and the people.  Wow!  You see, the dial hasn’t moved either way on abortion, immigration or guns – the issues people think they are voting on.  Once in office, the politicians ignore the public’s wishes completely and give themselves and corporate America huge payouts.

I could list out more issues in detail and offer data now, but I’ll save that for some individualized posts.  I realize people can have strong views on many issues, but I’d ask people to really stop and analyze situations and contexts, not just issues in isolation.  Examine how those in power might be manipulating.  I never expect complete agreement on such controversies, but I do appreciate civility and intelligent thought and discussion.  I like to have my thinking challenged.  It is even good for all of us to be proven wrong on occasion – just to get our minds to open.

Enlightenment comes in many forms.  Hating or vilifying others because they believe differently is not one of them.  We must learn to think, analyze, converse and compromise.  We can’t let sound bites, buzzwords and incendiary catch phrases divide and conquer.  The nation is stronger united.

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