Tennessee Williams coined the phrase “The kindness of strangers,” and never was it more appropriate than in our Norfolk walk. We never use the names of those who offer us hospitality, for few want that sort of publicity and anyway, by the time we have stated that X and Y are wonderful, what on earth do we say about A and B.
Norfolk is fortunate not to be able to boast of a motorway so that it retains its independence and charm. We were even spared the wind that is said to roar over straight from the Urals: “The Beast from the East”.
What is “Confirmation Bias” (CB) and why does it matter? It’s the tendency to process new information as confirmation of our existing beliefs. And it’s often the result of our desire to establish we are right.
Perhaps you think you have an open mind and are willing to change long-held views if you receive new information? Are you sure about that?
Trial By Mob
Allow me to give you an example of extreme CB. Long before Rev Nigel Biggar, Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, wrote his excellent book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, he announced he was setting up a group at Christ Church Oxford to research the pluses and minuses of colonialism and empire. To his astonishment, he attracted abuse on an industrial scale from Professor Priyamvada Gopal at the University of Cambridge: “We must stop this shit!” Then followed a condemnatory letter from 59 Oxford academics, backed up by another 200 from around the world, which was publicly circulated. It came from intelligent people who decided to put the boot in on a project well before any of them could possibly have known what it entailed.
How did this come about? Easy! One person decided on the cancellation initiative. A letter was written, and colleagues persuaded to sign it on the proposition that Biggar was a misguided simpleton and that anything from his pen had to be condemned.
So, one by one, these people put the boot in – just as in Alice in Wonderland:
“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
“No, no!”, said the Queen. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.”
Then publisher Bloomsbury – who had commissioned Biggar – got cold feet and decided that they couldn’t go ahead with the book after all. Rumour had it that young employees decided they were far too delicate to have anything to do with the “colonialism” in the book’s title, and so that was that.
Fortunately, William Collins was brave enough to publish, and the book has been a great success.
What Nigel Bigger suffered is an extreme example of confirmation bias, all from professors and publishers with brains the size of Basingstoke. Being intelligent didn’t not stop them from acting like hens. They judged before they knew the facts – and none has apologised!
So, what hope have we got to avoid the CB trap?
This is how it works. Let’s assume you supported the Remain camp back in 2016, and you loathe Boris Johnson, whom you regard as largely responsible for Brexit. Each time you hear of one of his achievements – such as the vaccine rollout ahead of all other countries or support for Ukraine – you simply close your ears. Meanwhile, his many disasters are like catnip to you.
Just listen to people parading they are “left wing” – whatever “left wing” is meant to mean? They are virtue-signalling they are not “right wing”, like that ghastly Nigel Farage and Boris.
Some claim to be so delicate they cannot bring themselves to read the Daily Mail or even have it in their house, as if merely touching the paper would taint them with some exotic right-wing disease. When I point out that it’s the most popular newspaper in the UK with wonderful sports and women’s pages, an informative financial section, first-rate quizzes and simply stated opinions by top-class writers – so what on earth are they talking about – they grow mute. CB sufferers are never happy to be challenged.
I submit we are all tainted by CB to some degree, welcoming views that support our prejudices whilst rejecting others that do not. Let’s run a simple test. To what extent do the names or words Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, Angela Raynor, Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage, Meghan Markle, Brexit, Rupert Murdoch, Dominic Cummings, Dianne Abbott, Richard Dawkins, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Israel and Palestine, and the words “colonial” and “empire” trigger an attack of “CB” in you?
Now we know the moral quality of figures from some leading universities and publishers, it makes it easier to understand the dynamics of Paris’s revolutionary mob, the Salem witch hunt and why in America’s deep south, individuals were so easily persuaded to lynch black people.