A Short Course In Confirmation Bias

Posted: March 6, 2016 in Confirmation Bias, Fred Anson, Mormon Culture, Mormon Studies, Recovery from Mormonism, Sociology

Confirmation driven apologetics.

Confirmation Bias driven apologetics.

by Fred W. Anson
In 2009 a local newspaper in Provo, Utah ran a series of articles written by local people who were trying to persuade members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the “Mormon Church”) to leave their church. In response to these highly critical and spirited articles, a true believing member of the Mormon Church wrote this rebuttal which has been kicking around the Internet ever since:1

Editor:

I have been thinking of quitting the Mormon Church. Yes, if I can, I am going to get even with that church. As soon as I can find another church that teaches about the Gathering of the House of Israel; the return of the Ten Tribes and their mission; the return of the Jews to Palestine and why, and how they are going to build the temple; the building of temples and what to do with them; the mission of Elias, the prophet, as predicted by Malachi; the method for the salvation of the people that died at the time of Noah in the flood; the origin of the American Indian; the complete explanation of why Jesus of Nazareth had to have a mortal mother but not a mortal father; the explanation of the three degrees of glory (three heavens) as mentioned by Paul; the complete explanation of why Elias and Moses did not die but had to be translated (since they both lived before the resurrection was introduced by Christ); the restoration of the gospel by modern revelation as promised by Peter and Paul and Jesus himself; the belief in eternal marriage and the family, and the knowledge and the place to seal for eternity; that teaches abstinence from all harmful drugs and foods; and that sells the best fire insurance policy on earth, for the last days, for only a 10th of my income.

BRM_ConfirmationBias

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Yes sir, as soon as I can find another church that teaches all that, or even half as much, I will say good-bye to this Mormon Church. The church that I am looking for must also be able to motivate 50,000+ youth, and adults, for the first, second or third time, to leave their homes for two years at their own expense and go to far-away places to teach and preach without salary. It must be able to call, on a frosty day, some 5 or 6 thousand professors, students, lawyers, doctors, judges, policemen, businessmen, housewives and children to go and pick apples at 6 am. It must be able to call meetings and get the attention for two hours of more than 150,000 men. Yes, it must also teach and show why salvation is assured for children who die before eight years of age.

Mr. Editor, could you help me find a church that teaches all that and more than hundreds of other doctrines and principles, which I have no room to mention here, and which brings solace and comfort to the soul; peace, hope, and salvation to mankind, and above all, that answers the key questions that all the great philosophers have asked; questions and answers that explain the meaning of life, the purpose of death, suffering and pain; the absolute need for a Redeemer and the marvelous plan conceived by our Father and executed by Jesus Christ the Savior? Yes, as soon as I find another church that teaches that, and also that has the organization and the powers to make that teaching effective, I am going to quit the Mormon Church. For I should not tolerate that “they” should change a few words in the Book of Mormon-even if those changes simply improve the grammar and the syntax of the verses-for, after all, don’t you think the Divine Church should employ angels as bookmakers, and clerks, to do all the chores on earth? Don’t you think, Mr. Editor that the Divine Church should also have prophets that don’t get sick and don’t get old and die, and certainly, that don’t make a goof here and there. No, sir! A Divine Church should be so divine that only perfect people should belong to it, and only perfect people should run it. As a matter of fact, the Church should be so perfect that it should not even be here on earth!

An example of the double standard – another form of confirmation bias.
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So, I repeat, if any one of the kind readers of this imperfect letter knows about another church that teaches and does as much for mankind as the Mormon Church, please let me know. And please do it soon, because my turn to go to the cannery is coming up. Also, “they” want my last son (the fifth one) to go away for two years and again, I have to pay for all that. And I also know that they expect me to go to the farm to prune trees, and I have heard that our ward is going to be divided again, and it is our side that must build the new chapel. And also, someone the other day had the gall of suggesting that my wife and I get ready to go on a second mission, and when you come back, they said, you can volunteer as a temple worker.

Boy, these Mormons don’t leave you alone for a minute. And what do I get for all that, I asked? “Well,” they said, “for one, you can look forward to a funeral service at no charge!”… Do you think you can help me to find another church?

Thomas D. Clark

This letter is usually presented by True Believing Mormons as proof of the superiority and veracity of the LdS Church. They tend to think that this letter represents one of the strongest, most convincing arguments for their church available. But outsiders see a problem with this perspective.

Stated plainly, this letter is about as fine a collection of logic fallacies as one could hope to find! I could write a very long article, deconstructing this letter point by point and identifying them. However, you wouldn’t want to read it, and frankly, I don’t want to write it.2 Rather, let’s just focus on the core fallacy used here by both the author of the letter and those who present it as compelling evidence for the Mormon Church: Confirmation Bias.

Wikipedia defines confirmation bias as follows: “Confirmation bias… is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities… People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”3

A simpler, more vernacular way to define it is, “You only count the hits and ignore the misses for your predetermined, favored position.” To illustrate how this works in Mormonism I wrote an article using the analogy of a Military Tank to paint a picture of how confirmation bias surrounds, runs through, and permeates the culture of the Mormon Church. Stretching the analogy a bit, fanatical confirmation bias is the fuel that runs the Mormon Tank.

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To illustrate just how easy it is to create a confirmation bias driven equivalent to Thomas D. Clark’s arguments, here’s my version of his letter derived from my experiences, theology, ecclesiology, and preferred church culture.

Editor:

I have been thinking of quitting my church. Yes, if I can, I am going to get even with that church. As soon as I can find another church that teaches about the authority of scripture; the importance of the Reformation; the importance of confessing the creeds; spending money on people not things, that doesn’t teach that the gifts of the Spirit ceased with the death of the Apostles; that teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone; that explains the human condition biblically; the complete explanation of why Jesus of Nazareth had to be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the elect; that has a fully formed theology of heaven; that still practices the gifts of the Holy Spirit as they appear in the Bible; that still believes in, acknowledges, and practices the 5-fold ministries that are taught in Ephesians 4:11; that is committed to strong marriages and families even over ministry, that teaches a Christianity that’s both head and heart not just one or the other; that helps captive addicts snared in bondage (like I was) get free; and that doesn’t demand at least a 10th of my income like authoritarian, legalistic churches do.

Yes sir, as soon as I can find another church that teaches all that, or even half as much, I will say good-bye to my church. The church that I am looking for must also be able to motivate youth, and adults, for the first, second or third time, to leave their homes for one or two years at their own expense and go to far-away places to teach and preach without salary – as so many in my church are doing and have done.

It must be able to call, on an inconvenient day, some 5 or 6 thousand professors, students, lawyers, doctors, judges, policemen, businessmen, housewives and children to volunteer and go serve their neighbors – whether that neighbor be next door or half way around the globe. It must be able to get the entire church to pitch in for a project as so often happens. It must be able to call meetings that get the attention of the men in the church and motivate them in love to be the best husbands, fathers, and Christians that they can be.

confirmation-bias-2Mr. Editor, could you help me find a church that teaches all that and more than hundreds of other doctrines and principles, which I have no room to mention here, and which brings solace and comfort to the soul; peace, hope, and salvation to mankind, and above all, that answers the key questions that all the great philosophers have asked; questions and answers that explain the meaning of life, the purpose of death, suffering and pain; the absolute need for a Redeemer and the marvelous gift of eternal life that we have through the atonement of Jesus Christ my Savior? Yes, as soon as I find another church that teaches that, and also that has the organization and the powers to make that teaching effective, I am going to quit my church.

Further, I should not tolerate that “they” should insist on using the King James Bible alone when better modern translations that use the better, older manuscripts that weren’t available in the 17th Century are available.

And don’t you think, Mr. Editor that the Divine Church should also have imperfect, in process, clergy and laity that God works and speaks through despite their flaws? Yes sir, a Divine Church should be so divine that God’s grace and agape love flows through it in such a way that despite the fact that common, ordinary, broken, imperfect people fill and run it, the gates of hell will not and have not prevailed against it.

As a matter of fact, the Divine Church should be so imperfect that that the song, “Come Just As You Are” is the constant call to both those on the outside and inside of the Church. And in the Divine Church, while Christlike holiness is still the ideal and goal, all are worthy – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, right here, right now – aren’t they? The Divine Church is one where God in Christ is given all the glory through the weak made strong.  And through Christ’s glorious freedom church members can be 100% authentic 100% of the time – pretense is neither necessary or desirable in God’s true Church is it?

So, I repeat, if any one of the kind readers of this imperfect letter knows about another church that teaches and does as much for mankind as my Church, please let me know. So do you think you can help me to find another church?

Fred W. Anson

See how easy that was? All I did was copy Thomas D. Clark’s letter, take my own biases (the big one of course being to assume that my church is the only one that has these qualities), add a big scoop or two of how we do things in my church, and voilà: The perfect Church according to Fred W. Anson emerges. That was easy wasn’t it?

It was so easy in fact, that I would challenge you to go forth and do likewise: Post your own confirmation bias driven version of Thomas D. Clark’s great opus in the comments section. And when it’s all said and done what have you, I, and Thomas D. Clark proven? Answer: That we all know how to build “the perfect Church” in our own image from our own biases, preferences, self-inflicted blindness, and desires. In other words, we’ve proven nothing at all – except that we all can be closed minded, biased, and prone to use self validation as a means of smug self denial of reality, of course.

But enough of my yackin’ already! It’s time for you to get busy: Rev up that confirmation bias engine of yours and get started. I’m looking forward to seeing your version of Thomas D. Clark’s letter in the comments section soon!

Kierkegaard

NOTES:
1 I discovered this letter on the “My Life by Go Go Goff” blogsite. As a light homage to this source (and because I was feeling a little lazy when I wrote this article) I used some of his original prose in the introduction.

2 However, if you’re just dying to play “find the logical fallacy” on your own, here’s a good list of common logical fallacies (click here) that are used in public rhetoric. Just match the argument to the fallacy and have fun with it! By the way, pay special attention to “Circular reasoning” – for that one you’ll need a tally sheet Mr. Clark used it so often in his letter.

3 Wikipedia article on Confirmation Bias.

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Comments
  1. A member of the LdS Church alerted me to the following article. They wanted me to realize that there are some thinking Mormons within the Church that recognize this dynamic as well. Here’s a salient excerpt:

    “So I want to believe, but for better or worse I am acutely alert to the danger of confirmation bias. My belief is a choice, a choice not entirely founded on substantive information or truth. Yes, I have had experiences with the Divine; I recognize them and acknowledge their significance. At the same time, I do not quite understand them. I will hold fast to what I have been given, as Elder Holland recently said. But I now readily acknowledge that there is much, indeed much more than I previously envisioned, that I do not know.

    Yes, recognizing confirmation bias undermines our confidence in our own ability to form definitive conclusions about anything. But is that necessarily a bad thing? While complete dogmatic confidence motivates remarkable exertions in defense of that truth, the downside is we are unable to progress upon receipt of new information. Awareness of confirmation bias is of course the first step. We can all question our own conclusions a little more, recognizing our inherent penchant to find evidence only when we want to see it. Let us be careful with the phrase “I know,” and perhaps focus more on faith, the first principle of the Gospel. And I will continue to search for a way to know without insisting that its inevitable shadow of doubt disappear.”
    http://www.thetabernacles.com/home/beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt-the-curse-of-confirmation-bias

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