Confirmation Bias Bias

There are a number of ways people have to avoid arguments while appearing to actually be saying something of significance. One of these ways, I have noted, is to make an issue of what is called “confirmation bias”.

The way it runs is something like this: “Anyone who believes X, or has a vested interest in X being true, is more likely to seek and present evidence for X, while also ignoring or not reporting evidence against it.” Some I’ve seen use this reasoning as a sort of magic wand giving them the freedom to wave off arguments — with little or even no further rebuttal deemed necessary.

Of course I won’t deny that “confirmation bias” can and does happen. I will, however, deny — rather strongly — that I fall victim to it with any notability. Ever since I began work in apologetics, I have made it a point to do everything I can to seek out and give consideration to opposing arguments and information, even if this means reading the works of fringe writers like Tony Bushby. I’ve gone out of my way, in fact, to seek out contrary views on the matters I research. I’ve also changed my mind on numerous issues over the years as I’ve done more thorough investigations, including some that have got me in hot water with other Christians (eg, the nature of hell, preterism, the atonement). So I don’t hear it when someone claims “confirmation bias” in my work. You can find it — perhaps — and collect it in a thimble.

Not that anyone ought to anyway. Whether someone has “confirmation bias” or not, the responsibility of the opposing party doesn’t change one whit to address fact claims an arguments. Labeling someone as a victim of “confirmation bias” is something that should only be done, if at all, after you’ve shown they’ve fallen victim to it — not before. And not as part of a rhetorical campaign to discredit your opposition while giving their arguments short shrift.


But then again, you don’t even need to point it out if it happens to be true. if you think someone is subject to confirmation bias, the only real excuse for pointing it out is to be able to take them aside — privately — and counsel them about it. There’s absolutely no reason to go pointing out publicly that you think an opponent has confirmation bias. What does that do to refute their arguments? Nothing.


Conformation bias isn’t the only thing that’s used as a sort of argumentative short-circuit (shortcut!) this way. Another favorite is to broadly appeal to things like the existence of urban legends. It goes like this: “Urban legends happen. Therefore (e.g.) the Resurrection could be one.” Why bother even writing entire books and composing serious arguments when this is enough to set your audience into the Neverending Nod of Satisfaction?


If anyone pulls this one on me, and says I must be guilty of confirmation bias, I’ll just throw back they they’re guilty of confirmation bias bias.

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9 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Todd

    Todd - October 4, 2013, 7:33 am

    If someone asks what it means to say that reason itself is “fallen,” or totally depraved, confirmation bias might be a good place to start. In any case, CB is a very corrosive idea, almost a “universal acid,” as Dennett calls Darwinism. For one thing, no one is exempt from it, including those who claim to discern it in others. Moreover, all attempts to use “objective” methods to correct for it are themselves subject to it. Hypothesis generation and testing, collection and interpretation of data–all subject to CB.

    The existence of CB should be utterly humbling to all who accept it. It puts certainty forever out of reach, for atheists and believers alike.

  2. Profile photo of Anthony

    Anthony - October 4, 2013, 4:16 pm

    ///The existence of CB should be utterly humbling to all who accept it. It puts certainty forever out of reach, for atheists and believers alike///

    Since I have the bias that the biblical trinitarian God necessarily exists for me to be absolutely certain of his existence, doesn’t that put certainty within my reach?

  3. Profile photo of Todd

    Todd - October 8, 2013, 10:33 am

    If your certainty is based on a bias, I suppose that entails that you’re not entitled to whatever certainty you might feel. To be entitled to certainty, you’d have to know that your bias is true, in which case it wouldn’t be a bias, since a bias is by definition a subjective prejudice rather than a matter of knowledge.

    • Profile photo of Anthony

      Anthony - October 8, 2013, 4:41 pm

      Then it’s not a bias. I can know it to be true and prove it. I’ll do it on my own post “WHY IS THE BIBLE TRUE”

      Would you agree that in order to claim that certainty is out of reach forever and for everyone requires that you be certain of that?
      You’re claiming knowledge of the future and knowledge of the minds of all living creatures past present and future, including the omniscient mind of God.

      • Profile photo of Todd

        Todd - October 8, 2013, 7:30 pm

        “Then it’s not a bias. I can know it to be true and prove it. I’ll do it on my own post “WHY IS THE BIBLE TRUE””

        I look forward to your post on the subject.

        “Would you agree that in order to claim that certainty is out of reach forever and for everyone requires that you be certain of that?”
        No, I wouldn’t. I don’t need certainty to claim anything.
        I’m not a skeptic or a relativist. I don’t claim that confirmation bias makes knowledge impossible. I only point out that those who accuse others of confirmation bias can’t exempt themselves from its effects. Confirmation bias may, however, make certainty impossible. Certainty isn’t the same as knowledge. I can be certain of things that are false, but I can’t know things that are false. Certainty is subjective; knowledge is objective.

        • Profile photo of Anthony

          Anthony - October 9, 2013, 5:58 pm

          Are you saying that certainty doesn’t require justification? If I understand you correctly, then certainty is arbitrary. I could claim to be certain about anything I want to. Correct me only if you know I’m wrong and not certain I’m wrong j/k!

          I understand beliefs w/o justification to be arbitrary and unable to be proven, but knowledge is justified true belief.

  4. Profile photo of Todd

    Todd - October 10, 2013, 7:51 am

    Certainty itself is nothing more than a feeling of unshakable conviction about something. It doesn’t follow that you can be certain about anything you want to, because you can’t control certainty. But you can be certain about things that are dead wrong, although you can’t know them.

    Certainty itself doesn’t require justification. Being entitled to certainty does. It makes sense to say that A is certain that P, but shouldn’t be, because P is false. It also makes sense to say that A knows that P but isn’t certain. This could happen if A believes P, P is true, and A has justification for believing P, but for some reason A also doubts whether that justification is sufficient.

    • Profile photo of Anthony

      Anthony - October 10, 2013, 8:29 pm

      People often deny the possibility of absolute certainty. I see this as a knowledge claim that requires absolute justification, which can’t be grounded in a finite mind.

      If there isn’t any justification then it’s just based on arbitrary emotions. I take the word “certainty” lightly until a sound reason is provided to support the claim.

  5. Profile photo of Todd

    Todd - October 15, 2013, 7:53 am

    What is “absolute justification”? How is it different from plain old justification? I never claimed, nor would I claim, there is no such thing as justification.

    What’s the difference between “absolute certainty”, which I didn’t mention, and plain old certainty, which I did?

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