25. March 2010 · 2 comments · Categories: Atheism

While Confirmation Bias is a simple concept – we remember the “hits” and forget the “misses” – we have to be constantly vigilant to make sure we aren’t committing this error. This is especially difficult because most people place a high value on their own experiences and it is exactly those experiences that result in Confirmation Bias.

“I’m experiencing a cold winter so global warming is a myth”. You may be, I certainly am, but that is hardly a reason to dismiss the evidence for global climate change.

“A vaccine made me (or my child) sick, so vaccines are evil and to be avoided”. You may actually be one of the small minority of people who experience adverse reactions to vaccines (see CDC) but that hardly means vaccines don’t work.

No where is Confirmation Bias more prevalent than in the area of prayer. Every Christian, or for that matter a practitioner of any religion, can give you a long list of ‘”answered” prayers – the stranger that helped, the illness that was cured, the conversion of a friend, a parking spot at a crowded mall, the money in the mail, the job of your dreams, the woman or man won.  These items stick.  They are hits.  They are remembered and looked upon as proof or confirmation of ones faith. For the faithful they are, in the words of scripture, “the assurance of things hoped for”.

But what of the misses. The unanswered prayers? If a believer is honest, his or her prayer journal (mental or paper) is also filled with a heavy dose of misses.  In fact, every properly controlled scientific study on prayer has shown that misses are the only outcome (e.g. American Heart Journal).

God is the only concept which is given a pass on everything related to requests and prayers.  If prayer is answered then god gets the credit and if prayer goes unanswered then it really wasn’t unanswered. God answered with a wait or no, since he knows what is best for us. This concept makes prayer immune to scientific study, not that science can’t design experiments to test prayer – it has. However, if the prayer wasn’t answered, believers can always fall back on the reasoning that god did answer the prayer with a no.

The success rate of prayer is due to confirmation bias and the fact that with almost 7 billion people in the world, highly unlike events happen all the time by pure chance to random people.  Unfortunately most people have no knowledge of the mathematics of probability theory or they have a very warped idea of it due to its misuse. However, the illusion of answered prayer will continue for most believers. Confirmation bias is extremely powerful in shaping a person’s beliefs and it is very difficult to argue against personal experiences.

Side Note: Some theological systems actually realize that prayer doesn’t work.  They don’t exactly say that; rather, it is usually stated in these terms: God answers only those prayers that are according to his will.  In other words, he only answers your prayers if what you prayed for has already been determined by his sovereign will. Here is an example: “…we can say that God uses people’s prayers as an avenue to bringing about his ultimate will. Prayer changes us. God uses prayer in our lives to pray in accordance with his will so that we are in alignment with what is on his heart and mind. We must remember that when God “changes” his mind, he already decided he would do that” (Beneath the Cross) Doublethink?  Orwell would be proud.

2 Comments

  1. Gerda de Klerk

    Great post, Alan, thanks! I can concur with you that it is very easy to be seduced by confirmation bias. Our species is just not hardwired to think probabilistically. In addition, we all like to feel special, or that our lives have some purpose, so we also very easily cling on to coincidences. So very often do I hear stuff like: "No way that was accidental," or "that must be a sign" – and then I am always the party pooper who disagrees. I am not sure how to proceed then without sounding like a smarty pants. Any suggestions? I would like to get everybody to learn more about risk and about probability – but I believe these are truly things we need to study in a formal way, in order to start rewiring our nature – it's not something that comes naturally to people. I could say: "Come and take my statistics class", but that would be the off-putting smarty pants answer I thihnk

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  2. I have the same problem Gerda. I'm the party pooper or I'm just too much of a scientist. In situations like this I try to determine whether a person or group is teachable. Most of the time they are so convinced of the "facts" because of their personal experience, it is just a waste of time and energy to engage them. In this case, I usually just bite my tongue and let it go. (An exception is if I am being challenged or attacked.) A good book to read dealing with confirmation bias is "Mistakes Were Made but Not By Me" (http://www.amazon.com/Mistakes-Were-Made-But-Not/dp/0156033909/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269574980&sr=8-1) It is written on a popular level and gives some very good examples.

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  3. Pingback: You’re in My Prayers | The Happy Millstone

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