Years ago, I learned a valuable–and hilarious–lesson about confirmation bias and how easy it is to be misled online. We were doing spring clean-up in the yard when my youngest son announced he’d discovered “poop” under a tree. I trotted over with my pooper scooper assuming I’d find a pile or two from the neighbor’s dog. No. Under the tree, there were dozens–make that hundreds–of brown bits. Couldn’t scoop it. Couldn’t wash it away. This was not the work of dogs.
We cordoned off the area and I went inside to do some research. At that point, I’d been writing about the Internet for several years, so I was pretty confident about my search skills. Sure enough, I swiftly located a useful–and graphic–key to scat, aka excremenent. We immediately ruled out bears, badgers, coyotes and groundhogs. What we were dealing with was tubular, brown, about three inches in length. Raccoons were the likely culprit. One website helpfully explained that raccoons sometimes create “latrines” at the base of pine trees. Sure enough, our samples were under a very large pine tree.
A Regiment of Raccoons
Alarmed by the sanitary issues raised by a small convention of raccoons gathering nightly in our tree for the purposes of communal excretion, I overrode my husband’s skepticism and called a wildlife control expert. Without hesitation, he assured me he could handle the situation. While we were waiting for his arrival, my son and I walked down the driveway to do some other spring chores. “Look!” said my son. “More poop!”
And so there was. A four foot wide band of little cylinders stretched along the lawn at the edge of the driveway as far as the eye could see. And there were holes too–as if whatever it was had been digging up grubs. The mind boggled. We seemed to have a regiment of raccoons marching up our driveway to use the latrine beneath the pine tree–excreting as they went. Suddenly, this seemed implausible.
And then it dawned on me. Weeks ago, our lawn service offered to aerate the bald patches in the lawn. To my knowledge, they never showed up. I figured our project had gotten lost in the chaos that is spring. Maybe–just maybe–they had done the work when we weren’t home. Maybe–just maybe–what we thought were turds were actually little plugs of dirt. There was only one way to find out. I picked one up, mashed it between my fingers and watched it crumble into harmless earth. Then I went inside to make an embarrassing call to cancel the animal control service.
I’ve been thinking about this story recently because everyone depends on the Internet for information. And, these days, it seems alarmingly easy not only to misinterpret what we find but then to spread that misinterpretation. Sometimes we can identify unreliable information because it comes from an unreliable source. A number of websites are available to help us sort wheat from chaff.
My experience seems instructive because I started with a reliable source–and got things wrong anyway. The scat identification website had been compiled by genuine scat experts. My mistake was using their facts in support of my own misconceptions. My son, who knew nothing about turf management, told me he had spotted poop. I could have spared myself a lot of foolishness if I had questioned his analysis. Instead, I fell victim to what psychologists call confirmation bias. I filtered the information I found to verify what I thought I already knew.
Confirmation bias is one of those ideas that shows up everywhere once you become aware of it. Forbes published a recent essay about how it can derail investment decisions. A scientific website posted a helpful article about how avoid confirmation bias helps people evaluate information about Covid 19. There’s even a dormant Facebook page devoted to amusing memes about confirmation bias.
Much of the advice about how to avoid this all-to-common problem is earnest and well-intentioned: Challenge your own assumptions. Seek out disagreement. Never trust a single source (especially on the Internet.) Helpful as this advice might be, it rests on the assumption that everyone has unlimited time to investigate matters before coming to conclusions. That’s not my reality and it might not be yours either.
The Case for Curiosity
In life, we have to get on with things, making decisions on the fly, doing our best with whatever information is at hand. And that’s where it’s so easy to go wrong. Once we’ve made a decision, we become invested in what we think we know. And we forget that every person’s point of view is, of course, shaped by very specific life experiences that, in turn, are determined by age, gender, race, education and other variables we don’t entirely understand. Even the most expert opinion is always an hypothesis that could be falsified by new–or better–information.
The best way to avoid confirmation bias may be taking ourselves just a little less seriously. Perhaps, we should hold our opinions a little more lightly, especially when they originate online. I could have approached the alleged poop problem with more curiosity and less sky-is-falling intensity. Because I was able to confirm my biases online, I leapt to the Worst Case Scenario. As my husband will remind me, I was very, very sure of myself and very, very wrong.
Remembering that spring afternoon keeps me humble. When I feel myself being swept away by a wave of Internet anxiety, I recall how readily I’d become alarmed by the bathroom habits of imaginary raccoons. Maybe, just maybe, my source seems reliable only because it’s telling me what I already believe. Maybe, just maybe, there’s another explanation. Maybe, just maybe, I’m mistaken.
That admission isn’t a failure. One thing all of us have in common is our fallibility. Instead of digging in to confirm our own biases, we do ourselves–and each other–a favor by exploring other possibilities. Acknowledging that we might have gotten something wrong is the first step toward getting it more right.