Falling Prey to Confirmation Bias
Over the past several days, I’ve been seeing a story pop up in my newsfeed claiming that a man has filed a $70-million lawsuit against two Christian publishing houses over the verses about homosexuality in the Bibles they publish. There’s only one problem: the story isn’t news.
Although the Today Christian website presents the story as though it occurred this past week (without any links or references that check out, mind you), a quick Google search reveals that the case was litigated years ago, in the 2008-2011 timeframe. Not only that, but the courts dismissed the suit.1 So the Today Christian piece is misleading at best, and deceptive at worst—hardly fitting characteristics for an organization that bears the name of Christ.
On the whole, this story is relatively insignificant—I’ve only seen it a handful of times across my social media accounts. But it is representative of a trend. I’ve noticed far too many well-meaning Christians fall for this or other similarly alarmist stories,2 and I think we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We do no service to Christ by propagating false or misleading stories, and we destroy our credibility and harm our witness when we do.
There’s a psychological reason why such stories appeal to us and tend not to arouse our suspicions: confirmation bias. We are apt to accept these stories uncritically because they confirm something about the way we believe the world to be. We all have a narrative that contextualizes and makes sense of the events of the day—in this particular case, that same-sex marriage advocates are out to destroy any opposition, wherever it may be found.3 So when a story seems to confirm that our narrative is correct, we are predisposed to believe it. After all, no one likes to be proven wrong. So we read the headlines and post the articles without ever questioning whether they are true or accurate. Of course, when the news conflicts with our narrative, the opposite is true: we suspect something is amiss and look for ways to dismiss the story.4
For that very reason we should exercise caution, particularly when stories fit too neatly into our narratives. The unquestioned assumptions which underpin our narratives are often the most dangerous. They are the ones that keep us from recognizing faulty or suspect information when we come across it. So we must take care to question5 our assumptions thoroughly when we are at risk for falling prey to confirmation bias. Especially as followers of Christ striving to be faithful ambassadors, we should always seek to see past our biases and to understand the truth. We should take care not be duped by misleading headlines or inaccurate news, and we certainly should not allow ourselves to be complicit in the dissemination of such news by posting it (or “liking” it) on social media. If we are to be heralds of the truth in all areas of life, we must take the time to check the facts.
To be clear, I have many concerns about the recent Supreme Court ruling, not the least of which are its potential implications for religious liberty. But there’s no need to go fishing for such alarming stories when there are so many other perfectly credible ones to focus on. And in this case, as in all others, we have no need to sensationalize; after all, the most sensational thing in the course of human history already happened when Christ rose victoriously from the grave.
1 See “Reasons for Granting this Petition,” Section I, in the link.
2 And Matt Walsh, but that’s a topic for another time.
3 Such a narrative may not be too far off the mark, as Rod Dreher has written about extensively with what he has termed the “law of merited impossibility.”
4 Or we create conspiracy theories about “the media,” whoever or whatever that is.
5 Questioning is not the same as doubting. For more on that point, grab a copy of Matthew Lee Anderson’s excellent book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith.
Image courtesy of Jon S.