Sometimes just flipping around the channels sparks ideas. Good ideas? Maybe, but definitely strange thoughts… In my effort to keep up with the news and NOT drown in it, I read a little of this and that including both the New York Times and the Washington Post, watch a range of TV news shows, and listen to various shows on NPR. So when I scrolled from MSNBC to CNN and then on to some morning talk show on ABC, I caught a few choice words from everyone’s favorite—Oprah Winfrey.
Am I being sarcastic about one of the most influential women in the world? A little bit. Although I’ve admired many of Ms. Winfrey’s charitable works and media projects, I’ve maintained a skeptical eye when she pitches products and ideas. Her TV show promoted all sorts of junk science health tips that were easily debunked and the formidable power of her book club gave her the ability to make bestsellers—and to be taken in by frauds, too.
Anyway, Ms. Winfrey was touting her latest book that features conversations with important people—many of whom I admire. Why then did my skeptical hackles rise up? On the talk show, she told the hosts that the book was all about the shivers you feel when you KNOW something to be right. When things fall into place and you understand. To me, her enthusiasm seemed a great deal like the happy feeling you get when your existing idea is verified.
Too much of history is guided by the thought, “I know this to be true.” It’s this certainty that suppresses minority opinions, that demonizes opposition, and builds walls that take serious efforts to break down. How many times has knowledge of a singular truth led to war? A great many times…
A couple of days later, I was back on the treadmill at the gym and, instead of watching the news, I was listening to NPR’s On the Media show. There was a segment that expressed my quandary in a precise manner—‘confirmation bias.’ When we already have a particular opinion or perspective, our BIAS IS CONFIRMED when we hear or read or see something that supports our viewpoint, so the tingle of YES that Ms. Winfrey talked about made me worry about our inclination to seek out agreement and avoid information that contradicts our preconceived notions.
While creating fiction, confirmation bias is a way of explaining why a character fails to see the writing on the wall, tilts at windmills, and knows deep down something specious (or baseless or unproven) to be true.