We are aware to varying degrees and will admit if we are the least bit honest, that we resist changing our minds. We seek information that bolsters what we already believe, we mock or get angry with those who challenge our beliefs and though we claim we employ facts while our opponents employ BS, “facts” that go counter to our beliefs are usually minimized, disparaged or ignored.
This is all perfectly normal and ubiquitous, even among scientists who are supposed to have solved the problem by the scientific method. They have not solved the problem, but they have at least thrown up a red flag in recognition that the problem is out there and is not going to go away. I think it’s kind of a miracle when we ever change our mind and miracles, by definition, are rare.
The following is scientists’ comments on, and examples of, confirmation bias (1)
Francis Bacon (1620-1939)
The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”
Antoine Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry and a scientific bigwig in his time, said it was not possible for meteors to fall from the sky because there are no stones in the sky. Although witnesses had seen stones fall from the sky, Lavoisier was the expert, so the silly meteorites they had been collecting were thrown out, except for one that was too heavy to move. It would be fifty years before this subject was re-examined.
When the Wright Brothers built their flying machine-and FLEW the darn thing-the U.S Army, the New York Herald, and Scientific American accused them of perpetrating a hoax. John Hopkins experts called the idea of powered human flight “absurd.”
Thomas Edison claimed he had a light filament that glowed and invited scientists to come see. They refused, but the public came. After the demonstration scientists “debunked” the whole idea:
“Edison’s claims are ‘so manifestly absurd as to indicate a positive want of knowledge of the electric circuit and the principles governing the construction and operation of electrical machines.'”-Edwin Weston, specialist in arc lighting
“Such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievous to its true progress.” -Sir William Siemens, England’s most distinguished engineer
“The Sorcerer of Menlo Park appears not to be acquainted with the subtleties of the electrical sciences. Mr. Edison takes us backwards. One must have lost all recollection of American hoaxes to accept such claims.” -Professor Du Moncel
Edison gave as good as he got and when rival Nicolai Tesla came up with alternating current he said, “Fooling around with alternating current in just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.”
The inventor of television was reviled as a “swindler,” the inventor of X-rays was pushing “an elaborate hoax,” and Louis Pasteur’s germ theory was “a ridiculous fiction.”
Confirmation bias: ubiquitous, powerful and perfectly normal. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
(1) Richard Milton, Alternative Science: Challenging the Myths of the Scientific Establishment, 1996, Park Street Press