2/28/18 Confirmation Bias

It’s as good as a fresh donut and far more satisfying.

We seek to confirm our own biases on every level. This is an understandable human characteristic, though not an enviable one. Those who are best at presenting arguments for their own causes have studied the thoughts of the best of those who disagree with them. This is a far better thing to be about than merely seeking the voice of those who echo our own thoughts.

There comes a time, though, when I really want to hear neither side, unless there is some new evidence to consider, or some fresh angle. Rhetoric is rhetoric. We’ve all heard it. We’re all aware of it. Most of it fails to satisfy any part of a true seeker. Talking points furnished to us by mainstream media pundits have become ubiquitous, partially digested then re-regurgitated with all the pleasantness of our late supper.

I once was part of a conversation in a Mississippi ale house, more commonly known as a beer joint, when one drunken poet began to mangle recitations of bible verses, adding the usual Poor Richard’s quotes that are no where to be found in the bible, which doesn’t make them any less commonsense-worthy even of they are extra-biblical.

‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’, it says in the bible,” the sodden Nick said to those gathered at the bar, all of them hoisting their beer cans in a salute to Nick’s prophetic recall.

Here! Here!,” they all cheered.

Waste not. Want not,” Nick said.

Here! Here!” chanted the crowd.

Turning to face the beer joint at large, spreading his arms wide and in a voice that may have sounded like that of Moses commanding the Red Sea to part, Nick shouted, “God helps those who help themselves!”

Applause erupted in the room. The sounds of beer can tabs being pulled was only exceeded by the cheers followed by long slurps from the first pulls on the freshly opened cans of Budweiser, Pabst Blue-Ribbon, Miller High-Life, and the odd Falstaff or two.

Nick turned back towards the bar, stepping back into his role as a mere mortal, no longer a prophet, and said quietly to me, “It does not matter what may happen to the bible. People like us will be able to accurately reproduce it from memory alone.” Everyone within earshot gave each other knowing winks, nodding in approval at what Nick had said.

I let that sink in for a moment. I leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Nick, where, exactly, would you put the ‘God helps those who help themselves’ thing in your reconstructed bible?”

He stared up at the ceiling, trying to recall something that did not exist in the manner he thought it did, which was destined to be a failure. “It’s in Acts, I think, or maybe in Hebrews somewhere,” he said. “No. It’s in the Old Testament. Leviticus, or Isaiah, I think, or perhaps Revelation.”

Revelation is in the New Testament, but I didn’t say anything. The quotes he had offered were nowhere to be found in the bible. It never occurred to Nick that he had no idea what he was talking about. And his adjutants, hangers-on, and sycophants, if they knew, never let on either. Nick was free with his money and bought lots of beer for those who would urge him on to murderous renditions of Poe, Whitman, Kipling, or Khayan in his poetic recitations. He was no better with them than he was the bible, but he could quieten a crowded reefer-reeking beer joint quicker than news of the day’s release of grand-jury indictments could empty it: quieten it in anticipation that the quieter they were, and the more rapt attention they paid, the better they would feed Nick’s ego, thus the more likely he would reward them by buying a round of beer. Through that crowd, Nick developed a reputation as the go-to authority on literature and scripture, and may have been the clientele’s only exposure to either. They and Nick were not resting on a firm foundation, but that never occurred to them. They inhabited fragile sand castles on beaches only dry bcause of a receding tide.

I never did like beer joints, except for Meridian’s Hopper’s Juke Joint because I loved its owner who put up with NO foolishness and where we musicians would gather to entertain each other and thus the crowd. I went to the rest of them mostly because everyone else did. Later on, after Hopper’s closed down, I abandoned them completely unless I had specific business at one (being paid to play music).

Beer joints and political parties have a lot in common. Folks tend to gather in one that feeds their own ego, the ones that make them feel part of something special, the ones where they are known and know their place in the pack, much like dogs get along well in their own packs as long as the rules are followed, like chickens in the coop know the peckng order. No chicken disprespects the lowest pecked-on chicken as long as it does its job well. And no chief rooster is going to let a strange rooster anywhere near its own bottom ranked chicken; he will defend it with his life. The bottom-ranked chicken finds some comfort in that.

All groups tend to function like the beer joint crowds, the dog-packs, the chicken coops. Challenges to their order, or their thinking, are met with swift, sometimes violent rebuttals. We find safety in what we know and think we understand. We abhor change in our institutions. Change brings uncertainty, and the certainty of having grown comfortable with our place in the pack is threatened by new developments which may move us lower, which we detest the very idea of, or that may force us upwards, which can be dangerous and bring us into competitive conflict with others whom we rightly or wrongly perceive as more powerful. Like the beta-dog, it is easier to roll over and show our throat, hoping our submission placates the more powerful agressor. It usually does within the confines of our own pack. It can be fatal when tried with outsiders, those not members of our own tribe.

So we seek the status quo. We seek the status quo in physical actuality. We seek the status quo intellectually. The status quo is not uncomfortable, because we humans seem to be able to adapt ourselves to being comfortable even when our sense of comfort is mixed with abuse, and if not exactly true comfort, then at least the twisted comfort having grown used to it, rendering it a known thing, which is often more desirable than the unknown.

A germaine, permanently relevant quote continually comes back to me. Its relevance never wanes for those who are seekers in politics, religion, and in our dealings with others in nearly everything we think worthy of forming an opinion.

Do not mistake the voice of a single London ale house as the voice of the kingdom

Jonathan Swift

Don’t do it…unless you prefer routine confirmation of your biases. And what benefits, pray tell, does the confirmation of your biases bring you? At best they bring a skewed view of how the world actually is. The skewing may not be relevant to reality.

I know this for a fact. It has been confirmed in hundreds of thousands of beer-joints, pubs, taverns, dives, speak-easies, watering holes, juke joints, inns, lounges, roadhouses*, taprooms*, honky-tonks*, and saloons* worldwide. (If you can share some more names of such places I have omitted here, I will gladly add them)

Just ask their patrons.

For some excitement, disagree with them out loud. It will be nearly as bad as stating an opinion on social media, but not nearly so dangerous. It may even be profitable for the hearers, which is completely foreign to social media.

I like to have my biases successfully challenged, but that seems never done by those who only seek to have theirs confirmed.

 

©2018 Mississippi Chris Sharp

* compliments of Brian in Jersey City, NJ

PS- A long time friend pointed out the famous beer joint The Tin Barn, where I learned an awful lot of music. The musicians who played there inspired a many of us on our musican journeys. Some of them still do.

 

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