The Quest for Truth (Part 2)

God calls us to pursue truth as a core value. But our subconscious bias is getting in the way.

Part 1 of this series looked at the importance epistemic humility—recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. Pursuing truth as a core value involves confidence without arrogance. You can be confident of your conclusions based on the facts and evidence you’ve seen, but still be open to the idea that you might not know the full story or might have inadvertently misunderstood some of the key details.

One of the difficulties we face in trying to discern fact from fiction is the inherent bias we all bring to the table. This post draws on Lee McIntyre’s book Post-Truth, and will focus on five ways that our subconscious minds might working against us—and what we can do to fight back.

1. Cognitive Dissonance

This describes a person who has “conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.”  Imagine a person who knows that eating bacon every day is not a healthy long-term choice, but convinces themselves that bacon is actually healthy because the grease helps their blood slide through their heart.

When we come across information that challenges our beliefs, the gut instinct is to rationalize the status quo. Dr. Edward Miller (the former CEO of John’s Hopkins Hospital and the former dean of its medical school) found that 90% of patients who underwent bypass surgery because of severe heart disease did not make any significant changes to their lifestyle that would improve their long-term prognosis. They simply stayed with the status quo. And that’s a scary thought! 

2. Social Pressure

We’ve all heard about the danger of peer pressure from our moms: If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too? Psychology has proven that mom had every right to be worried. Solomon Asch performed a famous study (click here to watch) on the effects of peer pressure, and the results are not encouraging. In his study, 37% of people gave an obviously wrong answer to an easy question simply because everyone else in the room said the same thing. “They discounted what they could see right in front of them in order to remain in conformity with the group,” (Lee McIntyre, Post-Truth).

3. Confirmation Bias

This describes how a person’s judgment can be clouded by what they hope to be true, rather than what is actually true. This type of “wishful thinking” makes us likely to quickly accept information that confirms that we already thought or wanted to be true, and to dismiss out of hand information that contradicts us. This leads to an echo chamber where we only allow information we agree with to make it past our filter.

4. Backfire Effect

This describes how people with firmly entrenched beliefs (such as long-time members of a political party) typically double-down on their opinions even when they are presented with clear evidence that contradicts them. In some cases, they become even more convinced that they were right all along, despite evidence to the contrary. It’s called the Backfire Effect because sometimes presenting others with new evidence actually backfires and causes them to move farther away from the truth.

5. Dunning-Kruger

The more you know, the more you realize you have a lot to learn. But people who don’t know very much think they’ve got it all figured out. Confusing, isn’t it? People who score lower on tests of intelligence drastically overestimate how they stack up against their peers. This means that the very people who could benefit most from more knowledge and study are the least likely to pursue it, because they view things from a very simple perspective and feel like they’ve already got things figured out. 

What Does It All Mean?

The world of psychology has shown us that we are very prone to rationalizing our status quo, blending in with the crowd instead of standing on our convictions, blindly accepting information we like while ignoring evidence that contradicts us, doubling down on bad ideas and thinking we have it all figured out, even when we don’t. 

The Berean Jews understood the value of carefully investigating information in order to arrive at the truth: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:11)

If we are serious about pursuing truth as a core value, we need to recognize our biases, seek our new sources of information, be humble enough to admit we might be wrong, and do everything we can to approach things from in an unbiased way.

Let us know how we can pray for you and support you as we all strive to discover the truth and follow Jesus our savior.

This post was adapted from the first message in our Bible it Sermon series. Click or tap here to listen to the full message.