How Your Brain Gets Hijacked by Confirmation Bias: Dr. Chris Shaw & Anti-Vaxxers

We all love finding information that confirms our beliefs. It makes us feel great! But it can also lead us astray. This nifty psychological trick, called confirmation bias, helps us build on the information we currently have – but it can also cause us to overlook important data we do not agree with.

Earlier this week, Dr. Chris Shaw from UBC was forced to withdraw a paper linking autism with vaccines because his data did not support his conclusions. There is all sorts of speculation as to why this might be. Was it manipulated? Certainly many are already suggesting that is the case. And even more disturbingly, in a “the dog ate my homework” turn of events, Shaw can no longer find his original research. Nevertheless, the event (not surprisingly, if we examine this incident through a psychological framework) doesn’t appear to have caused Shaw to question his presuppositions. Why is that?

I believe the answer is confirmation bias. We are more likely to accept new information if it confirms our previously held beliefs. Shaw has spent years studying the connection between vaccine adjuvants and autism. It’s very difficult for him to abandon the idea that the two factors are somehow connected, and this is very understandable.

I am definitely not above confirmation bias. For example, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn – a respected physician who advocates a whole foods plant-based diet – argues such a diet can help to prevent and reverse heart disease. His advice is well-received by vegans, who are eager to accept his findings. Yet, when seen from a less enthusiastic lens, it’s clear this research is still in its earlier stages. Most of Esselstyn’s studies are still relatively small, and would bear repeating by other researchers in order to verify the accuracy of their conclusions. So while he has produced numerous well-researched papers, it’s understandable that the scientific community has not reached consensus regarding the suitability of added oil in our diets. I would not be surprised at all to see the medical community embrace his findings and encourage people to adopt a whole foods plant-based diet (even one with no added oil). But it will probably take a while.

We each run into instances where our own personal views are either buttressed or undermined by new information. At these junctures, we can choose to either be open to new discovery, or adamantly closed off.

I recommend awareness above all else. Building on the existing information you have chosen to accept does make sense. It helps us form an intelligible, predictable and reliable view of the world. But if we aren’t aware of the beliefs that help shape our worldview – if we take them for granted – we leave ourselves open to making serious errors in judgement.

We must recognize the beliefs that shape our views, and critical of their origins. Knowledge of oneself, is – after all – the beginning of wisdom. And knowledge of our biases is perhaps even more essential, since our biases tells us what we want to know. Armed with this info, we can be aware of what we are inclined to ignore, and make more conscious – and hopefylly better informed – decisions.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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