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The conspiracy rabbit hole - saving Alice

Confirmation bias is the vortex than swirls good people down dark holes


- so sings James and the Shame in his "Human Overboard" album and the truth of the lyrics are both telling and humbling. Civil, democratic society is facing an existential threat caused by an onslaught of mis, -dis-, and mal-information. That foul flotsam and jetsam swirled in the whirlpool of the recent debate on The Voice. AI in the hands of bad actors is about to magnify turbidity in all important public debates.

I am embarrassed to confess that I was a good number of years into my career as a science teacher before I grasped what is the enduring core of science education for all.


For good reasons, having a bias to confirming what already believe underpins so much of what makes us successful. It helps us remain on course and not continually flip-flop our world view on the basis of one sensory input - especially when we are working with such "noisy" senses. For instance, only one part of your vision is actually in colour and relatively sharp (the tiny circle of image landing on your fovea). The rest is blurry, desaturated and grainy. Our brain fixes all that for us by inventing an image consistent with most of the incoming data. We are not usually aware because our "sight" is a combined work of photonic fact and neural fiction. As our eyes flit around, bringing different part of the scene to land on our fovea, there is a bias to confirm the existing fiction created by our brain. The pattern-seeking fiction-writer in our heads can be exposed by visual illusions.


However, all evolutionary innovations are not "good", but just "good enough" - as Dr Karl would say. In trying to interact with this beautifully complex world, confirmation bias can have us believing in the existence of witches who can harm an unborn child. We know where that took us. An evolutionary strategy that gave us an advantage in small hunter-gather groups is woefully inadequate in this hyperconnected social world.


Science education can also fall into this trap. Let's learn about Newton's second law. Then we confirm it with a neat, manipulated experiment and we move on. Science done well, though, is the most successful mechanism we have for overcoming confirmation bias. A great science education that nurtures critical thinking, that is true to the scientific method, is exactly what all students need. Science is not about confirming our hypotheses - Karl Popper got that bit right. When good scientists think they have a model that explains X (where X is some natural phenomenon, not the re-named social media platform which is beyond explanation) the first thing they do is try and punch holes in their ideas. Good scientists intentionally seek out evidence that contradicts and challenges existing world views.

Not content to point to all the white swans in the English countryside, we set sail looking for the black ones.

Behaving like that is not only unnatural and uncomfortable, it has to be demonstrated and modelled for our students. Confirmation bias is the air in the room we don't see or think about - until we are caused to. That, is the very essence of science - a system for overcoming confirmation bias and our teaching labs need to be a space where that message is forefront.

Science has been so successful in modelling and unlocking the secrets of this universe because it has helped us see beyond the fiction-writer in our heads and refine models which  - to an increasing extent - match reality.

Physicist Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”. Let's teach our students to know that "research" is not finding something that confirms our ideas, but it is the arduous and deliberate search for those observations which will change our thinking. That's an education worth experimenting with!


by Roger Kennett, Learning Forge

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