Monday, January 06, 2014

"People see what they expect to see."

That's a line from American Hustle, which I saw over the holidays and recommend to anyone who loves great acting and 1970s hairstyles (and if you don't, how are we friends?). This simple but profound human truth is the basis for all swindles and scams, not to mention the continuing success of both Fox News and MSNBC. 

Scientists call this confirmation bias: "a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to statistical errors."

We all do it. I do it more than most people, because I have a mild form of an eye disorder that creates gaps in my field of vision. My brain doesn't register those gaps. It fills in the information that "should" be there, which works most of the time but sometimes makes me recognize complete strangers, or see plastic bags by the side of the road as corpses of velociraptors (that only happened once). Over the past year I have discovered that this confabulation is more dangerous than my night-blindness. At least I know when I can't see at all.

It's brutally cold in the Midwest right now, and that weather is headed east. I got out of Maine just in time; my friends up there have been dealing with ice, snow, and below-zero temperatures since before Christmas. All of this has produced the usual idiocy (within my own family, even) about, "Ha, ha, how's that global warming working out for you?" Because, you know, it's really cold today, right here in our backyards.

But the world is bigger than our backyard. Australia is currently experiencing its hottest summer on record, with temperatures higher than its previous hottest summer on record, which was last year. Argentina has just come out of its worst heat wave in more than 100 years. The phenomenon isn't "global warming," it's "climate change," and it's accelerating, and isn't it worth figuring out whether humans can do anything to slow it down or stop it?

Computer search engines and mobile phones give us "predictive text" because it saves us time and effort. Confirmation bias does the same thing on a grander scale. Everything's so much easier if we know what to expect and what is expected from us. But I have learned the hard way that I can't rely on my own eyes to tell me where the lower step is, or whether that person at the airport is someone I went to high school with or Eric Cantor. I have to take the extra time to investigate, and I have to keep reminding myself to do that.

Oh, and I haven't watched MSNBC in a month — the cable package in the new apartment doesn't include it. I miss it, but I suspect I'm better off without it.

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