Tuesday, April 27, 2004

One More Post About The Secular And Religious Lefts

Let's talk about confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the well-documented cognitive tendency to see and remember evidence which fits with your expectations, and to overlook evidence which disconfirms your expectations. Everyone does it, to a greater or lesser extent. It's a side effect of the processes our brains use to make organized sense of the overwhelming and constant bombardment of information we're exposed to during every waking moment.

Why do I want to talk about confirmation bias? Because of the controversy in the lefty blogosphere over relations between the secular left and the religious left. I'm not going to rehash the whole argument. I'll just say that I'm looking forward to Bible Study this evening because I want to compare notes with the other folks who marched for choice on Sunday, and that if you think that statement seems odd or unlikely, then this post is for you.

Again and again in comment threads, the religious left are being chided by many on the secular left. "If you want our respect, you have to speak out against the fundies first." "Why don't you speak up against the religious right?" To which I say: "We've been shouting at the tops of our lungs for years. When are you going to start paying attention?"

Case study: the March on Washington. How many lefty bloggers linked to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice? Just a handful - including Value Judgment, Ms. Musings, and Sadly, No, but not any of the most prominent or highest-traffic lefty blogs. How many mentioned the interfaith worship service which was held before the March, or the 24-hour pro-choice prayer vigil? Looks like that one might possibly boil down to seminarian Chuck Currie and me. Lefty religious groups were active co-sponsors of the March, put lots of bodies on the streets, and had prominent signage and religious symbols. How come they were so invisible to people who wanted to sing the same old song about the absence or passivity of the religious left?

I think the answer amounts to confirmation bias. People went to the March on Washington expecting to see a confrontation between the religious right and the secular left, and a lot of them just plain didn't register anything that didn't fit. The same thing happened in the gay marriage battle – people remember the religious protesters outside the San Francisco City Hall, not the ministers and rabbis performing marriages inside. Disconfirming evidence is consistently overlooked – by the left, by the right, by the middle. We see what fits the story.

To the folks on the secular left who have been asking "why the religious left doesn't speak out against the religious right," I suggest that you try asking two other questions: "If the religious left were speaking out, how would I even find out about it?" and "When the religious left does speak out, what can I do to help spread and amplify their message?" We're all good at seeking out disconfirming evidence when it's our ox that's being gored – when patriotism or military bravery is portrayed as a purely Republican province, for example. Let's work a little harder to test our own biases as well.