Is there such a thing as confirmation bias or is it just a “sleight of hand” claim to objectivity?

I’ve blogged about the problem of research in the field of cognitive psychology before. The issue is that ontology is eschewed in favour of epistemology.

Don’t get me wrong there is some terrible educational research as well. Often using meta analysis and “effect size”. I am not talking about psychologists per se rather I am talking about psychologists who develop models for educational use or explanations of social cognition that find their way into self help theories or into populist educational books.

The problem is that although the underpinning issue is often biological, in this case cognition, the aspect of psychology that is being  studied is social; learning, the mind or the self.  Psychology straddles the biological fields and the social world. It finds itself caught in between the two; benefiting from being seen as more scientific than social fields but suffering from trying to apply scientific concepts to the social world..

The mind as a social construction

The mind is a social construction. You cannot reduce it to cognition nor can you escape the constraints of biology. Studying the mind requires a theory. Developing theory means having to engage with metaphsyics. Positivists generally eschew metaphysics believing that epistemology is sufficient. In other words an interpretation of empirical research by the individual researcher is sufficient to justify a hypothesis.

Of course, if you are in the natural sciences; physics or chemistry studying replicable causal relations in the natural world you can indeed eschew ontology on the basis that there is such a thing as an objective view of something that is replicable. Gravity is most certainly in some kind of replicable causal relationship with a physical object. I can say with some certainly that if I drop a ball it will fall to the floor. I hardly need a social theory or an ontological explanation for it. The mind or the self is another matter.

On the issue of confirmation bias 

Sometime in the 1960’s empirical social science discovered confirmation bias. Who knew that we engage subjectively with the social world?? Apart from Socrates, that is, and Plato and well just about anyone who ever thought about anything for the last several thousand years. We can only think with what we know; that’s the nature of cognition. Bias is something else entirely. Of course, it’s also possible that some researchers, many researchers, simply make the decision not to look too hard at exceptions because they value their status in the research world. Bias generally means an inclination to hold a view simultaneously refusing to consider the possible merits of alternative points of view. In a professional context that is not bias, it is professional dishonesty.

Confirmation bias, on the other hand, is the tendency to interpret data in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.It is a type of error of inductive reasoning. The problem is that accusations of confirmation bias could itself be a form of confirmation bias; it is a value judgement on something or other. You can for the purpose of amusement, tie yourself up in knots, discussing the issue with accusation, and counter accusation, of confirmation bias.

The problem with the concept is not what it is; but what it’s not.  If you can suffer confirmation bias does that mean that there is a state of objectivity? The question being; as opposed to what; are you suffering confirmation bias?  You can imagine the conversation between two empiricists after discovering the shock of bias; “I have objectively proven my bias and am therefore no longer biased”. Indeed but what are you now?

Is there such a thing as a state of objectivity in the social world. You can, in certain fields, make claims to objectivity, as I describe above, but certainly not if you are studying social concepts such as the mind or the self. I’ve written about the epistemic fallacy before. In the social sciences you have to state a metaphysical position. You wonder if cognitive bias is a vehicle used to introduce metaphysics into the positivist arena by the back door.  A classic empirical “sleight of hand”.  Proving bias is also a claim to objectivity.

You cannot avoid the philosophy of science when engaging with social science. Developing conceptual “sleights of hand” doesn’t wash. The question therefore; is whether there is such a thing as confirmation bias or is it just an empirical “sleight of hand” claim to objectivity?


5 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as confirmation bias or is it just a “sleight of hand” claim to objectivity?

    1. A positivist is not an insult it’s someone who thinks you can arrive at a position based upon epistemology. In other words through empirical means or the scientific method. There is no theoretical or philosophical underpinning. The meta analysts, small scale empirical studies that make claims about this or that. That kind of thing.

      1. ‘Positivist’ is used pejoratively by some psychologists – can’t comment on other domains. Some committed to the use of qualitative methods (a term often used to refer to a particular range of qualitative methods rather than qualitative methods in general) assume that anyone using an experimental research design or quantitative methods of analysis is, by definition, a positivist and, by definition wrong.

        I don’t agree that there is no theoretical or philosophical underpinning in positivism. All models of knowledge have theoretical or philosophical underpinnings.

      2. The term positivist is used perjoratively everywhere just as there is a “sniffy” attitude towards qualitative research. That does not mean it does not have value as a term or approach. Of course there is a discursive aspect to some of these terms. They come pre-loaded with arguments that are useful in blog writing.

        I think my point was not that there is no philosophical underpinning to positivism I think I have outlined what it is but rather there is no philosophical underpinning from a social perspective.

        In other words empirical methods used legitimately in the natural sciences become misused or inappropriate in a social context.

        Cognitive bias is a kind of language game.

        You could suggest and perhaps you do that my bias is towards qualitative research. I could counter and suggest that in fact you are merely mounting a biased defence of psychology. There is no right and wrong we are positing a view from our subjective view points.

        The relative merits of each argument is open to interpretation. We can agree or disagree based on a position. You could maintain your position and perhaps adapt it accordingly. As could I.

        On the other hand if I drop a rock on your foot you would be a fool not to move. No position is going to save you from a painful experience. This ironically is exactly the argument used by “positivists” against relativists because relativists also adopt an epistemic position; the world is only as we think about it. Clearly it could be but the rock will still hurt.

        Relativism is also a useful discursive term. In the end my point is not about positivism or relativism rather it is about the way various research traditions make claims to objectivity in the absence of an appropriate social methodology.

  1. I think bounded rationality is another claim to universal rationality. Bounded as opposed to what? Empirical studies find limitations in cognition but without an ontological claim you just get the problems of language. Who didn’t know that you can only think about what you know? It’s not a limitation as such that is the nature of knowing,

    It’s a bit like me saying that a Mondeo is not a great car because it can’t fly. I have done a study into 100 mondeos and find they can’t fly.therefore a Mondeo is not a great car.

    But flying is not in the nature of a car. That’s how Daisy Christodoulou constructs her 7 myths book. It’s not that she is taking a theory out of context rather it is a theory that had no context in the first place.

    We are all suffering a similar cognition. No one goes to school an expert. Does the cognitive load theory really have anything to say about learning at school given an the nature of learning. Do we really overload our minds?

    In your critique of Daisy C you say “The evidence she cites to support this extrapolation is Anderson’s paper – the one about simple, consistent information. I couldn’t find any other evidence cited to support either idea”.

    I’ve tried to track through some of DT Willingham’s claims and you find the same thing. Lot’s of small scale often unrelated atheoretical empirical studies that are welded together into what I call ontological glue. Many based on chess or simple Math problems.

    Try and track through some of the evidenced in Kerschner Sweller and Clarke and you find the same problem. I would hate to even consider the work of Hattie.

    I was recently disappointed to see a paper by someone who I agree with dismissing whole swathes of progressive thought based on Kerschner et al.

    So I want to see an ontological position. By it’s very nature learning is not bounded or unconstrained. Critiques on the basis of “overload” or “boundedness” may not be wrong but they are hardly purposeful either.

    These are just my thoughts….! Disagree by all means

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