Thursday, March 25, 2010

Next time, pray to recognize confirmation bias

A viewer wrote to say that he is a former Christian, but became a Jew rather than an atheist because of an experience he had as a teenager. He asked: "Please tell me if the following story should be proof to me that there is a God and what you would think if it happened to YOU."

One day when I was a Christian I was praying to God and saying, "God please let me meet somebody to witness to today". Later that day a man just walked up to me out of nowhere and said, "If your religion goes bad do you go bad with it?" I said "No" and he said "Thank you" and walked off. I had always wondered if there is no God, how my prayers got answered when nobody heard me praying that day in the car since I was praying under my breath and the doors were closed.

I replied:

It's an interesting story, but does not impress me as an outside observer as much as it obviously impressed you when you were in the situation.

People in general are notoriously bad at calculating the odds of an event occurring. Events which strike us as "unlikely" are actually fairly commonplace, especially because we are able to invent patterns and attach significance to a very wide range of possible events. For example, the request you made was extremely unspecific, and could have been fulfilled by all kinds of different things happening over a long period of time. You said that the person came up to you "later that day," which doesn't make it nearly as interesting if, say, you had prayed and somebody had shown up immediately. And "meet somebody to witness to today" isn't all that specific either -- you might well have tried harder to push some kind of religious topic into any conversation you had that day, and seen it as scoring a hit. The witnessing you actually did in the end (you were asked a question and you gave a one-syllable answer) doesn't strike me as especially significant, although I'm sure it struck you that way at the time.

People are also very susceptible to confirmation bias. Stuff happens every day that does not seem significant, but when it matches some kind of expectation we have, we tend to notice that one event and attach special importance to it, while ignoring all the other things that didn't fit our conception of something unusual or miraculous. For instance: in your story you didn't specify if that was the only time in your young life that you ever prayed for anything, but I bet it wasn't. And I'll bet that you didn't waste too much thought on all the times you tossed out a casual prayer and nothing happened.

If you wanted to do a real test of the power of faith, you shouldn't need to say "God, please cause [some fairly commonplace event] to happen before [some fairly long span of time] has elapsed." You ought to be able to say: "God, please let a bird with blue spots and a crooked beak fly past my window within the next ten seconds." If something that specific happened in that small time span, that would be interesting. If you could repeat this demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer multiple times consistently, that would be really interesting.

As it is, the impression I get from your story was "I prayed for something just barely unusual to happen eventually, and on this one occasion it did." If that's the main reason why you're a theist today, then I think I can say with confidence that I could have experienced an identical occurrence and still not acquire your faith.


  1. His story doesn't explain how he became a Jew from a Christian, and the story is very unimpressive.

  2. That's an excellent rebuttal, and it truly is disappointing that so few people see past their confirmation bias. It's like praying for a safe trip across the country... the odds of being in an accident is a statistically predictable phenomenon, but when you get home safe you say, "see, I prayed God would keep me safe, and he did!". And of course if you're crippled in a car wreck, you just rationalize it as "God's will".

    - Mike

    p.s. Excellent vid from QualiaSoup (who if you don't watch his videos, you're really missing out) on coincidence:

  3. The post reminds me of a few things: First when I was in doubt after leaving the church at about the same age as this kid, I had a similar experience, where I prayed--constantly--for a "reason" to believe. After several months or so, the preacher at the church I'd left did a class on "evidences" and I took that as a sign--so I went into the class totally biased. I've talked before about how indoctrination stacks the deck in favor of belief by making a person think that their doubt will keep on going forever if they don't "believe"; so, believing seems like the easiest and best way "out" of that lifetime of pressure. At that age, it's hard to imagine that you could one day not believe and not be afraid of your doubt.

    It also reminds me of the woman I talked about in the episode on ghost stories. She was SURE that anyone who saw what she saw would believe it could not have been a trick of light or mental hiccup. But after airing, I got a stream of viewer letters telling me about far more bizarre experiences where atheists had simply decided "I have no idea what I saw, but that wasn't possible, so I doubt it was real." People do think in terms of overlaying their own perspective onto others. The interesting thing there is the apparent need to justify one's own conclusion by popularity: Of course I believe in ghosts, everyone would if they saw what I saw. Ergo, I'm reasonable to believe in ghosts. It doesn't seem, for these people, to stop at "I know other people won't be very impressed by this, but for me it was meaningful." They have to convince themselves others would concur.

    Then, when I was in high school, I had a series of vivid and psychic dreams--as I interpreted them at the time. They all involved one particular friend in some way. In one dream a friend Y had a car wreck driving friend X's car. In reality, Y had had an accident in her own car--but I hadn't heard about it when I had the dream. In another I dreamed X shaved his head; not that odd, except X was sort of known in the school for his really beautiful long hair. And, in fact, in a few days it was all over the school he had chopped it all off. Obviously to a kid, this was spooky. But today, when I think of all the dreams I've had in my life--several a night on occasion, and all the dreams everyone has, and how recollections of dreams can be distorted after just a few hours of waking it odd that some dreams will have prophetic or seemingly psychic qualities? If we toss a coin to predict heads and tails 100 times, and do that 100 times, odd as it might seem, it's really possible we might get a run where we hit 100 heads in one pop. Yes it would seem odd to us; but there's nothing impossible about it.

    Kazim is right--we aren't very good at considering the _un_impressive perspectives of what impresses us. We do lean the concept of "odds" in favor of supporting our presuppositions that these events are amazingly unlikely.

    Finally, it's amazing to me how low the quality of "miracles" has gone in these modern times. This boy should read his Jewish scriptures. He'll see that his particular event was nothing. For a god who separates seas and sends flaming ice from the sky...a mere conversation is impressive? And when he was a Christian--Jesus healed sick people by simply willing it. If this kid wants to see a miracle--he should go to a cancer ward and pick the most terminal patient, and pray for a recovery. If he succeeds, as Kazim suggests, try it on more people--why box god into "have someone talk to me about religion today"? Seems pretty weak.

  4. we tend to see patterns and exagerate common things when they are in the scope of your interests.

    Anyone who is a parent should have noticed that when you/your companion is pregnant, you see much more pregnant women than when you are not... That is because you are interested in he matter and there people who would normally be in the background, call for your attention.

  5. "Finally, it's amazing to me how low the quality of "miracles" has gone in these modern times."

    People today are lazier and thus the clerics that worship god tend not to get above first level, which is what 3 minor miracles a day?

  6. Sounds like a classic combination of confirmation bias and self-fullfilling prophecy.

  7. This reminds me of my own confirmation bias when I was a believer. As a child, I read at random the Sermon on the Mount after being upset at something. I thought God had spoken to me and told me my problems would be settled. Now I am glad I stumble on the Massacre of the Innocents.

    And do all these stories of miracles and divine activities negate themselves if they are from different gods? I mean, it seems that God wants different people to have different faiths, thus he reveals himself according to various beliefs.

    And about miraculous recoveries, did anyone read Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers? There is an interesting one there, with a sinister twist.

  8. Once again a theist who does not understand the concept of compelling evidence. As a (somewhat biased) outsider to the story, I struggle to see how his prayer was answered, but in his mind it is a certainty. Faith is supposed to move mountains and yet we get shabby little stories like that.

    "If you could repeat this demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer multiple times consistently, that would be really interesting."

    He could do that if we lived in Arthur Silvester's world :)

  9. I can almost hear him deflecting this criticism now. it's amazing just how good people are at convincing themselves that an event was SPECIAL. They will concede in principal, but argue in their case. Yes, they say, they understand this problem and if it were someone else telling the story they could spot it. But this was really moving and I just KNEW there was more to it.

  10. These brief religious exchanges in public are quite common.

    I used to have brief conversations like this all the time when I lived in West Philly, usually with guys who drank Thunderbird and smelled like a phone booth.

    Nevertheless, all thousand shots are a one in a thousand.

    For instance:
    What's the likelihood I stumbled across this blog post considering all the text on line?

    One in a billion?

    Especially if I spent half my life drinking Thunderbird, wandering across America asking tens of thousands of strangers, "If your religion goes bad do you go bad with it?"

    What are the odds??!!11!

    He left out the part where I asked for a quarter right before the 'god Bless You'.


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