Our Bias Can Cost Us

Our ability to deceive ourselves seems to be quite resilient.  There is this thing called “confirmation bias” where we search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that validates what we already think.  And researchers in Europe recently found the following:

We tend to pay more attention to information that confirms our own beliefs and biases, and we are prepared to lose money to stick to our guns.  We ignore what doesn’t fit with our biases – even if it costs us | New Scientist

We appear to dismiss the obvious costs of bad choices, and this presumably extends beyond financial incentives.  The tendency might help explain we keep defending appalling behavior from elected officials we voted for.  Or can’t cut loose from time commitments that are clearly burying us.

The one comment I would make about the study is that someone ought to design broader tests for the outcome (if this hasn’t already been done).  The study was based on two experiments on groups of 20 participants.  The description of participant demographics was a bit thin.  Sex was identified and beyond that, adults with mean age in the early 20’s and a negative report of neurological or psychiatric issues.[**]


I work with large data sets on a regular basis and I am always a bit cautious about conclusions drawn from small numbers.  Interpreting small scale results is a bit like navigating in the dark with a flashlight.  What you see can be an artifact of where you happen to be looking.

Or as the study results suggests, where we choose to shine the light.  If this effect holds it should be repeatable by other researchers using different populations, and at larger scales.  I suspect that it probably does, which might suggest some caution about the purported wisdom of crowds.

Information in large groups tends to stovepipe around occupational specializations and areas of interests.  What is known inside the stovepipe becomes self-reinforcing and bad information becomes highly resistant to change.  Which suggests the aggregation of confirmation bias might be part of why it sometimes seems to take the retirement and/or death of an entire generation of theorists, researchers, and practitioners to erase a bad idea.  Even when the costs of being wrong were found to be high.

It is possible that confirmation bias may have had a survival benefit in our deep history before civilization.  We still do second-guess ourselves and our group decisions.  But second-guessing slows down making and implementing critical decisions when they have to be acted on immediately.  Or at that are at least urgent, and irrevocable once adopted.  Second-guessing doesn’t contribute anything particularly useful when a mistake got you or your small band of hunter-gatherers killed.  As in:

This was a really bad valley in which to camp for the winter.  We’ve run out of food.

If you and your group survived to pass on the benefits of experience your choices were clearly correct.  Or at least they were among a number of several acceptable alternatives.  But in the complexities of the modern world the bad consequences tend to be less lethal and less immediate.  Confirmation bias might not serve us very well any more.


[**] The citation for the paper referenced in the news clip is for those of you with the math to understand the statistical work.  While I work with data I lack the background required to get very far into this.

Palminteri S, Lefebvre G, Kilford EJ, Blakemore S-J (2017) Confirmation bias in human reinforcement learning: Evidence from counterfactual feedback processing. PLoS Comput Biol 13(8): e1005684. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005684


The Reflection in our Smartphones

Jan Cossiers: Narciso

In Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid tells an old story about Narcissus, a young man who rejected the advances of Echo, a nymph.  The unhappy suitor then wastes away to nothing but her voice.

As it happens, Narcissus appears to have left quite a trail of broken hearts.  The goddess Nemesis heard the complaint of another rejected lover and Narcissus finds his gaze drawn to the glassy water of a spring shaded by trees.  Upon seeing his reflection in the pool he falls in love with it and is unable to leave.  He subsequently wastes away and dies.

Our phones have become the modern version of that forest pool.

The entertainment and social content we find on them is customized and served up by algorithms that sift through what we view, post, comment on, and rate.  The more the online services know about us, the more customized the content.  It becomes our digital reflection, and is deliberately engineered to be addictive.

Except that the addiction appears to have been visited more on our children than on us, as Jean M. Twenge points out in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic.  Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and does research on generational differences. In the article she sketches out a radical shift where current teens differ from millennials and prior generations in how they spend their time.  Previously there was a drive toward independence from parents and to interaction with peers.  Now activity appears heavily biased toward private interaction on social media via smartphones.  She quotes one teen as saying, “‘I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.’”

Connection via social media is clearly not the same as direct interaction with live people.  Twenge’s observation is that the resultant isolation has destructive effects on the mental health of teens who grow up that way.  The article includes the following:

One piece of data that indirectly but stunningly captures kids’ growing isolation, for good and for bad: Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”  Source: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

Nemesis has been very, very busy.


The Power of Distraction

So much for multi-tasking with a smartphone.  Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found the following:

...that it didn’t matter whether a person’s smartphone was turned on or off, or whether it was lying face up or face down on a desk. Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone..

Source: The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows — ScienceDaily

We really are addicted to these things and they pretty much destroy our concentration.

The next time you are in a meeting look around the and see who has a smartphone in reach.  Doesn’t matter if it’s in their hand or on the table.  They aren’t actually engaged with the meeting.  Even if they think they are.

Everybody’s phone needs to go into a basket when they enter the room.


University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). “The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 June 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170623133039.htm>.

Smartphone Apps and Your Conflicts

Reconciliation is supposed to be a defining characteristic of Christian community.  But the social media and messaging apps that smartphones weld into everyday life might actually get in the way.

The previous post highlighted a CBS News report* detailing how app developers attempt to deliberately manipulate the way our brains work.  The goal is to keep us coming back to apps and the advertising they push.  But one of the byproducts is that our phones make us anxious when we don’t use them.  So, if you are in conflict with someone and using social media or messaging apps to communicate, you are likely at least somewhat stressed before the fighting ever starts.

This seems like a recipe for misunderstanding and escalation.

Plain-old email is bad enough.  Text-based communication inherently lacks the non-verbal cues required for language to fully express emotions.  Over the years I have watched a number of conflicts spiral out of control as the recipient colored otherwise innocuous language with tones to which the sender was insensitive.  But now a smartphone addiction can add a dollop of excess cortisol and load the interchange with some very unhealthy overhead.

Wikimedia Commons

So, the next time you feel the urge to fire off an angry text or post to a friend, just don’t.

Instead, use this cool app on your phone that allows you to avoid all that.  You know, the one that makes phone calls.  Call the person and have a conversation.

Or better yet call them, arrange to meet for coffee, and then have the conversation.


*Anderson Cooper. What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care 60 Minutes, CBS News, June 11, 2017. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-brain-hacking-tech-insiders-on-why-you-should-care/

High Anxiety (or, The Race to The Bottom of The Brainstem)

Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan?  –Matthew 6:27, World English Bible.

But we seem to think we can worry ourselves into more likes on our Facebook pages. There is an experiment that is worth the attempt.  Disconnect from all social media and electronic devices for a full day — leave your phone at home and go somewhere fun.  Does even the thought of doing so make you anxious?  If so, a television segment from the show 60 minutes (CBS News) might explain why.

The piece is titled What is “brain hacking”?  And in it Anderson Cooper profiles how the tech industry appears to be attempting to use neuroscience to manipulate our physiology so we use their products.

Advertisers have been attempting to get in our heads for years.  Most consumer marketing is about image and how our lives will be suddenly fulfilled and have meaning if I buy this or that.  Very little of it is about actual product information.  But Cooper captures something qualitatively different in a quote from Tristan Harris about children, social media and smartphones:

…there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.[1]

Except it’s not mere persuasion.  Harris described the tech companies’ competition for our attention as a “race to the bottom of the brainstem.”  And as psychologist Larry Rosen pointed out during the segment:

What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.[1]

Wikimedia Commons

The tech companies appear to be engineering theirs apps and devices to make us anxious. To turn us into addicts.

The idea that social media feeds stimulate biochemical responses is not new.[2]  But what is quite disturbing is that the tech companies might be deliberately engineering the devices and apps to stimulate addictive responses.  Seems to me we’ve seen this before. In past years the tobacco industry was taken to task for manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes.  They were described as creating:

nicotine delivery systems that deliver nicotine in precisely calculated quantities — quantities that are more than sufficient to create and to sustain addiction in the vast majority of individuals who smoke regularly.[3]

I’m not seeing a great deal of difference between the behavior of Apple, Google or Facebook, and that of the tobacco companies.  They are turning smartphone and social media cravings into the 21st century version of the nicotine fit.


[1] Anderson Cooper.  What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care  60 Minutes, CBS News, June 11, 2017.  http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-brain-hacking-tech-insiders-on-why-you-should-care/

[2]  see Eva Ritvo M.D.  Facebook and Your Brain: The inside dope on Facebook  Vitality blog at Psychology Today,  May 24, 2012.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/vitality/201205/facebook-and-your-brain

[3]  David A. Kessler, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs.  Statement on Nicotine-Containing Cigarettes. Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment March 25, 1994 https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Speeches/ucm106558.htm

God and Time

As a follow-up to my somewhat befuddled post on Open Theism here’s a YouTube clip of John C. Polkinghorne discussing the nature of time.

The clip is part of the Closer to Truth PBS series (US, Corporation for Public Broadcasting).  Polkinghorne* is a theoretical physicist and an Anglican priest. He appears to view God’s interaction with time as an act of divine self-limitation, which I touched on as a possibility in the post.

Theologians have been arguing for some centuries over predestination vs free-will. In the modern world this has carried over into the determinism vs free-will debate. It seems to me what one thinks about time impacts directly on which side of the divide on which one lands.


*John C Polkinghorne’s profile at Closer to Truth: https://www.closertotruth.com/contributor/john-polkinghorne/profile

Blood on the Floor

A couple of years ago my wife and I read The Gifts of Imperfection* together.  The book resonated with me.  Since then other bits by the author, Brene Brown, have tended to get my attention.  Here’s a video clip from Brown talking about forgiveness.

Why the church should be more like a midwife than an epidural.  Source: Jesus Wept – The Work Of The People

What I found striking was her quote from the dean at her church concerning how hard forgiveness is:

“…there has to be a death for forgiveness to happen…in all of these faith communities where forgiveness is easy and love is easy…there is not enough blood on the floor to make sense of that.”

But then there is the other reason forgiveness is hard.  I often have very little ownership of how much of the “blood on the floor” was my doing.


*Brene Brown. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-59285-989-4

Faith as Allegiance

When I was introduced to faith as allegiance last summer it was like a strobe going off inside my head.  It provided some much needed illumination to clarify some pretty muddled thinking.  I got to the idea through reading about Greco-Roman history via both modern and ancient authors.

I’m currently reading Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King [1].  The author’s route (so far) is through readings of biblical texts.  The book is a subject of discussion on Jesus Creed, where Scot McKnight is excerpting and commenting on sections of the book.  The posts are worth reading.  They help flesh out the idea, as do the broad range of comments, which include some objections [2].

Faith as allegiance might be a difficult idea to engage because we moderns don’t understand it.  The notion of Christ as King is completely alien way of thinking, other than in some sort of distant theoretical sense.  There aren’t very many kings any more, and with some exceptions, they are pretty much figureheads without any actual power.  This is a good thing, given the sketchy history of hereditary human monarchies.  But it leaves us with a much weaker image of what loyalty to someone’s person actually looks like.  What loyalties we have tend towards ideas and systems.  Or possibly to perversions like wholly corrupt state cults of the The Dear Leader.

And at a personal level what we think of as loyalty is often mere affinity.  We are committed to friends and spouses because we like them.  When we no longer like them it seems to be perfectly fine to go find new ones.  We demonstrate little understanding of the choice often articulated in marriage vows,  forsaking all others.

My suspicion is that our poor understanding of loyalty predisposes us to treat faith as purely cognitive at the expense of the relational.  Following Christ becomes a matter of accepting the correct propositions, accompanied in varying proportions by having the right emotions and experiences.  We are committed to the idea of Jesus, or the feeling of Jesus, instead of to the person of Jesus.

To be clear, faith is not some sterile choice.  The first and second century faith language of pistis/fides does not pull apart into ideas and experience in such a tidy way.  Trust is enmeshed in it.  And allegiance seems to be the binder that holds the thing together.

The contrast of a pair of Lenten vignettes might help us understand this a bit better.

There is Judas’ betrayal, which was rooted in divided loyalties.  In addition to following Jesus he was serving his own interests.  In his role as the treasurer for the little band of disciples he was also skimming a bit of coin for his own benefit.  This was a small betrayal.  But the difference between this and the larger payoff by the authorities was only a matter of degree.  Unfortunately for Judas the actual implications didn’t register until after sentence was passed by the Sanhedrin.

Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On the other hand, there was no question where Peter’s loyalties lay.  From stepping out of the boat in the storm to whacking off an ear in the garden, he was ready to do whatever the moment called for to follow his teacher.  While this played out in some impulsive and highly dysfunctional ways Peter was “all in” at a very personal level.  But he lacked the courage and strength to follow through and buckled from the fear of storms and people.   And after the arrest of Jesus denied knowing him.

If faith is grounded in allegiance then an aspect of grace might include the mercy shown Peter for his frailties.  Which means there is hope for the rest of us.


[1] Matthew W. Bates, with a forward by Scot McKnight.  Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2017.

[2] Jesus Creed, at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/ (I’ve commented on a couple but they are pretty much exploratory):

Backyard gene editing risks creating a monster | New Scientist

While we were all being distracted by cat videos and meaningless tweets by celebrities and politicians:

“Biohackers have already signalled their intention to use CRISPR, which poses a big problem for the authorities.” 

Source: Backyard gene editing risks creating a monster | New Scientist, 15 March 2017.”

The US Food and Drug Administration is allowing a dog breeder to use  CRISPR to fix a harmful mutation.  We are told that the FDA is trying not to stifle innovation.

By a dog breeder.

Why aren’t we reacting to this?  An article in the Atlantic suggests it might have something to do with the innocuous acronym for the tool used to fiddle with genetics.

Why does a revolutionary gene-editing technology sound like a candy bar? 

Source: CRISPR Has a Terrible Name – The Atlantic, April 11, 2017

Close your eyes and imagine it is 1938.  The German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann have just discovered nuclear fission.

Now give the process of Uncontrolled Nuclear Fission an innocuous acronym like UNUFI, something that sounds a bit like a stuffed animal.  And imagine those chemists also discover ways to make it happen within reasonable reach of private parties at manageable costs.  Who can then use the process in a barn somewhere out in the woods.

The world might look more like this:


Open Theism and the Nature of Time

I am clearly in over my head.

Several years ago, a leader in a local church introduced me to Open Theism.  The theology  appears grounded in the idea that the future is open and subject to chance and choice.  God knows all there is to know about what is settled reality but can only know the future in terms of possibilities.  And most of the writing I’ve encountered appears to rely on God as experiencing time.  This has been explained to me as a succession of moments.  Or, there is a moment (or a time) when God does not know something, and a moment (or a time) in which God does.

This has been bothering me like a bit of gravel stuck inside of a sandal.  It seems to grind against the physical phenomenon of time dilation, which is an implication of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (STR).  STR describes what happens when velocities differ between objects in the absence of acceleration.  STR is based on two things:

  • The special principle of relativity: The laws of physics are the same for all observers, regardless of their velocity.
  • The speed of light in a vacuum (c) is constant: That is, everyone will always measure the speed of light as being the same (i.e. c = 299,798,458 m/s), regardless of their own velocity. [1]

These postulates establish relationships between time, distance, velocity, and the speed of light that can be described mathematically.  As regarding time this might boil down to the following.  Since the speed of light is constant, as velocity increases, time slows.  And if our velocities are different relative to each other, our experience of time is also different.

Clock face of Big Ben.

If I board a space ship and travel for a few years at some measurable fraction of the speed of light, when I return you will have biologically aged more rapidly than I.  My “present” will be no longer aligned with yours.  This time dilation can be tested in particle accelerators and with moving clocks.

And as it happens, GPS satellites factor in corrections for time dilation resulting from both velocity and gravity.  Accounting for the latter requires applying Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and adds a level of complexity to this discussion I am simply going to avoid.  The point is that the passage of time seems inseparable from the fabric of the material world.  A clock does not merely measure time.  Time itself is in some way part of the operation of the clock.

In an attempt to wrap my head around the matter and give it a fair hearing I am currently reading God in an open universe: science, metaphysics, and open theism. [2]  The book has a section that discusses STR in detail.  It includes a fairly dense philosophical defense of Open Theism in the context of presentism vs. eternalism, as well as tensed and tenseless ideas about time.

But all of this really seems to be beside the point as it applies to God.  I am probably missing something but what I’ve read so far in the book does not seem to engage the core problem and what philosophy extrapolates from Relativity Theory might be irrelevant to this issue.  Time dilation is a physical phenomenon.  Which means time is an inherent feature of the material universe.

I could do with some clarification.  If what is meant is that God voluntarily limits the scope of interaction with the material world there might be some common ground here.  But I do not see any possible way for God to inherently experience time as a succession of moments.  What would also prevent thinking of God in terms of constraints such as distance, velocity, and the speed of light?  This risks anthropomorphisms like Zeus and Odin.

The bar seems quite high.  A while back Stephen Hawking participated in an episode of the television show Curiosity, titled Did God Create the Universe?  His answer to the question focused on the singularity of the Big Bang:

“…here too, time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause. Because there was no time for a cause to have existed. For me this means there is no possibility of a creator. Because there is no time for a creator to have existed.“[3]

Hawking seems to think he has disproven God’s existence.  There may be some unstated philosophical assumptions buried in the denial of causality, but let’s set that aside.  What Hawking does is provide another view of how time is welded into the material order.  And I think that what has actually happened is Hawking unwittingly illustrated the difficulties baked into defending any notion of anchoring God “in” time.

If my impressions of all this changes I will post an update.  Perhaps there are other ways to think about this.  I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian.  And my understanding of physics is a bit thin.  In an attempt to correct this last problem I am slowly gnawing away at a college primer on relativity theory.[4]  As I said when I started, I’m in over my head.  And I’m having trouble understanding how a problematic approach to cosmology can be a good context for a theology.


[1]  Adam Auton, An Introduction to Special Relativity (undated). Retrieved from Warphttp://adamauton.com/warp/lesson0.html.  See also links at this site for further reading and a downloadable PowerPoint titled Special Relativity for Dummies.

[2] William Hasker, Thomas Jay Oord, and Dean Zimmerman, editors.  God in an open universe: science, metaphysics, and open theism.  Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.

I found this book after an online back and forth with one of the editors.

[3] Did God Create the Universe?  Curiosity, Discovery Channel, aired August 7, 2011, Darlow Smithson Productions.  http://www.discovery.com/life-topics/curiosity/

[4] Edwin F Taylor and John Archibald Wheeler.  Spacetime Physics.  San Francisco: W.H Freemand and Company, 1963.

There is a second edition published in 1992. The book is listed on the Warp site above, and was also recommended in a forum as an accessible and less “mathy” introduction to modern relativity theory. I plan to acquire the more recent edition at some point. It’s a bit on the spendy side, probably as a result of being a college textbook.