You can convince yourself of anything if you ignore evidence that doesn’t support your idea of the truth.
The three-headed dragon of confirmation bias, cherry-picking, and echo chambers wages a vicious assault on your reasoning abilities. In this post, I’ll cover why it’s so dangerous and how to protect yourself from the worst of its effects.
“Cherry picking” and Confirmation Basis Set The Stage For Weak Thinking
Cherry picking falls under the umbrella of a cognitive distortion known as confirmation bias - our innate tendency to seek, favor, interpret, and recall information in a way that substantiates our prior beliefs or hypotheses. Confirmation bias makes us feel validated when our perspectives get reinforced, so we unconsciously privilege confirming data over disconfirming data points.
We let agreeable facts through the mental filter while conveniently ignoring details that support alternate viewpoints. In this way, confirmation bias facilitates cherry-picking by making us gravitate toward selective evidence that props up our existing worldview.
The combination of preferentially noticing friendly data and overlooking unaligned facts compounds the echo chamber effect that can profoundly distort our perception of the truth.
Cherry-picking means selectively gathering supportive facts that validate our viewpoint. The idea comes from the portrayal of a foolish farmer who, during a harvest, only selects the ripest fruit from a tree and pretends that the rest of the crop, which may be subpar or flawed, doesn’t exist. While these tasty fruits feed him in the short term, he’ll suffer in the long term because
- He won’t have enough fruit to last
- He won’t correct the deficiencies that caused him to get such a subpar crop.
If you let your intellect become like the farmer’s, you’ll feel good because you’ll appear correct, but reality is full of facts that contradict your stance and will destroy you. You’ll be left with two choices: retreat to the safety of an echo chamber or adapt your position and learn.
Most people’s egos are too frail to admit that their worldview is wrong, let alone change it, so most choose the former path.
The Echo Chamber of Intellectual Inbreeding
An echo chamber is a closed ecosystem of ideas and information in which people only encounter perspectives and opinions aligning with their preexisting beliefs. Particular views consistently reverberate within echo chambers while dissenting voices get left out.
This insular dynamic can easily promote misinformation and distortions of reality.
The problem with an echo chamber is it allows weak ideas to flourish, unchecked by the natural selection pressures of intellectual debate and rigor. Because these weaker, fallacious perspectives and ideas never get challenged, they never modify but never die either. What happens then is the intellectual equivalent of inbreeding.
When a population lacks genetic diversity, detrimental mutations get passed on rather than get selected out by evolutionary pressures. Similarly, flawed arguments and beliefs perpetuate unchecked within echo chambers due to an absence of ideological diversity and dissent. Just as inbreeding multiplies the concentration of undesirable genes over generations, echo chambers compound irrationality over time.
With no infusion of fresh philosophies or counter-evidence, absurdities amplify exponentially. And individuals within these closed-loop systems grow more adamant in their convictions even as their worldview stunts further from reality. They sink deeper into the delusion that theirs is the only valid mode of thinking.
Instead of the Hapsburg Chin, the result of generations of inbreeding in the European Hapsburg dynasty that prevented many from breathing or eating correctly, you get QAnon followers. Instead of the Blue Fugates of Kentucky, a family whose genetic condition gave them blue skin that inbreeding never weeded out, you get flat-earthers whose absurd beliefs only intensify in their isolated online communities.
Just as genetic inbreeding allows physical disadvantages to remain because there are no new genes to flush out the old, echo chambers promote foolish ideas because nothing challenges old ideas with facts and rigor.
The worst part about cherry-picking is that it willfully disregards inconvenient data that provides essential context and contradicts our assumptions and worldview. It’s one thing not to know and be willing to learn. It’s an entirely different issue when you won’t entertain a contradictory perspective, even if someone presents it cordially with supporting data.
The fastest way to get smarter is to get intelligent people to poke holes in your worldview. We must confront all the facts to arrive at the truth - not just the convenient ones. Looking for and staying open to contradictions within our most deeply held beliefs is the only way to test whether they stand on solid logical ground.
However, echo chambers can be tricky to recognize, especially if you’re already inside one. These ideological loops’ insular nature means that even challenging questions can be dismissed as heretical. But if we want to avoid stagnating in closed-circuit thinking, we must vigilantly self-audit the information ecosystems we inhabit.
Defeating The Three-Headed Dragon of Cherry-Picking, Confirmation Bias, and Echo Chambers
When evaluating online communities or social circles, ask yourself:
- Do they tend to promote only a single dominant perspective?
- Does rumor or incomplete data rather than evidenced facts prop up that viewpoint?
- Do they frequently ignore or discredit dissenting facts if they challenge accepted narratives?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may be in an echo chamber. The lack of healthy disagreement, omission of opposing details, and refusal to acknowledge inconvenient truths are key warning signs.
There is one other danger of confirmation bias, cherry picking, and residing in an echo chamber. It can make you agree with ideas you know are absurd but can’t disagree with because you’ll look like an outsider who sides with the opposition. This tactic is heavily used by politicians and pundits and has a significant effect on the United States’ political system.
I once posted that I’m pro 2nd Amendment, but given the power and ease of operation of today’s firearms, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to require mandatory training hours per year to own a gun. Several gun instructors have told me that most people, even law enforcement, don’t adequately train how to shoot and just believe they’ll pull the trigger.
Any experienced shooters know how hard it is to hit a target even 10 yards away, standing still in the controlled environment of a gun range. Under duress is nearly impossible, but this take was met with so much pushback because the right side of politics viewed it as an infringement upon rights.
On the other end of the spectrum, the left took great offense when I pointed out that calling it “pro-choice” is a brilliant marketing tactic because the opposite of “life” is not “choice.” The opposite of “pro” is “anti” (in this usage). The opposite of “life” is “death,” which is precisely what abortion causes. It’s the only other “choice.”
In the past 3 days, I've given nuanced/balanced/alternative takes on 3 hot button issues: abortion, student loans, and guns.— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) August 25, 2022
Trust me when I say this:
When you don't take a strong side, you get half the support and twice the hate.
Group think is definitely a survival mechanism
When you commit yourself to growth and the truth, you must be strong because you get hate from both sides. When your conclusions agree with one side, you’ll gain temporary praise from them and disdain from the other. But soon enough, you’ll be seen as a traitor by those who embraced you and not accepted by the other side. You’ll have to learn to walk alone, without the safety of the crowd or groups, and be willing to look like a turncoat as you update your thinking as you learn.
We must make concrete efforts to expose ourselves to alternate paradigms and truths outside our filter bubbles. Signing up for a newsletter from an opposing ideology, following thought leaders with vastly different lived experiences than ours, and diving deeper into the facts behind viral headlines can all help burst echo chambers.
The only way to test the integrity of our beliefs is by putting them through trial by fire. Even if you get burned up, that’s a better fate than being an intellectual hillbilly.
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I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.
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