Moral hypocrisy on ‘roids: the curse of confirmation bias


Peter Wehner, a Republican Never Trumper, has written an essential oped in the New York Times in which he excavates and examines his own confirmation bias with respect to the Administration.  I think we should all take a leaf from his column.

Wehner worked in the George W. Bush administration, and the section on the Iraq War is especially revealing, not to mention refreshingly honest. 

 I believed before the war began that it was justified — that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, that he was a particularly malevolent and destabilizing figure, and that it was a military conflict that would liberate an enslaved people.

In ways I had not fully understood at the time, I had been filtering out information that ran counter to the narrative I believed.

Take another look at that last sentence.  Wehner gets confirmation bias in a nutshell — a cognitive trick that blinds us to unhelpful realities — and, boy oh boy, is it hard one to crack.  (Should go without saying I’m as guilty as the next person, except perhaps alcoholism taught me the inherent value of fronting up to problems).  

In its more egregious form, confirmation bias manifests as wanton hypocrisy and rank double standards. There are two yarns in my orbit currently that exemplify the problem. 

First, the hard-to-fathom sight of Trump and his enablers attempting to claim the moral high ground over Harvey Weinstein’s gross sexual misconduct, not to mention efforts to entangle Hillary Clinton in the whole mess.  Maybe the Germans have a word to describe a president who claims fame is a license to grab pussy getting all holier-than-thou over similar conduct by a fellow deviant, but the English language falls short. Mere “hypocrisy” doesn’t cut it.  

Trump diehards are willfully oblivious, of course. Their hatred of Hillary and Hollywood liberals like Weinstein is more than enough to erase any cognitive dissonance associated with Trump’s absurd posturing.  

Another current example of mass confirmation bias leading to selective reasoning and flagrant double standards is the kerfuffle over Duncan Garner’s recent column in the NZ media about Asian immigration.  

Full disclosure, without exaggerating matters, I know and like Duncan — and, since I am far from immune from confirmation bias, this no doubt affects my assessment of the issue.  That said, I think Garner may one day regret deciding to pen a column based on that particular trip to K-Mart, and conclude he could have mounted the same argument in a less inflammatory fashion.  At the very least, intentional or not, the snake analogy was a mistake, and not a trivial one. 

But fair’s fair.  Duncan Garner is a columnist and broadcast journalist. It’s his job to provoke debate, express his views, keep the discourse humming along.  He is not a straight news reporter from whom we might expect “neutrality”.  This of course means listeners and readers are well within their rights to object to his view — indeed, that’s the whole point.  In the end, he is a purveyor of opinion, not facts. And certainly not public policy.  

Which brings me back to the selective moral reasoning problem Wehner alerts us to in his column. 

If you have spent the past few days wailing and gnashing your teeth over the Garner column, and yet sat silent and acquiescent while Phil Twyford vilified Asian homeowners, your confirmation bias has got the better of you.  

There is no comparison between a misjudged (and, in my view, substantively wrong) newspaper column and a political party taking the deliberate step to engage in explicit racial targeting for electoral gain. (Far be it for me to speak for others, but I’m almost certain most Kiwis of Asian origin would much rather keep racial animus contained to the opinion pages, and out of the Beehive). 

If you saw fit to condemn the former but not the latter, ask yourself why.  Go on. It won’t hurt.