Truth-fetishism and Confirmation Bias

It's a trap

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:31 – 32

I have noticed that our society has an obsession with “truth.” I don’t believe it started with politics, but this is the arena — thank you , social media — where it has seemed to come into full blossom. One would expect that a large number of people seeking truth would be a good thing. In this case I have my doubts. What do I mean by an obsession with “truth” — and why do I feature it in scare quotes? Let me elaborate.

Full moon, moon set, mist, fog, shroud, confirmation bias

What we want to see may obscure what is right in front of our eyes

Truth as a fetish

First, every major newspaper and nearly every news network has a person or thing called a Fact-checker. The Fact-checker’s mission is to submit the statements and claims of politicians and other public figures to scrutiny and to determine the veracity of those statements, awarding them cute tokens according to how well they measure up. As far as journalism goes, fact checking seems questionable and far less clear-cut than claimed, with many weak appeals to authority, such as other journalists, or worse, “sources say.”

Next consider the whole “Fake news” topic. Undoubtedly, there is such a thing, as anyone who has fallen for a clickbait headline can attest, but what gets labeled Fake news is often nothing more than something with which the labeler disagrees.

We have made truth into a fetish — a word whose original definition meant the impartation or attribution of spiritual or religious qualities into a lifeless object. This is nothing more or less than the definition of an idol. If you read my previous post, you saw that idols scratch a particular itch, but do not have the power and authority of the Living God. They are, therefore inadequate. “Truth” — in its fetishized form — is similarly inadequate compared to the genuine article.

Is it literally true?

The truth-obsessed are often enormously subjective in their thinking. They cling most vociferously to what they refer to as “my truth,” as if truth were a private thing, dispensed like Kraft cheese singles. As you might expect, those who are ideologically invested their subjective view of reality tend also to be less charitable to those with a different personal truth, and especially hostile toward those who view Truth as a universal absolute. This is where the epithets such as judgmental, narrow-minded, bigoted, etc., come in.

In my experience, the most common form of truth-obsession is a mistaken literalism applied to the words and statements of others. Figurative language and nuance do not exist to these seemingly educated people. They seize on one context of a word or phrase — the literal one — and ignore all other possible interpretations.

We saw this throughout the US presidential campaign, where then-candidate Trump’s critics ridiculed him for his word choices, often by taking him literally. A more recent example of this is the kerfuffle over the word “wiretapping.” In this era of near-universal cellphone use, I have trouble imagining there is even such a thing as a literal wiretap — no wire, no tap, right? But do we doubt there is such a thing as surveillance? Wouldn’t wiretapping serve as an inexact, but emotionally powerful, synonym for snooping? Even the New York Times who now questions the president’s allegations of “wiretapping,” published a story in January saying that a warrant had been issued for the very surveillance they now deny, based on this narrow parsing of words.

During the campaign, CNN’s Brad Todd famously said*,”…voters take Donald Trump seriously but not literally, while journalists take him literally, but not seriously.” Those in the latter category did not anticipate the durability of the Trump candidacy, nor his electoral victory.

Confirmation bias

This interpreting of information in favor of one’s pet theories is called confirmation bias — It’s a common malady for people of the left, the right, and the center. It shows up among the religious and the non-religious. In short, it’s a human thing. I used president Trump and his critics as an example, since it’s such a vivid illustration.

Nothing new under the sun

This was not, however, the first or only time a popular figure confounded the powers that be by thwarting their confirmation bias. In Jesus’ day, he encountered his own group of fact-checkers — the Pharisees. These religious leaders were devout, but like today’s truth-obsessives, they had a tendency to read the book and miss the lesson — even when it, I mean He, was standing right in front of them.

My pastor has taught that the Pharisees’ scrupulous keeping of the law was their way of summoning the Messiah. Whether it was correlation or causation, he came to them, and they rejected him outright. He taught, and they questioned His credentials. He performed miracles, and they attributed them to the devil. He healed the sick, and they flagged him for violating the sabbath. He went to the homes of the broken, and they accused him of being a glutton and a drunk. Here was their long-awaited Messiah — and He was completely different than the one they had in mind. Take a bow, confirmation bias!

And they fell into the trap of literalism. Jesus said if they destroyed the temple (meaning His body),  He’d rebuild it in three days. Although Jesus was foreshadowing His resurrection, this became part of the Pharisees’ indictment of Jesus — He threatened to destroy the Temple. So they handed Him over to Rome as a blasphemer, an insurrectionist, and an enemy of Caesar, styling Himself King of the Jews.

Just in case you think this was tied to some sort of internecine rivalry among ancient rabbis, consider what happened when Jesus stood before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Chapter 18 of John’s gospel tells it this way:

28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

Pontius Pilate: Patron Saint of Postmodernism

It should be clear to you that Pilate’s question was not a sincere one. How do we know? Because if He had genuinely wanted to know Truth, Jesus would have revealed it to Him. As it is, the Bible does not record Jesus’ speaking one more word to Pilate. And I submit to you that today’s truth-obsessives are Pilate’s spiritual heirs.

If you attended or are attending college, you have received an exposure, if not an indoctrination, to postmodernism. It’s primary characteristic is the elevation of the subjective above all. Humorously, it’s only absolute is that there are no absolutes — a self-refuting argument. But if one is obsessed with the fetishized version of “truth” rather than the more unyielding transcendent, true-for-all-people-at-all-times Truth, it’s easy to overlook such things.

A thought experiment

Humor me for a minute. I’d like to give you a couple of mental pictures. First, let’s picture Truth as a wild stallion — powerful, free, and elusive. You might be able to catch a glimpse of him, if you’re stealthy, perhaps you can throw a lasso around his neck, and even mount and ride him. But if you do anything the least bit wrong, you’ll be thrown and maybe even trampled. There’s a real risk of injury or death if you cross Truth.

Now let’s picture “truth” as the coin operated mechanical horse in front of the grocery store. You can walk right up to it, sit in the conveniently provided saddle, and even get bounced for a few minutes if you have a quarter. There’s no real risk — a toddler can ride it, for crying out loud! But there’s no real adventure, no life in it either.

The roots of triggering

Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance in the late 1950’s to describe the discomfort one experiences when he attempts to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. The more profound examples of this discomfort occur at the levels of identity, stimulation, and security — remember those? — and at the level of worldview.

If one is an ardent disciple of postmodernism and one has a deeply-held belief that reality is subjective, and if one runs head-on into objective reality, cognitive dissonance will shake that one like a rag doll in a playful puppy’s mouth. What therapists call being triggered is actually acute cognitive dissonance — X can’t possibly happen. X happens. Voila: “I’m literally shaking.” Not a good look for a man.

The Truth will set you free

I quoted Jesus at the top of this post, and this is where we’ll end it. Keep in mind that it was Jesus who said of Himself, “I am the way, the truth, the life — no one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14:6). If embracing transcendent truth seems intimidating, that’s only natural. The Lion of Judah is not a tame lion, after all. But Jesus, truth personified, is also God in human flesh — and God is love. You have nothing to fear from embracing truth, even if it costs you everything. God is faithful and will never abandon His own. You can fact check that if you like.

So how about you? How are you seeking to embrace truth and avoid the trap of confirmation bias? Add your comments below.

*Salena Zito receives attribution for this statement, based on her article in the Atlantic, but Brad Todd spoke it into being.







Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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