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THE CONFIRMATION BIAS: Decision-Making Errors (Pt. 2)

God reveals truth in his Creation, and that’s why Christians love scientific research. Of course, we can only interpret those observations accurately when we recast them into a biblical worldview. That’s our task in this brief study about typical decision-making errors.

THE CONFIRMATION BIAS – On January 16, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia blasted off in what appeared to be a routine launch. But during takeoff, a sizeable chunk of insulating foam from the external fuel tank dislodged and struck the spacecraft. It had happened before on other launches, but several engineers expressed alarm that this larger piece could cause catastrophic damage. Tragically, their concerns were barely heard. They were overruled by senior NASA managers who held a strong attachment to their existing belief, “Foam does not pose a safety threat.” Social researchers call this the “confirmation bias”—only hearing information that confirms your existing opinions. You could also call it sin—prideful independence, leading to a failure to listen to others. It is vain closed-mindedness.

But lest we be quick to judge, remember that no one wanted the Columbia with its occupants to disintegrate in the skies over Texas. These were professionals, deeply committed to the mission’s success and the protection of the astronauts. No one wanted to set the forest ablaze with his speech, or steer the ship onto the rocks. No one wanted that marriage to fail. No one wanted those long friendships to crumble. No one wanted that church to split down the middle. But they did—for lack of wisdom. Wisdom that might have been gained by listening to advice, especially from mature believers who disagree with our cherished opinions. [1]

THE AVAILABILITY BIAS – The Columbia Accident Investigation Board discovered a pattern of “stifled professional differences of opinion” (i.e., the confirmation bias) by NASA decision-makers. The Board also charged them with “reliance on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices.” Researchers call this the “availability bias”[2] —“overemphasizing information that is more readily available or more recent, failing to consider important facts that require greater effort to acquire.” ​Let’s not make this too complicated. How about “slothful ignorance.”

GOD’S SOLUTION – Divine Wisdom!

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her….The ears of the wise seek it out.

Where do we seek out and find wisdom?

Wisdom Grounded in God’s Word: the BIBLE

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

It’s the cry of the Reformation, “Scripture alone!” Without it we have no mooring, but with it we are equipped for every good work and have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us….a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…. That anchor of hope is the focal point of all divine wisdom—the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any attempt at wisdom that bypasses the cross is doomed to ultimate foolishness.

Wisdom Gained in God’s World: the CREATION

Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer….

We learn from the ants [3] and all the rest of creation. “Wisdom is a clear understanding of the way things work in God’s world, giving you practical direction about how you should live in it.” That’s where science comes in—along with all our daily observations of what helps and what doesn’t—as Scripture moves out of mere abstraction and enters into our lives in practical and transformative ways, here and now.

Wisdom Granted through God’s People: the CHURCH

The church is of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind, and therefore, Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

This is huge, and often overlooked. If Christians want God’s wisdom, we must remember that we are not alone, for he put us together. Sin turns the plural of love into the singular of self-orientation, but now, in Christ, the Holy Spirit radically reverses that old death spiral. Your brothers and sisters are united to Christ, the Spirit dwells within them, so you must assume that as you seek out their interests you will find the interests of God himself! Therefore, we expect that the Lord especially will give wisdom through his people as we seek wisdom together and work together.

We all face countless decisions, most of them inconsequential, but some that carry life-long implications. We’re often painfully aware of our weakness and ignorance. Yet because Jesus Christ is sovereign over all, and he dwells with us, and he promises to grant wisdom, and puts us in a family with other wisdom-seekers, therefore we can enjoy freedom and confidence in making those choices.

Blessings to you!

Andy Selle

[1] Scriptures quoted or alluded to (ESV unless noted): Psa 119:105; Pro 1:7; 8:11 (NIV); 12:15; 17:15 (NIV); 18:2,15 (my trans.); 30:25; Eph 5:16; Phil 2:1-4; 2 Tim 3:16; Heb 6:19; Jas 3:4-6. Bible quotes are in italics.

[2] sometimes called the “recency effect” because more recent events are generally easier to recall, as are those which are more familiar, vivid, or emotionally charged.

[3] Did the apostle Paul have this Proverb in mind when he wrote, …Making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil. (Eph 5:17)?

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