Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Confirmation Bias

Everytime I feel like I've run out of things to write, the rag obligingly presents me with fresh material to work with.

I don't usually read the forum page on the rag. For one, the letters are heavily edited. For another, the forum is heavily managed in such a way as to publish letters in support of the government's stance on various issues, while at the same time in the interest of 'balance', frequently publishes the more clumsily written opposing letters to act as straw men. It's all really quite unsubtle, and somewhat lacking in polish.

That, and the fact that some Singaporeans have made the forum page a platform for their complaints over retail purchases and experiences gone sour. How parochial.

But my interest was piqued by a recent letter that attracted a furore on Online Citizen.

Frankly, I couldn't give a rat's ass for Mr Syu Ying Kwok's opinions. Neither do I have much interest in the deluge of negative comments on Mr Syu's letter.

But what did trigger my finely honed sense for baloney was the distinct whiff of confirmation bias.

I left a comment on Online Citizen that I reproduce below:

“But what chills the bones is the fact that in the past three elections, an average of more than 20 per cent of the electorate voted for him or anyone else who stood for election with little consideration of his credentials or abilities.”

[My comments] this is a case of confirmation bias: interpreting the data in a way that supports one’s current beliefs. Mr Syu Ying Kwok evidently holds the belief that Singaporeans cannot be trusted to do the “right” thing, that is, vote for the party that *he* feels is best suited to lead Singapore. After all, Tan Lead Shake is so obviously an unqualified candidate, he thinks!

an equally plausible alternative explanation of why >20% of the electorate would vote for someone with seemingly little credentials is that >20% of the electorate *have* considered Tan Lead Shake’s lack of credentials, but would rather take a chance on an unknown candidate than the status quo of the PAP.

To turn the proverb on its head, you could say that it’s a case of going with the devil you *don’t* know because the devil that you do know is so inconceivably horrid that anyone else is preferable.

Assuming the second explanation holds, I don’t know about LKY or the PAP, but if >20% of the electorate is so manifestly disgruntled as to feel this way, I think I would start loosening up a little more or at least launch a massive PR blitzcrieg, rather than be all condescending and cast doubt on Singaporeans' ability to think for themselves in their “best” interests.

There are other possible explanations for why >20% of the electorate would vote for who seems like an obviously unqualified candidate. The explanation I proffered is by no means the 'correct' one. I do not pretend to know the hearts and minds of the electorate, unlike so many other people.

Incidentally, cognition is something of both personal and professional interest to me. So this is an inaugural post for a new label. All future posts that relate to cognition and metacognition will now bear this label.

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