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Confirmation Bias

Cordelia Fine has this article in the NYT on the tendency of everyone, including scientists, to bias their evaluation of evidence based on whether it confirms or refutes their preexisting beliefs.

[W]e humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not. In a classic psychology experiment, people for and against the death penalty were asked to evaluate the different research designs of two studies of its deterrent effect on crime. One study showed that the death penalty was an effective deterrent; the other showed that it was not. Which of the two research designs the participants deemed the most scientifically valid depended mostly on whether the study supported their views on the death penalty.

In the laboratory, this is labeled confirmation bias; observed in the real world, it's known as pigheadedness.

Speaking of which, there is this article by Ian Dunt in politics.co.uk.  Discussing a proposal to reinstate the death penalty in Britain, Dunt asserts that it is "staggeringly easy" to refute the argument for deterrence, and it can be done in 30 seconds. 

To anyone familiar with the literature in this area, Dunt's assertions are staggeringly superficial.  He cites old literature and dredges up the moth-eaten controversy over Isaac Ehrlich's work in the 1970s.  Sneering at the whole idea of deterrence, Dunt is apparently completely unaware of the large body of literature from 2000 forward.

The actual deterrence debate remains a complex one.  Dunt's assertion that the question is easy and takes only 30 seconds is a dramatic example of confirmation bias, or, if you prefer, pigheadedness.

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