Thursday, March 02, 2006

How our biases skew our conclusions about the motives of other people

Earlier tonight I read Dagoods' most recent blog entry where he said he thinks Christians avoid learning about their opposition because they are afraid. Now I don't deny that this is the case for a lot of Christians, but the lack of balance in his post got me to thinking about something. We all seem to more readily attribute sinister motives in those who are against us than in those who are for us. Seems only natural, doesn't it?

Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People made the same point. I don't have the book with me, but he argued in one of the first few chapters that people rarely ever blame themselves for anything. They always find some way to justify their actions. C.S. Lewis made the same observation in one of the first few chapters of Mere Christianity. He said we are so aware of the moral law that we can't bare to face the fact that we've broken it. Consequently, we always put our bad behavior down to circumstances out of our control. We let ourselves off the hook somehow. But we put our good behavior down to ourselves.

We are far more likely to blame others than to blame ourselves. We have no shortage of good excuses for our own actions. But when other people behave badly (especially when they behave badly toward us), we are not so generous. We don't extend the benefit of the doubt as readily to others as we extend the justification to ourselves.

One of the examples Dagoods brought up was that Christians often misrepresent their opposition. This was an example of what he called "lack of honest inquiry." So basically he's accusing Christians of intellectual dishonesty when they misrepresent their opposition and then make strawman arguments. Isn't it interesting that his one explanation for these misrepresentations is "lack of honest inquiry"? He doesn't even raise the possibility that some Christians could honestly have misunderstandings about their opposition. To here Dagoods tell it, you'd think this was a problem unique to Christians. Christians are deceitful scum to dishonestly misrepresent non-believers, but of course non-believers never do that.

Let's pretend that we are observing a debate between a theist and an atheist on the existence of God. Both debaters have published a number of books and articles, and we have read them all. We have studied them thoroughly, and we are equally informed on both of their views. Now let's say that while we're observing this debate we notice that both of them misrepresent the other's position. What is our gut reaction to this?

That seems to depend on whose side we're on, doesn't it? We assume our guy made an honest mistake and maybe just doesn't really understand the other guy. But we assume the other guy is intentionally misrepresenting our guy. He's being intellectually dishonest. This is one case of how our bias can influence our conclusions about the motives of others.

We can't do away with our biases, but by being aware of them, we can make a more conscious effort to be fair. We shouldn't attribute motives to people without proper justification. We should be just as harsh with ourselves when we've done wrong as we are with others when they've done wrong. And if we're going to justify our own bad behavior, then we ought to be open to possible justifications for other people's bad behavior. Easier said than done, but if truth matters, then it's worth the effort, because truth requires consistency.


At 3/03/2006 8:24 AM , Blogger Steve said...

Insightful post, as always Sam.

I think, however, there's a difference between what Dagoods was suggesting and what you're suggesting. Dagoods is arguing that Christians NEED to misrepresent atheism in order to challenge its arguments, whereas he seems to be asserting that he does not need to misrepresent christian doctrine to challenge their ideas.

By contrast, you seem to be saying that some christians may misrepresent atheism (for a variety of reasons), but others do not.

Moreover, you have not asserted in your posts that Christians are any better than atheists at their ability to engage in honest inquiry. And this is relevant, because it is Christians who are claiming to be better or more truthful than atheism, not merely equal to it!

At 3/03/2006 10:12 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Steve, I get the impression that you're responding more to my comment on Dagoods' blog than to this post I've made. I don't see how your comments pertain very much to this post. This post is about the tendency we all have to attribute bad motives to the opposition while giving the benefit of the doubt to those on our own side. Of course I guess I could be misrepresenting you. :-)

At 3/03/2006 10:49 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Thank you, steve, for understanding what I was saying. I wonder, at times, how clear I am.

ephphatha, you state: One of the examples Dagoods brought up was that Christians often misrepresent their opposition.

I would sincerely hope that people would look at my blog, and see the actual statement, in context : Over and over, I see apologetic books misrepresent the position of the opposing side, and then perform a beautiful job of destroying this false argument. Commonly called a “strawman.” If a God is based upon truth, what possible harm could come from fairly and adequately presenting BOTH sides, and then letting the truth shine out?

Almost every single deconvert (including me) has been informed at least once, “Have you read ____?” in the hope that one book would turn around a year of study. And if we dare reply, “No, but I will read it, if you read ____” we get rejected more times than not. We are to read Christian apologetics, but no Christian dares read skeptical books. They are forbidden.

Look, if you want to read what evidence a skeptic bases their claim upon—read the skeptic! Don’t read the theist that claims what the skeptic says—go to the source.

I certainly agree, ephphatha, that in a fast-moving debate, or even a discussion, we may not have time to verify every quote, or review every statement. But if somebody is putting out a book, especially a Christian (telling the truth) book, they ought to verify the quote. I don’t see Christians verifying these quotes, or doing the research themselves. Nothing to do with “bias” or “motivation” (although I speculate) I just don’t see it.

How many times have I seen the claim “10,000 manuscripts within a few years of the originals.” Comes from Josh McDowell. It is a conflation of “10,000 manuscripts” and “manuscripts within a few years of the originals.” While both statements may be true, together they are not! Part of my point, as well, was that Mr. McDowell does not always present the other side.

Now, in case you think I am pulling this out of my hat, as it were, For links on McDowell on being completely forthright:



For links on Christians misquoting history:


For Links on creationists misquoting scientists:





In fact, it is so common, wikipedia has a small blurb on it! As a means to criticise mainstream science, creationists have been known to quote, at length, scientists who ostensibly support the mainstream theories, but appear to acknowledge criticisms similar to those of creationists. Many evolutionists allege that these are quote mines (lists of out of context or misleading quotations) that do not accurately reflect the evidence for evolution or the mainstream scientific community's opinion of it. Many of the same quotes used by creationists have appeared so frequently in internet discussions due to the availability of cut and paste functions, that the archive has created "The Quote Mine Project" for quick reference.

If you want to read Strobel fail to accurately portray the position of the Jesus Seminar:


The point I was making was that many Christians simply assume these quotes are accurate and on the level, without doing the research themselves.

Ephphatha: To here Dagoods tell it, you'd think this was a problem unique to Christians. Christians are deceitful scum to dishonestly misrepresent non-believers, but of course non-believers never do that.

No, it is not unique to Christians. Here is a situation in which scientists were misquoting Philip Johnson. Notice that it was recognized, and attempted to be corrected. And yes, to “dishonestly misrepresent” or even honestly misrepresent is deceitful. I don’t use the term “scum.”

As steve very aptly points out, though, saying, “Christians are just like non-Christians” does not say much for the impact of a God in one’s life, does it? Shouldn’t Christians, more than anyone else, be interested in the truth, and actually precede me in pointing out these errors?

Rather than state, “Hey, you do it too!” shouldn’t the Christian step up and say, “No, that is not correct. We want every fact fairly presented, and each person quoted correctly, because we believe in reviewing all of the truth, our position will prevail. We do not need to misquote others to support it.”

The scientists don’t need to misquote the creationists. They can prove evolution on their own. I don’t need to misquote Christian Biblical scholars; I can evaluate their position, because I am interested in their input, just as much as a non-Christian scholar. (And face it—due to the study there are far more Christian Biblical scholars!)

At 3/03/2006 11:02 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Dagoods, I didn't dipute your claims so much as I took issue with your imbalance. I think it's wonderful that you acknowledge misrepresentations to go the other way as well. Your original post, however, gives a very different impression whether you intended it to or not.

At 3/03/2006 11:30 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Dagoods, after I wrote, "Now I don't deny that this is the case for a lot of Christians," don't you think all your bluster to prove it is the case for a lot of Christians was a collossal waste of time and space?

At 3/03/2006 1:19 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...

ephphatha, take issue with my imbalance all you want. Here is the problem—it is very imbalanced. Want to “take issue”? Start demonstrating that atheists misquote Christian claims to the same extent. Demonstrate scientists misquote creationists equally as much. Did you hit any of those sites? It is not as if each one recounts just one misquoting. I picked those particular sites, so we could see dozens, per some sites of examples of Christians and/or creationists misquoting and misrepresenting.

I came up with exactly one (1) example of the reverse, although I am sure there are more. If we calculate that for every time an atheist or a scientist misquotes the other position, a Christian or creationist does it ten (10) times, (a very generous ratio, based upon what I have seen) wouldn’t you call that an imbalance?

Bluster? Naw. More like bolster. I am sure you see it as a waste of time. For me, it was a chance to gain a little more knowledge

At 3/03/2006 8:55 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Dagoods, the question of "Who does it more?" is a red herring. I'm satisfied that as far as the present topic is concerned, you've conceded my point, and I'll leave it at that. The idea of tallying up the actual number of misrepresentations by all the atheists and theist intellectuals in the fields of science, philosophy, religion, and history seems a bit unrealistic to me anyway.


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