Happy New Year to all!
I hope 2019 offers you many opportunities to wonder and gain new insights.
Recently, I returned from a few days’ break in Canberra. While there, a book came to my attention, which quickly captivated me.
It is the story of the forged Adolf Hitler diaries, which surfaced in the early 1980s, and it details a compelling example of a phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias.’
Confirmation bias describes the way we listen to what we agree with and disregard what we don’t. We do this unconsciously, so are unaware of our bias.
People, including those who should know better, will go to extraordinary lengths to confirm existing beliefs.
Gerd Heidemann was a reporter for Stern, a newspaper in what was then West Germany. Formerly a member of the Hitler Youth, he became obsessed by Nazi memorabilia.
He was an excellent researcher – colleagues named him ‘The Bloodhound’ – but he didn’t know when to stop researching, when to step back, and think and write, and also when not to think about the topic at all.
This failing was evident when he took a former SS General on his honeymoon to interview former Nazis who were hiding in Latin America!
Heidemann had met a man named Konrad Kujau, a forger of considerable ability, who told Heidemann he was in possession of Adolf Hitler’s private diaries.
Heidemann was hooked.
From that point on, no other view, objective analysis, or expert opinion was able to dislodge his belief that these diaries were genuine. Even when proven to be forgeries, Heidemann maintained the faith.
(When Heidemann met Kujau, the diaries did not exist. Kujau forged 60 volumes of diaries after he had struck a lucrative deal with him.)
It sounds unbelievable. However, shortly afterwards, a prominent historian was called in, and he pronounced the diaries genuine.
Historians supposedly step back from the excitement of discovering new documents to analyse their veracity. Supposedly…
Afterwards, he confessed that when doubts emerged in his mind, he convinced himself that others must have undertaken the necessary due diligence.
They hadn’t. Many ‘others’ thought the same thing!
As I read this book, I was staggered by.the lack of care, the stupidity, the incredulity, and the naivete. However, I was reading with the benefit of hindsight.
Usually, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight when making sense of our experience.
We are all prone to confirmation bias.
At the Christmas Eve service at Revesby, I spoke about Mary as a person who treasured what I call ‘in-between’ moments, who enjoyed the human capacity for wonder.
To create and maintain the space needed for wondering is hard work. Confirmation bias fills up such in-between moments with links, causes and proof.
Aristotle said, ‘nature abhors a vacuum.‘ So do our minds.
This diminishes our capacity for wonder, and our ability to discern truth.
Two thoughts come to mind, ‘Beware!’ and ‘Welcome the odd, the unusual and the discomforting.’
It may be the pathway to truth.