Do you believe everything you read, or do you read everything you believe?
My back ached for months. I blamed everything: my bed, my office chair, old sports injuries, arthritis, even age. No matter what I blamed, my back still ached.
Last Sunday I experienced one of those semi-lucid early morning moments when my dreaming brain and my waking brain cross paths at the time clock and have a brief chat.
“How’d it go last night?”
“Same ol’, same ol’.” I took him flying, left him in high school English naked, and threw in a Bo Derek sexcapade just to screw him up.”
“Why would that screw him up?”
“I made her a lizard. Hey, you still dealing with that back problem when he’s awake?”
“Look, I know you’re the rational one, but I really think you’re on the wrong track with this bones, joints, and muscles business. Have him take a look at the kidneys.”
“Kidneys, huh? I’ll mention it, but honestly your bailiwick is more crumbling teeth and Lizard Bo.”
I awoke that morning with a brilliant idea regarding my back pain and an inexplicable attraction to Godzilla.
Overall I live a pretty clean life. I rarely have more than a glass of wine or a beer in the evenings, consume no drugs, don’t work with dangerous chemicals, etc. The only suspect that came to mind that might be impacting my kidneys was my penchant for artificially sweetened bubbly water. I’m not a coffee drinker, so carbonated beverages are my go-to for feeding my American-sized caffeine addiction. How big is American-sized? I don’t know, but breaking my soda habit meant several days of massive headaches, sluggishness, and general disorientation.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that getting the caffeine monkey off my back only took a few days of misery. I don’t how people with heavy addictions–alcohol, nicotine, reality television–hold out for the amount of time it takes to get that crud out of their bloodstreams.
The even better news it that my sleepy hunch paid off. Once the artificially sweetened bubbly water was gone, so was my back pain. This could be true for any number of reasons, the most obvious of which might be:
- I slept better without caffeine
- Whatever injury affected my back coincidentally healed the same week
- The placebo effect
- The diuretic effect of caffeine was dehydrating me
- The artificial sweetener caused my symptoms
- Some other chemical in that product was sludging up my kidneys
All, some, or none of these might be true. A sample size of one guy with no conditions or controls doesn’t make for a credible experiment. I did no more than take a guess based on what my twilight brain told me, and it appeared to be correct–“appeared to be” being the operative words.
I wanted to be certain, so I Googled “back pain” along with the brand name of the artificial sweetener. Dozens of websites confirmed my little experiment. Back pain was one of the many symptoms associated with this particular product, along with cancer, lupus, Parkinson’s, brain tumors, lymphoma–even Gulf War syndrome. I would have been better off developing an insecticide habit.
Or maybe not. Among the scary Google hits were a few from what most people would consider credible resources–big names in science, medicine, and public health. These sites assured me that this particular artificial sweetener had been both tested and monitored for decades with no indication of significant health risk.
These sites were dismissed by the other sites. “Those guys are shills for The Man! They’re in on the conspiracy! The corporations own the government! They want us sick because when we’re sick we’re compliant!”
I was in a choose your own adventure story where I was allowed to cherry pick what facts, or “facts,” best suited my reality. This is nothing new. In fact, there’s a name for choosing your own facts: confirmation bias. The name is pretty self explanatory so there’s no need to belabor the point, but just to make sure we’re all singing from the same hymnal, confirmation bias essentially means that we come at a problem with a preconceived idea of the answer, so we select that information that confirms we’re right.
Confirmation bias is what compels your crazy uncle to repost articles about rapey immigrants even if he hasn’t read them (the articles, not the immigrants). It’s what enables climate change deniers to cite the 3% of scientific dissenters rather than the 97% who agree, and anti-gun folks to argue that violent crime isn’t actually decreasing. This doesn’t happen on just one side of the aisle, either. Both Bernie and Trump supporters tended to toss around polling data that depicted more promising outcomes for their candidates than the majority of polls demonstrated. Whatever case you want to make, you’ll find the evidence to support it.
Online, confirmation bias is often found in meme form, those chain letters of the internet world. Find a photo plus text that proves your point, post it to social media and voila–bias confirmed! Confirmed, at least, until some smart aleck links you to the Snopes article demonstrating that the image was photoshopped and the text is false. The fool just stepped right into your trap, confirming yet again your bias that declares Snopes a left wing fiction factory!
Confirmation bias may be as old as humanity, but the democratization of information over the last 20 years has functioned as something of a bullshit super accelerator. We live in a time where D-list celebrities are considered credible resources on autism; where people with no political experience who “tell it like it is” are taken seriously as presidential candidates; where we can literally ruin each others’ reputations in an instant because what we think about someone becomes a “fact” after a few self-confirming mouse clicks. It’s never been easier to get our biases confirmed.
We can’t completely rid ourselves of confirmation bias, but by remaining aware of its dangers we can mitigate some of the risk. Stop occasionally and ask yourself: “Am I looking for the right answer, or am I looking for an answer that proves I’m right?” Try to remember that the act of questioning is the thing, not the answers. Remain both objective and skeptical. Treat most of what you read on the internet as hearsay, and for god’s sake never take autism or nutrition advice from a celebrity.
As for my back? Well, it feels better, that’s all I know. Artificially sweetened bubbly water isn’t an important part of anybody’s diet, so even if it wasn’t the cause of my pain it’s certainly not hurting me to kick it out of the pantry. Unless I kick too high. That’s bound to hurt my back again.