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COVID-19 "Realities", Confirmation Bias and the Media

December 29, 2020

The term "confirmation bias" sounds like a complex concept. It's actually quite simple to grasp because each of us operates daily on it, and we are quick to point it out in others that we encounter.

Essentially, confirmation bias is the subconscious process of seeking out data that supports our conclusions. We each, of our own accord, believe that our thoughts and actions are rational and that we operate knowingly in doing the most appropriate things for ourselves and the general community in which we live.

These confirmation biases are often not the result of simple concepts, but rather those abstractions that we cannot fully grasp and measure yet have absorbed into our DNA. These opinions are not always ideas that we are open to sharing with others and often are those positions that we are still pondering.

Consider the topic of COVID and its devastating impacts on our society in the US. As of today, there have been almost 20 million confirmed cases accounting directly for over 335,000 deaths (the total death are estimated to be nearly 500,000 when including indirect deaths). These numbers are staggering to consider through any lens.

Now consider another point of view. The percentage of the US population that has contracted a confirmed COVID-19 case is a little over 6.0%, and the percentage of the US population that has died from COVID-19 is 0.1%. Put another way, 94.0% of Americans have not experienced the disease, and 99.9% have thus far survived the pandemic. These numbers are equally staggering and substantial in a completely different way than those expressed above.

Both assertions are factual, using data and science to provide conclusions from the same data set.

Now consider your own confirmation bias based on those two fact-sets that are equally irrefutable. Also, keep in mind that the life-saving vaccines recently introduced into our communities have an expected efficacy rate of approximately 95%, which is an amazingly high number for any vaccine.

Until the recent spiking of cases and deaths, many people have never encountered anyone that had the disease, let alone anyone that perished. Those people or communities with no real experience with it often have confirmation biases that underrepresent the risks. If you haven't seen the ravaging effects, you could lead yourself to believe that it doesn't exist. If you have lost someone close to you or have seen someone suffer and survive, you can see the specter around every corner. Over the next few months, we will all certainly know people affected by the disease; it is statistically inevitable.

On either side of this situation is our collective inability to fully measure and understand the risks and tradeoffs of how past and present administrations have succeeded or failed. It's inherent in the bias that we possess. We cannot see the other point of view because our conclusions are based on facts. The raw numbers are truly staggering, but equally, the percentages are seemingly insignificant; it is the two sides of the same coin, but our confirmation biases allow us only to see one side.

Now, take a minute to think about where your confirmation bias originated. Have you had COVID-19, lost a loved one to COVID-19, lost a job or a business during these awful times, or have you been isolated and glued to the TV news? To be sure, TV news broadcasts are the greatest source of confirmation bias in our society. Notwithstanding the incredibly unusual and tenuous election year, which created polarizing confirmation bias about the candidates and the ultimate results, our opinions around COVID-19 have been shaped by what news programs we were consistently exposed to. Without pointing the fingers at the obvious, we need to consider alternate and valid realities based on our relatives, friends, and business associates' confirmation biases.

No one news organization is outright lying about the extreme impacts of COVID-19, but be certain that all of them are inserting an insidious confirmation bias in their reporting. I say it's insidious because the typical viewer does not have the ability to separate the opinions that they hear from the facts that are presented. When you hear the same subjective message persistently, those opinions seep into your subconscious and shape your own thoughts and ideas.

We live in the most dangerously polarized society we've ever encountered in the US since the American Civil War in the mid 19th century. I believe it is largely attributed to valid but unreconcilable confirmation biases that we in the connected world have created through various media forms. We need to learn to reconcile them. We need to learn to see things from other points of view, and we need to value our differences if we are to move forward.

The solutions to our problems are within our reach. Let us recognize our own confirmation biases and try to understand others' biases as different but valid.

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