A few weeks ago, I read a blog post by someone who was upset by research that suggested people don’t read in order to find information that could make their beliefs more accurate but primarily in order to confirm the beliefs they already have (a noted exception being the times we read work by authors we love to hate, but even then, we’re not reading in order to have our minds changed). This is an example of what’s known as confirmation bias, a phenomenon eagerly embraced by people wanting to confirm their belief in human irrationality.
This blogger, however, didn’t seem to be eagerly embracing the suggestions of this research. In fact, he seemed to be doing exactly what he was worried the research said people didn’t do: wrestle with tensions between what they read and the beliefs they currently hold. I have my doubts about the methodology of the studies of “confirmation bias,” as well as about the way their results are interpreted, which seems to have more to do with the beliefs that scientists are eager to confirm than with what is actually supported by the facts. But instead of entering those murky waters here, I’d like to grant the existence of a confirmation bias in the way people choose what they read and the way they process it, and I’d like to ask, “What’s wrong with that?”
Now, before everyone decides I’m one of those people they love to hate, let me say that I do think it would be a problem if we never learned anything new from what we read, if our opinions were never changed by new information. But all we’re talking about here is that people tend to read authors they generally agree with. And I’m not sure, first of all, why we’re so surprised at this. After all, those are the people we tend to hang out with. The people we become friends with and invite over for dinner. Can you imagine how stressful our social lives would become if we insisted on conversing with people who disagreed with the majority of the things we said? I don’t think most of us are masochists in our reading lives either.
I think that our reading lives, like our social lives, are primarily and valuably aimed at goals other than attempting to falsify our existing beliefs. I think that William Nicholson hit on one of these other valuable goals when he put these words in the mouth of a university student in his screenplay for Shadowlands (Attenborough, 1993): “We read to know we are not alone.” Reading is a way of expanding our knowledge, but it’s also a way of seeking out friends. It’s a way of meeting other minds and hearts that have had thoughts and feelings similar to ours. This reassures us. Comforts us. And can help us work through those thoughts and feelings ourselves.
I’m reminded of something author Alec Nevala-Lee said recently in a blog post on writing: “The rules of writing are a lot like the rules of life: they only find meaning once you’ve intuited them yourself.” This captures so much, not just about the process of learning to write, but about the process of learning in general. It’s very difficult to learn anything important from mere words. You have to already have experience of your own to show you what those words mean. If you don’t, you’re liable to misunderstand them and misapply them. But if you do have the relevant experience, those words can clarify your thoughts about it. And lead you in fruitful new directions.
If I tend to seek out books by people with views similar to mine, I think it’s because I’m looking for someone who has asked questions similar to the ones I’m asking and is a little further down the road to finding answers. I first fell in love with Wendell Berry because he articulated my frustrations with the higher education system. And I kept reading him because he also shared my wariness of undemocratic technologies and my fascination with farm life. I fell in love with Sir Albert Howard because he taught me amazing things about the intricate structure of soil and its dramatic impact on human health. I fell in love with Laura Munson because she wrote about struggles with her husband that were very similar to ones I was enduring at the time and gave me hope for a positive outcome. In a book, I am looking first for camaraderie. A spiritual kinship that makes me think the author knows the kinds of things I want to learn. And, when an author has earned my trust, he or she just might be able to convince me that some of my long-held opinions need changing.