Confirmation Bias

One of the interesting features of the run-up to this election has been the unquestioning faith that partisans on both sides have in the inevitability of their candidate’s victory. The Internet is as awash with Democrats crowing over Obama’s predestined reelection as it is with Republicans gleefully reading the President his last rites. There are fairly few certainties in this electoral cycle, but here’s one of them – one of these groups will be sorely disappointed come Wednesday.

And not just disappointed. Already supporters of both candidates are readying their conspiracy narratives just in case the other side steals it: Ohio’s Secretary of State “is on a mission to suppress Ohio voters;” Danny DeVito’s Union Thugs will physically stop Florida Republicans from voting; members of the NAACP have taken over a polling station in Houston TX (and much good that will do them in one of the reddest states on the map).

Maybe there’s something to these claims, maybe not, but they are illustrative of a broader point – many people believe that there is no way that their candidate can legitimately lose. The idea of a loss is best explained by foul play from the other side.

The faith in an Obama victory is based on the state polls. If they are accurate, Obama will win. It really is that simple. Sites such as FiveThirtyEight and the Princeton Election Consortium have all but called it for him, barring a major upset. On the other hand, Romney supporters have (perfectly reasonable) doubts about both the state polls’ accuracy and the aggregators’ methodology. Some contend that the state polls are exhibiting a statistical bias against Republicans, and that this bias is strong enough to swing the actual turnout in Romney’s favor. Others claim that Romney has clinched the votes of too many Independents to lose. These arguments have been picked up by the Republican base, and are being treated as gospel by some.

Whichever side wins out, the fact remains that neither group has cause to be so certain of their position. This is a case of confirmation bias on a large and very visible scale, with both groups favoring the arguments that fit with their worldview. With Internet forums and blogs providing increasingly popular echo chambers it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything different in 2016 – but let’s focus on Tuesday, and the millions of people who will have their certainties put through the wringer.

//

P.S. For the record, I’m inclined to trust Silver and Wang for three reasons:

1. They have great track records.

2. The main criticism of their methodologies (that the polls exhibit a large statistical bias towards Obama) is speculative, and although certainly possible seems more hopeful than likely.

3. I would vote for Obama if I could, and I’m just as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else.

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3 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias

  1. This is a great first post! One starts to see confirmation bias everywhere when one starts to look at politics objectively. Great job. I am also trying to get a blog started, so give mine a look if you get a chance! I’m looking forward to more posts from you.

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