By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 3 minutes By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The following is a quote by Verbose Stoic, a regular commenter here with whom I often disagree but who substantiated his claims with detail and, well, substance. The sort of commenter I like – he probably does this because he has a blog of his own, and sometimes takes me to task. I only wish I had more time to discuss matters with him on the threads here.

His comment is one that seeks to take Richard Carrier, with whom I have recently been debating free will, to task (in its entirety, not pasted here). I am not so interested in that, but I am interested in what it says about me and confirmation bias. I will put my quotes in italics and will bold emphasise his points to discuss:

In fact, the more I read that paragraph, the angrier I get with Carrier for some disingenuous tactics (or sloppy work). And I like Carrier a lot.

The only reason I can think of for why you haven’t noticed his disingenuous tactics and sloppy work in the past is because he in general agrees with you. On my blog I’ve taken on some of his posts on topics that I care not one whit about — polyarmory and some mythicism (although from reading Carrier and others around the topics I have come to care about mythicism far less and come to the conclusion that polyamory is actually morally inferior to monoamory despite not caring at all about it going in) — precisely to show that his work is indeed sloppy and that he constantly misrepresents those he argues with while constantly and often viciously insulting them.

A prime example of that here is him constantly claiming that hard determinists are basing their conclusions on things determined from “the ivory tower”, while ignoring that a great many hard determinists rely on empirical results like the Libet experiments instead….

The whole comment is worth a read.

I rate Richard Carrier a lot. I love so much of his work, such as what he has written on the Nativity and Resurrection of Jesus particularly, to the point that I reference an awful lot of his work in my book on the Nativity and my upcoming book on the Resurrection. I am convinced his work is good and thorough. His work on Luke in Not the Impossible Faith is superb.

But then there is the issue that we all suffer from confirmation bias: do I think that his work is so good because I broadly agree with his conclusions? Perhaps. We are not perfect.

On the flip side, I am not a mythicist, though am fairly ambivalent and don’t think a mythicist position has any meaningful difference to my own historicist position as detailed here. This could indicate that whilst I rate him, I don’t always agree. But, to counter this, perhaps I am happy to disagree only where it doesn’t really matter – my disagreement is rather toothless.

We disagree quite publicly on free will as documented in my recent ongoing series. However, much of this disagreement is actually semantic and without huge ramification.

The problem is, to check on, say, Carrier’s work (but this could apply to any scholar or source with whom you agree), one would effectively have to do the work oneself, all over again, to verify the claims that he is making. Which is completely unpragmatic and defeats the object of short-cutting to an expert in the first place.

I suppose it is an inductive thing: if I have found a given expert to be useful and reliable on previous cases, then I am epistemically warranted to continue relying on them. But, is it that I ignore or give little value to counter-cases because it is just too much hard work to deal with and would undercut my reliance on that person in the past? It’s so hard to tell. Can someone be really good in a majority of cases but get it wrong occasionally here and there? Especially if they write on a vast landscape of topics? In other words, I shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps.

Being skeptical and being rigorous is a tonne of work. Being cognizant of the problems is at least a healthy first step. But doubting everything one reads and potentially relies on leads to a Pyrrhonian Skepticism that can be paralysing.

We should always steel man a position and we should always check our sources. But how far should this go? To what level of verification to we work? What are the best tools to arrive at the most robust and accurate conclusion? How do we mitigate confirmation bias without having to do all of the work again ourselves?

Questions, questions, questions. I’m leaving the answers up to you.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...