When the Ring of Truth Is Merely Confirmation Bias

In the face of uncertainty, humans often rely on the ring of truth. Facing a pandemic and big changes to daily life, reports of depression and anxiety grow. Surely this will bring a spike in suicides, people say. Equally certain is the belief that childhood obesity will rise. But sometimes, the ring of truth is nothing more than confirmation bias. Suppositions are OK for generating research questions. However, they are no substitute for facts.

A new analysis of suicides in Massachusetts offers a case in point.

An Increase That Hasn’t Happened

Jeremy Faust and colleagues analyzed data from vital records in the Massachusetts Department of Health. They examined suicide deaths in that state during the harshest period of stay at home orders. They found a rate of 0.67 per hundred thousand persons monthly. In the same period for 2019, the rate was 0.81. Faust explains:

“No matter how we looked, we kept finding the same thing. Suicide rates did not budge during the stay-at-home advisory period (March 23 until a phased reopening began in late May) in Massachusetts, which had one of the longest such periods of any state in the nation.”

He adds:

“Government officials, the media and others need to remember that anecdotes and assumptions are not the same as robust public health data.”

Beliefs and Facts

It remains perfectly reasonable to suppose that in the end, we will see a rise in suicides because of this pandemic and resulting stresses. It’s also very possible that childhood obesity will rise. Maybe even likely. After all, children are swapping time in school for screen time. Eating patterns are changing.

But neither of these suppositions are facts. To determine the facts, we need data. Because complex systems are at work and humans have surprising ways of adapting to new circumstances. They often surprise us.

We can certainly speculate. At the end of the day, something with the ring of truth might turn out to be an important insight. Or, on the other hand, it might be a mistaken assumption. So we’ll keep an open mind and a discerning eye.

Click here and here for more on suicides in Massachusetts. For more on childhood obesity and the pandemic, click here, here, and here.

Ring, photograph © Chiara Baldassarri / flickr

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October 22, 2020

One Response to “When the Ring of Truth Is Merely Confirmation Bias”

  1. October 22, 2020 at 7:56 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup – and the data may shed light on the real causes of the diseases of obesity.