Bryce’s First Law: People are Bad at Evaluating Evidence

When I was on my mission in Germany, I had the chance to talk to a lot of people (a lot of people) about things you typically don’t talk to strangers about. Yes, it was really outside my comfort zone, but at the same time, it gave me the opportunity to see how many people think. What reasons they have for doing what they’re doing. How they critique what other people are doing. That all comes from starting a lot of your conversations by introducing yourself and asking, “Would you like to hear a message about Jesus Christ?” (In German, of course. Though I don’t recommend using German if you want to try the same thing here in America. Not many people speak it here, you know.)

One of my big takeaways from that experience (and something that’s been confirmed for me time and time again in the 20+ years since then) is that people do what they want to do. I know this shouldn’t seem like a huge revelation, but it gets a bit deeper when you pair it with the realization that people also want to make the right decision. Very few people sit back and say, “This is a stupid thing I want to do, and it makes no sense, and only an idiot would do it, but I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s what I want to do.” Mind you, I think many of us actually do use that sort of logic as we make any number of decisions every day, but we’ve developed this workaround.

We look for someone or something that tells us what we want to do is actually a good idea, and then we listen to that person or source above any other objections.

In religion, this meant that even people who were looking for a new religion were typically focused on finding a religion that told them that everything they already believed was right. This was frustrating to a 19 year-old missionary, since I was trying to get people to see for a moment that if religion is about the worshipping of a literal, real, existing God, then it might make sense to ask God what He expected out of a religion. That said, I’ve since seen plenty of examples of people using religion as a “something that tell us what we want to do is actually a good idea.” (Religion is very handy like that. You can just tell someone you believe something is the right thing, and there’s really no way of arguing that you don’t believe that. It’s the headache of justifications. If I tell you I have a headache and need to go lie down, how in the world are you going to tell me I don’t? Mind you, God knows if you’re using religion as an excuse or not, so I suppose it’ll all even out in the end, but that doesn’t do us much good in the here and now with people using it as a blunt object to support everything from genocide to bigotry to homophobia to who knows what else.)

But this doesn’t just apply to religion. Look at any number of hot button topics being debated in society these days, and you will find the “look for someone or something that tells us what we want to do is actually a good idea, and then listen to that person or source above any other objections” approach in action. Climate change was decided for many people decades ago. They came upon the “some scientists don’t believe it’s true” argument, and they’ve hung onto that argument like grim death ever since, ignoring any and all additional evidence that the world is slowly turning into a hot tub. Abortion? There are any number of sources out there that will convincingly tell you any facts you want to hear to justify any position you want to take on the matter.

The same is true for COVID. Think it’s no big deal? I’ve got some articles and statistics that will confirm that. Think it’s just a shade less bad than bubonic plague? I’m sure we can get you covered for that as well. Want to get vaccinated? Want to not get vaccinated? Want to be vegan? Want to not exercise? Want to drink coffee? Want to not drink coffee? You’re going to be able to find something that will confirm to you that the thing you want to do is actually right and proper and really the best decision to make, all things considered.

Except that’s the thing. All things aren’t being considered, because humans are incredibly bad (on the whole) at evaluating evidence. We’re easily swayed by single examples and exceptions. I’ve talked to numerous people who don’t want to wear seat belts because they knew someone who got trapped in a car wreck because their seatbelt wouldn’t release. So they’ll ignore the mountains of evidence and studies that confirm it’s far safer to wear a seatbelt. With COVID right now, you have people who argue that COVID just isn’t that dangerous, but then they’ll turn around and argue they won’t be vaccinated because those vaccines are too worrisome. On the flip side, you had people who were citing all reputable sources about the importance of mask wearing and COVID precautions who are now refusing to let go of some of those precautions as the vaccine rate increases.

This isn’t a red problem or a blue problem. It isn’t a rich problem or a poor problem. It’s not an educated problem or an ignorance problem. It’s a universal human problem that’s being exacerbated by the fact that there are so many other sources of information out there to provide fodder for justifications.

Of course, it’s one thing to identify a problem, and another to actually do something about it. I have no idea how to combat this principle in every day life. I’d say it would help to share better resources and link to places that have reputable studies, but as I said, there are plenty of places out there that will contradict whatever I link to. People are fond of saying “do the research, you’ll see I’m right,” but just because the random dots you see out there happen to link up to form a shape that’s kind of reminiscent of Scooby Doo if you squint hard doesn’t mean that Hanna Barbera is actually running the universe.

I suppose in the end, all you can really do is try to avoid the problem yourself, and do what you can to help others avoid it as well. If someone really does want to make good, informed decisions, then I believe they’ll win out in the end. Perhaps a good litmus test would be to ask yourself how many times you want to do something and then, after investigating it properly, you end up changing your mind. If the answer to that is “rarely or never,” then you’re likely falling victim to what I’ll call Bryce’s Law (because this is my blog, and I don’t know that anyone’s already named the law. (And even if they have, I can now cite evidence that this has always been called Bryce’s Law . . .)).

How many times have you had a knee-jerk reaction to something, looked into it, and then discovered you were wrong? Again, the correct answer should probably be “frequently.” Or maybe that’s just me, and I’m just typically wrong more often than most . . .


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