Manjoo vs. Russo: Attacking Amazon and Avoiding Confirmation Bias

Rob Enderle
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I often look for good examples of confirmation bias, the most painful part of Argumentative Theory, but this evening I was drawn to a piece by one of my favorite reporters who works for Slate. Farhad Manjoo also wrote one of my favorite books that I recommend regularly, titled "True Enough: Learning to live in a Post-Fact Society." (Hint: It makes a great intelligent Christmas present).


He took the counterintuitive position that people shouldn't support their local bookstore but should instead support Amazon. He took his position in response to an op-ed by Richard Russo who wrote for The New York Times and took the opposite position. Now, Russo is reportedly a smart guy, but his position is unsupportable and I think it is the perfect example of confirmation bias.


Confirmation Bias


Confirmation bias is when you first take a position and then only accept evidence that supports it. You see this a lot in politics and one of the telling moments was when Herman Cain, before he got booted out of the race due to an apparent bad memory with regard to dalliances, was asked about Obama's handling of Libya. Instead of agreeing with what Obama did, which he later in the interview eventually did, his first position was to disagree with it and then he struggled painfully to fit the facts he knew around the position he took. It was like watching the guy's brain shut down. And what is frightening is this flaw is built into all of us.


Russo vs. Manjoo


What is interesting is that both authors (and now I'm almost afraid to go back and look at some of the positions I've taken over the years) seem to exhibit this behavior. Russo goes on a broad rant against Amazon first regarding its one-day promotion of allowing people to scan products to see if Amazon has it cheaper in exchange for a 5 percent credit on the next three things they do purchase. This may simply get them to buy three additional things from Amazon since most folks, unless there is a huge difference, would buy the item right there. Now, the reason behind a promotion like this is to get people to comparison shop and there are a number of third-party apps (I've recommended several this year) that pretty much do the same thing. But it also seemed to target a class of product that bookstores get a lot of margin for - read: overpriced - which does make it consumer-friendly.


Now what he seems to ignore that Manjoo points out is that Amazon does more for authors and books than what the independent stores do. The Kindles have increased reading, and book sales, by several multiples alone and Amazon has done more to get small authors into production than any small book store could do. In effect, they just aren't an efficient way to distribute reading material. But Manjoo agrees that the scanning-and-discounting thing was a nasty move. But if bookstores are inefficient with a book, which is their bread and butter, why would they be more efficient with other products? They simply wouldn't have the economies of scale to efficiently compete. He argues that, on one side, they are simply an anachronistic aspect of a now-obsolete age, but, on the other, their interests should be protected from big predatory companies. Even in the face of his own argument to the contrary, he never went back and questioned his initial conclusion. At least if Russo were wrong, he was consistent with himself; Manjoo found himself on both sides and never seemed to see it.


Wrapping Up: Avoiding Confirmation Bias


Now my point isn't to point out that Russo and Manjoo are stupid, because they clearly aren't. My point is this kind of thinking is what causes all of us, myself included (and I'll avoid pointing out where I've done this myself), to make mistakes in logic. If we don't actively challenge our initial position, we won't allow ourselves to see errors that could result in avoidable mistakes.


I see this most with failing CEOs who surround themselves with folks that agree with them and then make catastrophic mistake after catastrophic mistake, never realizing that most, if not all, were actually avoidable. I believe that if Microsoft, Google or any other company fails, it will be tied back by someone in my field to something connected to confirmation bias. We've been plagued by bad government decisions from health care to a number of debilitating wars for the same reason.


It is a problem for all of us and my hope is that I can help do a little bit to wipe it out.

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