Whisky Thinking: Combatting Confirmation Bias

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What is confirmation bias?

Scepticism has long been an interest of mine and there’s never been a better time to talk about such things. Critical thinking skills are becoming ever more important. Our inability to correctly assess data has led to a dramatic increase in the spread of misinformation and a seemingly never-ending rise in outrageous conspiracy theories. Often the conspiracy theorists consider themselves to be the sceptics because unlike all the other sheeple, they refuse to accept the “official story”. Yet while it’s important to question the messages fed to us, it is too often the case that those who follow the more outlandish theories were heavily influenced by a couple of videos they saw on YouTube or worse, a 140 character tweet. Being sceptical means being sceptical of everything. You can’t question the mainstream media whilst blindly accepting the word of a self-proclaimed expert you found online. To be a sceptic, you must assess all the evidence without bias.

Confirmation bias is where we erroneously interpret information in a way that supports our already held beliefs. It can be seen in all walks of life and represents a failure to investigate a situation in a neutral way. On social media we share links that support an ideology we hold dear. Often we do so without performing any kind of check on the information contained within. Sometimes we don’t even read the article, we simply share because the headline backs up our views on the latest hot topic. In the festering cesspit we call politics, the results of an inquiry can be interpreted differently depending on what side an individual is on. By cherry-picking certain details and omitting others, both sides can claim victory. For an even more obvious example, look no further than paranormal TV shows like Most Haunted. Sit through an episode and you’ll see every incident being identified as proof of the supernatural without any consideration being given to the alternative. Clearer still, is the radically different interpretation of events demonstrated by opposing football fans when a referee makes a big call in a high pressure match. In other words, people see what they want to see.

In relation to whisky

You may well be wondering what on Earth this has to do with whisky but improved critical thinking skills and awareness of our own biases can enhance all the facets of our lives. We all have our favourite distilleries and our favourite brands. Consider, with complete honesty, if you have ever purchased a bottle of your favourite whisky only to be a wee bit disappointed, yet found it strangely hard to admit. That’s because we invest in brands and we don’t like to be proved wrong. If we’ve dug in deep enough, we can even persuade ourselves that it’s as good as it’s always been.

It can happen the other way round as well. If you don’t like a brand, you can convince yourself that a whisky is bad because you’ve laid all the groundwork before even tasting it. If that belief is strong enough, no amount of evidence to the contrary will change your mind. In my experience, that is especially common in those who sneer at blended Scotch. It could be the most magnificent whisky in the world but they wont, even can’t, acknowledge it.

Having an awareness of such pitfalls is particularly important to those of us producing reviews. Honesty is a critical factor in such endeavours and that means recognising our own biases and challenging them. You can never completely conquer it but a reviewer must do their best to leave pre-conceived notions aside. The quality of a whisky should be judged on smell and taste rather than by how many boxes it ticks on our own personal check lists. I have no doubt been guilty of such things in the past. I would prefer that whisky be naturally coloured for example, therefore I must be a little bit biased against those with colouring. I would prefer that whisky be un-chill-filtered so I am biased in favour of those that are. I believe whisky is often at its best when bottled at cask strength which likely makes me biased against those reduced to 40%. Whenever I’m coming to a conclusion about a certain whisky I need to check that my view isn’t being affected by those, or any other factors.

Take the occasionally-controversial free sample, for example. Many argue that free samples prevent a reviewer from being impartial. As far as I’m concerned, feeling some kind of indebtedness to those who have sent me samples is simply another potential bias to be considered. You could even argue that buying a bottle with your own money might lead you to view it more favourably. The more you’ve spent on it, the more you desire it to be good. Whatever way you look at it, there are obstacles to overcome before we can arrive at a so-called impartial opinion.

We are only human. We get things wrong. We misread and misunderstand and sometimes even alter the facts to suit ourselves. We smell and taste what we want to smell and taste. That’s why blind tasting is such a useful tool. When you strip away branding and back-story you are left only with the experience of the whisky in that moment. Of course, blind tasting isn’t always possible but the ultimate goal when assessing a whisky should be to get as close to that mindset as possible.

Questioning our views on something as trivial as whisky may not seem particularly important but think of it more as a learning process. A crash course in understanding our own fallibility. Our broken society is being increasingly divided by climate change, protests, referendums and pandemics but how can we bring people together when we’re all so eager to plant our flags and fight to the death with anyone that disagrees with us. How can we persuade people to come around to our way of thinking when we insult and berate them for not sharing our view. How can we make things better if no-one ever changes their mind? Compromise is an important part of the solution to every problem but you can only compromise if both parties give ground and we do that by scrutinising our own position. By recognising those occasions when we fail to assess the evidence in an unbiased way, we make it easier to admit that we were wrong and if we can admit that we were wrong we might even find ourselves coming a little closer together. Wouldn’t that be nice?

*The bulk of this article was written before the despicable events in Ukraine and as such, wasn’t intended to be about that. However, there’s no doubt some relevance. Indeed, all you need for war to breakout is someone in power who is very, very wrong to think they are very, very right. Misinformation and fake news are important weapons for such creatures. It’s up to us to learn the critical thinking skills required to see through their lies. That applies to our own leaders as much as it does to those on the other side of the world.

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3 thoughts on “Whisky Thinking: Combatting Confirmation Bias

  1. I really liked your article! I think that the biggest confirmation bias in whiskey is actually around high proof whiskeys. There is a very vocal contingency that constantly insult <100 proof whiskeys as inferior, tasteless or thin and try to shame anyone who doesn't agree. Very tiring.

    1. Cask strength / high proof is a big one. I’ve definitely been guilty of that in the past myself. Most of the best whiskies I’ve ever had have been high strength but that doesn’t mean you should only drink high proof or write off all low strength whisky. That’s exactly the sort of thing this article was trying to get people to think about.

  2. Excellent article, Neill. And among the many nails you hit on the head, I especially align with your comment on the amount of money spent on a bottle. I believe I have been guilty of spending too much on a whisky I desired and then been unable to say it was perhaps a bad purchase, even though I didn’t much care for the taste, based solely on the bias of it being an expensive spirit.

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