While insidious, there is nothing inherently evil about reaching a favored conclusion. Incorporating information that supports your beliefs while disregarding contradictory data is called confirmation bias and it’s nothing new. Sir Francis Bacon, the patriarch of empirical process himself, said that once a person reaches an understanding he “draws all things else to support and agree with it.”
And it doesn’t take a long-dead Elizabethan to see that our willingness to justify repetitive, unfulfilling results spills beyond science and into our repetitive, unfulfilling sex lives. We as humans have developed the uncanny ability to completely delude ourselves into thinking that a relationship is going way better than it actually is—as long as we can filter out the crappy parts. For proof simply ask your friend how his date was last night. Listen for the clickity-clack of heels as he tap-dances around the details to justify sleeping with someone.
“Well, she’s a twice-divorced recovering alcoholic, but she loves Guster as much as I do,” he’ll boast as you roll your eyes. “She’s so cool!”
Now that I’m an experienced observer with a bit more awareness of how horribly I can misread data, I’m slightly better at taking red flags into account in my decision-making. Or at the very least knowing when I’m flagrantly ignoring them. But the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was only just beginning to understand the brainwashing power of bias in the name of love.
Before officially evolving into a junior, I spent ten weeks on an otherwise empty campus conducting two seemingly distinct experiments: one supported by research grant, the other entirely self-funded. I had gotten all I could out of my last job at the tennis pro shop, so I applied for and received a grant that allowed me to study neurotransmitters in the common bee by pushing radioactive dyes through various chromatographs. As a budding scientist with four semesters of training under my belt, I was confident that I would excel in the structured environment of lab work. Shepherded forward by my mentor, a professor in the bio-chem department, I hypothesized that the undertaking would cement my love of science and form the unshakable foundation for a brilliant career spent playing with chemicals.
If Dawn and I couldn’t get along for a few months by ourselves I might actually have enough data to support a breakup.
Staying on campus all summer also afforded me the chance to live with Dawn, a gifted neuroscientist foolish enough to be my longtime college girlfriend. The previous year or so of our relationship had been pure chaos, unfolding haphazardly through the wildly undulating highs and lows typical of two neurotic nineteen-year-olds in love. So, informally, I concocted a separate experiment. In the clean-room environment of voluntary sequestration, if Dawn and I couldn’t get along for a few months by ourselves I might actually have enough data to support a breakup.
A pigtailed, hundred-pound bit of sunshine, Dawn’s appearance would have you believe her simply the unintimidating daughter of Gaia-fearing hippies. But beyond her love of wild animals and dining al fresco hung a tapestry of genius and anxiety that I alone attempted to unravel. She unconsciously counted her steps between buildings, dragging me along on return trips to prove her calculations. She asked me to take her to a pet store, and then glared at me broken-heartedly until I agreed to buy us a pair of zebra finches. More than once I’d find her frozen under a rather imposing tree branch, staring purposefully upward while clutching herself in abject terror.
“I can’t move,” she’d whisper to me through chattering teeth. “If I move, the tree branch will fall on me.”
Never one to miss out on the drama, I added my own brand of strife to the situation as well. I could only use “that’s a fraternity secret” as a cover story so many times, and most girls don’t prefer you to choose Age of Empires 3 over a nice evening spent watching Amadeus and drinking white zinfandel. Admittedly, the screaming match after I cut short our one-year anniversary celebration to enter a beer pong tournament was probably my fault.
Like I said, I was nineteen. My relationship methodology was flawed.
Facing the prospect of ten weeks alone with her, I was entirely convinced that Dawn and I would finally reach our breaking point.
But we did love each other. I reveled in trying to understand how Dawn saw the world, and she tolerated my drunken rabble. Over time I learned to navigate her neuroses and craft viable excuses for extended video gaming sessions. I learned where all the low-hanging branches were and walked her around them so she wouldn’t notice their ominous swaying. I’d convince her I was just catching up with my friends while plotting the torment of fraternity pledges. I created an exhausting web of rules and ruses to prevent the outside world from ever causing us strife. It was a herculean task, and facing the prospect of ten weeks alone with her, I was entirely convinced that Dawn and I would finally reach our breaking point.
My professor’s deeply held scientific belief, and by extension mine as well, was that gaseous nitric oxide would get bees to go through puberty. We set out to prove that the gas would change a specific neurotransmitter in adolescent bees, causing them to attend flying school, worry about the size of their stingers, and prepare for a life of awkward dates and pollen collection.
Step one involved me literally shoving a needle that pumped nitric oxide into a test tube full of neurotransmitters in solution. The process was inelegant and clumsy, but then again, so was I. Confidently joking, I asked my professor what would happen if I breathed in any of the gas. He said I probably shouldn’t do that but told me not to fret if any accidentally escaped the test tube.
“But seriously don’t stab yourself with the needle,” he added in a more serious tone. “That’ll pretty much kill you instantly.” My confidence wavered.
Step two involved analyzing the hopefully altered neurotransmitter samples with a highly inaccessible process called capillary electrophoresis, or CE for short. Like other types of chromatography, the whole point of CE is to separate out various parts of a solution to see what the hell is in there on a molecular scale. Using lasers, computers, and ancient magics, a small amount of solution is drawn through a fiber optic tube while a tiny sensor figures out what sorts of compounds were floating in there. It lets you know these results by spitting out a little spike on a graph.
A spike in one location meant carbon. A spike in another meant nitrogen. If you know what spikes to look for, you can distinguish among all of the elements in your solution.
Spikes are important. This is what I learned during my years as a biochemist.
And so I sat in front of this mystical machine, waiting to see if I could make a specific little spike come out on the results page. The device itself, a Schroedingerian black box of input-outputs whose intrinsic value far exceeded my own, did most of the actual work. I just hit the start button, played Game Boy, and wondered if Dawn’s work at the neuroscience lab was as enthralling as babysitting a ceramic brick while it whirred and whizzed for hours at a time.
We were going from breaking up every six weeks to essentially sharing a single ten-by-fifteen poured concrete cell
At first I found myself similarly unsure as to the inner mechanics of my living situation. Dawn exhibited an unwavering excitement at the prospect of cohabitating, so I tried my best to share her belief in the hopes of making our domestic lives more enjoyable. We were going from breaking up every six weeks to essentially sharing a single ten-by-fifteen poured concrete cell, and I was justifiably nervous.
On the one hand, the secluded living situation meant that we were completely sequestered from the rest of the world, forced to see if we could stand each other in an artificial bubble. On the other hand, it meant that we were completely sequestered from the rest of the world, forced to see if we could stand each other in such an artificial bubble.
The testing facility for our domestic adventure was a Spartan four-room suite in the part of campus that lost power when rain set in. I stacked my CDs and rolled my desk chair into my summer digs: a ground-floor double-room with expansive windows and sheet-metal mini-blinds that did a better job trapping in heat than keeping out the sun. The Office of Residential Life recorded Dawn as occupying the single across the hall, but we spent the majority of our evenings in my room, watching The Cartoon Network from the two twin beds I lashed together with duct tape and twine.
I’d known that at some point during my lab project I was going to have use radioactive dyes to tag my test runs, and I’d expected there to be some kind of training beforehand: a short film starring a white-coated lab technician with silver hair and dulcet vocals, assuring me of my safety and success if I followed three simple rules for successful irradiation. Instead I got a hearty pat on the back from my supervisor and a “go get ’em tiger.” Encouraged by his confident nonchalance, I assumed that these isotopes were not nearly so dangerous as once feared.
Radioactively dying my samples, I found, was relatively akin to concocting a rye Manhattan.
Radioactively dying my samples, I found, was relatively akin to concocting a rye Manhattan. Both depended on delicately balancing proportions of volatile ingredients in perfect measure, and both would ruin a party if spilled on open-toed shoes. Still, the tiny skull and cross bones on the yellowed label staring at me from the lab bench led me to the conclusion that I vastly preferred mixology to titrations. I took note of the emergency shower over my right shoulder.
Pipette in hand, nervously transposing droplets of suspicious-looking liquids amongst trays of vials, I grew increasingly aware of how hot the room was getting. I glanced at the exit, contemplating escape, and the reversed RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL etched onto the frosted glass door heightened my sense of claustrophobia. The cramped lab space, poorly ventilated to prevent the escape of miasmic emanations, created the undesirable side effect of trapping every boiling photon of sunlight that blasted through the windows. The tiny ventilation grate overhead did little to cut the thick air of danger attendant to playing with chemicals. My protective goggles fogged, but my gloves were dotted with cancerous dyes. I chose to suffer clouded vision rather than risking ocular exposure to radioactivity.
My methodology was flawed.
Sweating and blind, my thoughts drifted to my sweltering dorm room across campus. I can’t wait to tell Dawn about this, I thought to myself. She loves a good radioactivity story.
When I told her about my troubles in the lab, Dawn laughed supportively. Her love of science and willingness to be openly nerdy about it was always something that drew me to her in the first place. Now actually sharing a bit more of it gave me a peek into her world. It brought us closer together, in that we could commiserate about nearly poisoning ourselves on a daily basis because we opened the wrong vials by accident.
Do you how much norepinephrine in solution it takes to stop a human heart? Dawn did. I didn’t ask how she figured it out.
She actually cared how well my CE runs were going. And she knew what I was doing wrong whenever I’d report back a failed test run. It was annoying on some level that she could be better at my job than I was without even stepping into my lab, but her ability to process spikes and graphs amazed me. She had an understanding of chemistry like no other person I had ever met.
Once after snapping upright during a mid-afternoon nap, Dawn bolted from bed and started typing furiously at her computer. Mind still clouded and hands bereft of flexibility, I groaned out a mumbled whatryoudoing to assess if I was needed.
“I wrote a paper on calcium-bonding channels while I was sleeping,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I want to write it before I forget it.”
I was not needed.
People-bonding channels were a bit trickier for Dawn.
People-bonding channels were a bit trickier for Dawn. This made most social settings potentially disastrous affairs. When faced with the unnerving onslaught of forty drunken freshman at a fraternity mixer, she’d shut down and turn on me in frustration. Clearly it was my fault that someone bumped into her, which justified her throwing a drink across the room.
Conferences and funding pitches caused her equal panic but you can’t throw a drink during your dissertation, so Dawn found a far better method of distraction— stripper heels. In search of eight-inch platforms, she began frequenting the footwear sections of websites marketing primarily to exotic dancers. Lacking the coordination to actually move in these Lucite monstrosities, Dawn discovered that if she wore them during presentations she’d be so concerned about not falling over that her methods section practically presented itself. What fear had she of PowerPoint when mere balance was at issue?
Despite my expectation for more awkwardness during our summer together, I actually found that being cut off from the rest of the world put Dawn at ease. We only had each other to worry about. Mid-slumber paper writing was at an all-time high, almost no drinks were thrown in anger, and we settled in to a life domestic.
Early on, Dawn took me on a nesting trip to a sad-looking K-Mart that anchored a regrettable strip mall near campus. She picked out various pieces of Pyrex cookware and festive plates and spoons, and I assented passively to their purchase. The one item I demanded for myself was a flimsy-looking charcoal Weber.
In our ground-floor apartment, I quickly discovered that I could repurpose one of the common-room windows into a terribly narrow doorway to the large field in our backyard. I had neither the time nor the energy to walk around the building to get to the field so the two-foot-wide, unlockable window/door made a shitload of sense. Dawn would stay inside putting together her signature “pasta salad,” a fatteningly American side dish comprised of gemelli noodles and unruly chunks of celery, mozzarella, and pepperoni, all tossed lovingly with Italian dressing. Standing a safe distance from the main structure, I’d fire some 80/20 burger meat while yelling lab disaster stories through the window/door.
Once the sun started to set, we’d edge a couple folding chairs through the makeshift egress and prop ourselves up to watch the day end. Cloaked in twilight, one of the braver squirrels would sneak into the kitchen to attack our bread supply while we weren’t looking. Dawn and I would joke that the little monster only ever went after my loaf of store-brand rye in the pantry while never once attacking her Stroehman’s potato. She named it Nesbit.
My hypothesis that Dawn and I would fall apart while cohabitating began to seem flawed.
Statistics and Analysis
Nine out of my ten weeks of playing scientist had passed and I had no constructive data to show for it. I managed to avoid pumping my body full of nitric oxide and I didn’t melt my skin off with radioactive dye, but my CE results seemed an across-the-board failure. My little spikes were in all the wrong places. Nervous that I had let my professor down, but resigned to my fate, I gathered up my graphs and charts and meekly presented the disappointing news to him.
He didn’t seem to share my skepticism. In fact, he seemed thrilled about how things had turned out—but only in one particular test run. One run out of the hundreds. The rest of them he tossed aside.
I listened, struck mute in confusion, as my professor revealed to me the smoke and mirrors behind laboratory methodologies.
I listened, struck mute in confusion, as my professor revealed to me the smoke and mirrors behind laboratory methodologies. He’d fully expected me to fail on nearly every single test run. So very much of scientific inquiry results in letdowns, expensive and time-consuming mistakes that test not the hypothesis but the hypothesizer. A dedicated scientist will keep experimenting until he ends up with one or two positive runs, despite hundreds of failures. And when one run just so happens to confirm exactly what you want to see, you label it Results Section and call it a day.
Pleased, my professor reclined in his rolling chair while lazily scribbling blue and red instructions onto the wall-mounted dry erase board. I, however, perched uncomfortably on the backless stool upon which I had spent the last nine weeks misunderstanding what I was there to do. My job wasn’t to investigate; my job was to keep throwing gemelli noodles at the wall to see what stuck. Knowing this, lab work no longer appealed to me.
I was relieved that the next semester another researcher would pick up my project. It was up to her to run with it from there. I held no personal connection to the neurotransmitters of bees so when discouraged it was easy to walk away.
Back at the suite, I finished off the last of the leftovers and loaded the summer haphazardly into the back seats of my car. Blankets from the lashed-together twin beds were shoved in around my desk chair and CDs to prevent them from shifting during the drive. My shocks groaned under the weight of my life in boxes.
Stepping back through the window/door, I gave my terrarium a final once-over. I packed up all the necessary items from my mental checklist spare one: Dawn. She was staying behind after I left. I’d rejoin her on campus eventually, in new and different dorms, forfeiting the safety of the lab for the tumult of campus life. Any evidence of our shared life together would be painted over by whoever moved in next; I wondered if they would think to push the beds together.
I left behind all the cooking utensils and the grill. I left behind a half-destroyed loaf of rye bread.
Thinking about the dinners and the beds and Nesbit, the full meaning of the summer came crashing down on me. My belief going in had been that living with Dawn would prove that at its very basis our relationship was not viable. Standing there I realized it had done anything but.
I was finally faced with some positive data that we actually worked together as a couple. In a vacuum, anyways.
Granted, the entire year leading up to the summer left me with hundreds of failed test runs, measured in ominous branches, drunken excuses, and zebra finch droppings. I had mountains of proof that she and I were volatile, likely to ruin a party if improperly combined, but now I was finally faced with some positive data that we actually worked together as a couple. In a vacuum, anyways.
There were a thousand data points telling me this relationship would go south the minute everyone else showed up on campus, but I wanted to believe I could rely on this last run to tell me otherwise. I started the summer biased toward proving we didn’t work. I ended it fighting like hell to scrape together enough proof that we did. And once I reached the understanding that I wanted us to make it, I drew all things else to support and agree with it.
Maybe a hundred failed test runs had dissuaded me from scientific pursuits, but I could ignore the negative runs when it came to Dawn. For the time being, I had enough data to keep me biased a bit longer.
Eric Noah Feldman is a New York City-based writer and storyteller who is squandering his overpriced legal education. He has contributed essays to The Hypocrite Reader and The Tangential, and has performed at storytelling shows around the city, including The Story Collider.
Art by Zachary Garrett.