Confirmation Bias: The Green Man Problem

I’ve made some very encouraging headway in completing the first draft of my third novel, The Green Man, a speculative historical fiction set in 14th century England. As such it’s quite a dramatic departure from Man O’War and The Hole In The Sky. The differences are in one sense quite plain with respect to the setting, tone and style, but there also emerged a strong difference in the problem which I was trying to tackle by writing the book.

Both MOW and THITS tackled the potential repercussions of the availability of certain new technologies; specifically, what would be their impact upon human behaviour and relationships, and what could we do in the face of such disruptions and trauma? Broadly speaking, MOW deals with the external repercussions, while THITS delves into the psychological aspects.

The Green Man instead isn’t concerned with technology, and although it has a man of science at the heart of the book, isn’t really about science either. The problem that came to me when I was formulating the idea for this book was that of confirmation bias. For the uninitiated, confirmation bias is a trait in our personalities that makes us seek out and recall arguments and facts that align with our already-existent belief systems and opinions. This entrenches those beliefs, but also has the potential to close our minds to alternative opinions, facts, or perspectives. In our times, this problem is exacerbated by social media’s propensity to digitally segregate us into groups of thought so that we don’t have to encounter anything that offends, horrifies, undercuts or even disagrees with our own opinions of the way the world works.

This doesn’t seem a healthy or even natural way to engage with people or the world. So the problem I posited was: what happens when somebody who is absolutely fervent about a set of beliefs bumps up against something that just doesn’t fit within those beliefs, and something that he knows doesn’t fit, no matter how many mental gymnastics he performs?

That was the question, then. To answer it I needed a character who was completely ensconced in his belief system(s); so I alighted quickly upon a 14th century Benedictine monk who was also a man of science, a man whose passion for God was matched by his zest for empirical knowledge, learning and understanding.

Why call the book The Green Man, then? One answer is found in the various foliate heads that are found throughout the book on churches, taverns and other pieces of English architecture. Another answer is to be found in the naivety that assumes we have all the answers at our disposal; perhaps a further answer is the envy felt towards those who are content despite their lack of knowledge. What would happen when such a man happened upon something that could be explained neither by theology nor empiricism? How would he react? How would he change? Would he change at all?

I’m hoping to arrive at some answers before the winter strikes.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

5 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias: The Green Man Problem

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