Ricky Gervais appeared on The Late Show a few months ago. Gervais, an actor-comedian and outspoken advocate for secular humanism, had a frank conversation about religion with host Stephen Colbert, a practicing Roman Catholic. I watched, fascinated, as the video clip popped up on Facebook and my friends described it. My Christian friends thought Colbert had stumped Gervais, revealing the shallowness of his worldview. My atheist friends thought Gervais represented their perspective well, to the extent that Colbert let him get a word in edgewise. And I just scratched my head and wondered if everyone had really watched the same footage.

I might as well be asking why the fans see a strike when the umpire calls a ball. The pitch was either in the strike zone or it wasn’t, and yet different people watching the same event, sometimes even the same instant replay angle, can arrive at different answers. We know some issues are subjective; when two people watch the same movie and have different reactions, we chalk that up to personal taste. But how do we account for disagreements on apparently objective matters? Beyond balls and strikes or talk show victories, how do Gervais and Colbert read the same book and arrive at such different conclusions? These aren’t new questions either; why did even the earliest followers of Jesus have different interpretations of his teaching?

One answer is bias. Social scientists have cataloged numerous cognitive biases—interpretive slants of a message’s recipient rather than its author. These biases at least partly explain how people can arrive at different interpretations of the exact same data on matters of objective truth, such as whether a given pitch was inside the strike zone. ...

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