Sunday, October 9, 2011

Biased ! = wrong

Let me say this, right from the start: I love biases. No, I don't love that they exist, but I think they're endlessly  fascinating. I love thinking about them, identifying them, figuring out where they come from. Studying biases is how I came to the realization that the way we generally think about human reasoning is mistaken. Humans are not rational creatures who occasionally succumb to a bias which perverts their ordinarily sound, logical thought processes. We are creatures who are practically made of bias, for whom attempts at objectivity (or as close as we can get to it) are counter-intuitive and require effort. A 2003 paper by psychologists Martie Hasleton and David Buss on biases in social judgment begins:
Humans appear to fail miserably when it comes to rational decision making. They ignore base rates when estimating probabilities, commit the sunk cost fallacy, are biased toward confirming their theories, are naively optimistic, take undue credit for lucky accomplishments, and fail to recognize their self-inflicted failures. Moreover, they overestimate the number of others who share their beliefs, demonstrate the hindsight bias, have a poor conception of chance, perceive illusory relationships between noncontingent events, and have an exaggerated sense of control. Failures at rationality do not end there. Humans use external appearances as an erroneous gauge of internal character, falsely believe that their own desirable qualities are unique, can be induced to remember events that never occurred, and systematically misperceive the intentions of the opposite sex give just a few examples. Approaching the matter from an evolutionary standpoint, they then go on to suggest that these biases are not necessarily "design flaws," (maladaptive traits) but actually features. A suggestion they make in that paper to agree with psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby remains, in its simplicity, one of my favorite things to quote: "[An evolutionary perspective] suggests that the human mind is designed to reason adaptively, not truthfully or even necessarily rationally."  What does that mean in practice? Well, that understanding the world as it really is, and thinking about it in the most logical possible way, is not necessarily the most efficient way to get your genes into the next generation. Rather, the specific lies we tell ourselves actually make it easier for us to get food, avoid being killed, find mates, and reproduce. If this is the case, we should expect to see people lying to themselves constantly...and we should expect to find ourselves doing the same.

That's kind of a discomfiting thought. But you get over it. Reading Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, for example, had me grinning (though occasionally ruefully) to notice examples of self-justification bias and other means of avoiding cognitive dissonance that I've been guilty of numerous times. It still doesn't remove the sting of being accused of bias by others, especially people who believe that sufficient to discredit what you're saying. And that is what I've been getting to in this post.

See, Ben Radford has a very good essay up today at SheThought about the various accusations of bias he has received on behalf of virtually every group he has written about based on something someone found objectionable in his articles. Most recently it has been complaints about his discussion of a soon-to-be-published book for children called Maggie Goes on a Diet, accusing him of bias for not denouncing the book (before reading it, by the way-- none of these commentators have had the opportunity to read it yet) as harmful to young girls' health and self-image. Radford remarks
I don’t mind the criticisms, it’s the bias accusations that annoy me, and it’s instructive to briefly analyze them. When I question claims about aliens and UFO photographs, critics assert that the only logical reason I would do so is because I have a bias or agenda as part of a government conspiracy to keep the truth from the public. When I question claims about alternative medicine and homeopathy, it’s not because I have researched it and know a lot about it, but because I’m being paid by Big Pharma. When I question claims made by psychics, critics say it’s because I have a bias toward protecting the scientific status quo—or that if I were to accept the reality of psychics it would devastate my worldview. And when I question claims about the links between media images and eating disorders, it can’t be because I know something about it—having studied it for years and written a book about the mass media—but because I hate fat people.
Whether Radford actually is biased against fat people, or whether Maggie Goes on a Diet is, is not the point here. As I said the book isn't out yet, but you can read his article about the protest against for Discovery here and the rest of his reaction to criticisms at the link above.

The point here is that we all have biases. And there is no harm in pointing them out-- in fact, it's always instructive and useful to do so. However, the simple fact of having biases does not make someone wrong. It might provide some useful psychological information in terms of why they're wrong...or why they're right. But it doesn't tell you which one they actually are. From one of my favorite Ed Brayton posts:
Everyone is biased. If one's bias leads them to make fundamental errors in reasoning, then point out the errors in reasoning. If it leads them to ignore relevant data or distort the nature of the evidence, then point those things out specifically. If you can't do either of those things then the accusation of bias doesn't tell you anything about the validity of the claims being made. This is merely a cognitive shortcut to dismiss someone out of hand rather than engage the arguments being made. 
So here's the quote from CS Lewis that sums this up perfectly:  
"You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong... Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is 'wishful thinking.' You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself... If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic..."
Spot on. And very useful. The point is that you must first engage the argument on its own terms. Once you've defeated the argument, then it's reasonable to point out that the inaccuracy of the claims may have been due to bias, or wishful thinking, or fear. But until you defeat the argument, you're not really saying much of anything.


  1. Excellent post. I was immediately reminded of some of the discussion in a very long, ongoing thread at James Hanleys. Part of a comment I made:

    "The conscious aspects of mental functioning operate both by instruction [conscious deliberation] and selection, but the entire unconscious system operates purely on selection, which is why people are often bedeviled by behavior they can’t seem to consciously control. This framework, only minimally described here, informs everything I do clinically. When I actually talk with other clinicians about it, it seems to create a great deal of upset. People would rather feel that stability of the mental system can be entirely maintained consciously, never mind that as we go through our day, our mind quite unconsciously and automatically adjusts/adapts to our environment (think about driving). We only see the trail left by the activity of the unconscious, adaptive brain.

  2. One bias that I find especially interesting is the hostile media effect. Biased partisans see the media as biased against their side, regardless of whether that is really so. So partisans on opposite sides of an issue will look at the same media report, and both will see bias against their side.

    And IRT your larger point, it does seem that people often hurl the accusation of bias as if it's a valid challenge to a position.


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