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How can we better believe what is true?  While it is of course useful to seek and study relevant information, our minds are full of natural tendencies to bias our beliefs via overconfidence, wishful thinking, and so on.  Worse, our minds seem to have a natural tendency to convince us that we are aware of and have adequately corrected for such biases, when we have done no such thing.

In this forum we discuss whether and how we might avoid this fate, by spending a bit less effort on each specific topic, and a bit more effort on the general topic of how to be less biased.  Here we discuss common patterns of bias and self-deception, statistical and other formal analysis tools, computational and data-gathering aids, and social institutions which may discourage bias and encourage its correction.  Other topics may be discussed to the extent they exemplify important biases and correction issues.

This forum is brought to you by the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and consists of posts and comments on posts.  We allow open comments on most posts, but are selective about who can post, and moderate the posts.  To be considered as a poster, please send a link to your thoughtful essay on this topic (published elsewhere is fine) to rhanson@gmu.edu.  Comments should be polite, on topic, and not very long.

Added: See also Contributors: Be Half Accessible.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this forum are those of individuals only; they are not endorsed by the FHI or Oxford University.  Copyright is retained by each author.

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  • mitchell porter

    How can you know anything at all? You’ll need to take a stand on fundamental epistemology at some point – for example, whether there is any such thing as absolutely certain knowledge, and if so, how it is obtained, and whether you can know that you have it – if these deliberations on rationality under conditions of uncertainty are to have a basis. I would suggest that the issue of fundamental epistemology be revisited periodically, perhaps once a month.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Every web forum and blog out there contains claims which could be true or false. Do you advise them also to discuss epistemology monthly and to take a stand on it? If not, what makes us any different?

  • mitchell porter

    This is a blog about belief and truth. Furthermore, it’s promoted by an institute whose interests include human cognitive enhancement; any consensus about epistemology that emerges here will potentially determine what it defines as cognitive enhancement; and if the institute becomes influential, that definition will in turn potentially determine the nature of the would-be enhancements that are carried out in real life. I care about these issues, and believe that our current intellectual culture has a few weaknesses in its epistemic foundation that could be fixed, and see this blog as potentially important; but also don’t want to see its relatively technical theme overwhelmed by discussions about first principles; thus my proposal.

  • Michael M. Butler

    I’ll try to step up to Mr. Porter’s invitation.

    My current view is to try to make as much use of Jaynes & Bretthorst (thus, “Bayes”) and Bartley as I can muster. Thus my epistemology includes the belief that there might be such as thing as absolutely knowing, without being able to prove that there is, and conceding that I might be proven wrong somehow — that there is no such thing.

    There appears to be an ineluctable gap between logic and the world as it probably “really is”, but I refuse to be daunted _or_ to climb into the Objectivist space capsule that denies so much of what we are learning about perception and cognition. Keeping the distinction clear between validity and truth is also key.

    I’m not well versed in a lot of the canon / prior art in philosophy, because I find most of what I’ve encountered impenetrable or flavorless.

    My approach includes making my heuristics available to periodic examination and criticism, and skepticism that I can be my own best critic. This was not an approach for which I got much credit in the few Philosophy courses I took in college. Based on that and parallel experiences with commonplace “scientism” vis-a-vis actual scientific thought, I suspect Pirsig’s notion that most “Philosophy” departments mostly practice “philosophology” might be well founded.

    Mr. Porter, what level of discourse are you expecting here? 🙂

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Mitchell and Michael, at least four of the contributors here are professional philosophers, so there is a decent chance that some of the issues you care about will be addressed here from time to time. But that said, epistemology is not the main focus of this forum.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    This post of mine seems relevant: Why and how to debate charitably[1]. Following the advice there is a good way to overcome bias in the context of an engaged debate with someone.

    No HTML comments? Poor form.

    [1] http://pdf23ds.net/implications-and-debate/

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Chris, your post on how to debate charitably is indeed relevant.

  • mitchell porter

    Michael, I’ll answer you in email.

  • Zhong Lu

    Is this blog self-contradictory? In order to combat bias, don’t you first have to be biased against bias? Am I making any sense here?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Zhong, it seems you think all opinions are necessarily biased.

  • Zhong Lu

    Yes. Isn’t that the definition of “opinion?”

  • Zhong Lu

    What exactly is “bias” and what is wrong with it? Bias and disagreement is what makes the world fun.

  • http://blog.news-record.com/staff/jrblog/archives/2007/08/overcoming_bias.html The Editor’s Log

    Unless your bias gets in the way

    I’m interested in bias because so many people think they see traces of it in newspapers. Some of the commenters here seem to be obsessed with it. So I’ve added Overcoming Bias blog, hosted by the University of Oxford’s Future…

  • http://www.satisfice.com/blog James Bach

    I’ve been assuming that “overcoming bias” is about overcoming insidious or debilitating bias. I have a preference for the flavor of blueberries over raspberries, but that’s not necessarily an insidious bias that threatens the quality of my thinking or my experience.

  • RainSmith

    To approah te idea of knowing truth by removing our own biases, would, i feel be like removing noise from a radio broadcast, after which, true or not, we ought to have a better time listerning to the music or truth, so revealed.

    Such a state of clarity, would reveal, i think, sights of true splendor and be worth while. But after some time, we may feel the instinct to add a little human niose once again and see precisely what our own contributions to the universe actually do to the whole picture. ( ok, now were in the tv age now).

    would we not come to find that our perturbations, when in a certain harmony of those of the pure truth previously revealed, provided the most satisfying state for us to exist in?

    In this light, i feel the most relavant course of action would be, to find a clear definition of the exact natute of the noise we make , and just as in any fault finding scheme, turn them off one by one, and see what they do!

    It would be qite something for us to be able to circumvent the folly of our own biases ourselves, but as a first step, a clear map of what the actual biases are would be useful. I wonder? does anybody have a map of the human soul?

  • Rainsmith

    What if bias were removed fom the human mind andan incredible new theory of everything were suddenly to burst onto the global scene prescribing with infallable logic, ethical and moral perspectives and behaviour far from that maintained in the currect status quo.

    How would the modern world cope with a new 60’s, lubricated by the internet and high drug availbility and usage. could the search for truth be about to explode in our faces?

    Surely an orgaisation such as yours ought to be considering contingincies for this, it may alrady be too late?

    Rainsmith

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Rainsmith, random comments about the blog are probably better placed at our monthly “Open Thread” posts, the most recent of which is here.

  • http://www.saunalahti.fi/~tspro1/ Kaj Sotala

    To be considered as a poster, please send a link to your thoughtful essay on this topic (published elsewhere is fine) to rhanson@gmu.edu.

    An essay seems a bit strange of a qualification, since most of the posts here seem to be relatively short ones, not long essays. Would, say, three brief example “this is what I would post if I were a contributor” posts be fine as well?

  • http://manbynature.com Adam Leonard

    The study of bias is moving out of philosophy and psychology and into neuroscience. Thanks to what has already been learned from brain research (esp. split-brain studies and fMRI research) it is now possible to theorize that our brain processes ideas unconsciously by comparing them with existing beliefs and generating an emotional cue (satisfaction, annoyance, anger, outrage) that allows the left-brain interpreter function to generate conscious pro or con arguments to justify the emotion. … Thus, we are all biased, and yes, we are intrinsically blind to it.

    If you are unfamiliar with the left-brain interpreter function, read any of Dr. Michael S, Gazzaniga’s books for the general public, from “The Social Brain” (1985) through “The Ethical Brain” (2006).

    If you are interested in a summary of what neuroscience has learned about our brain’s functioning and how it makes possible a “Tribal Programming Theory of Human Behavior,” I recommend my own book, “Man by Nature: The Hidden Programming Controlling Human Behavior.”

    Adam Leonard

  • http://www.theantirobot.com Jeremy

    The neurons in your brain are biased toward certain other neurons. That’s how it works. Bias is fundamental. Embrace it. It will embrace us back. It’s time the human super organism wakes up.