We Are Not Unbaised

Comments about Overcoming Bias can be found at these posts by Bryan Caplan, Arnold Kling, and Tyler Cowen.  Several complaints go like this:

Those people claim to be against bias, but someone there supported position P on topic T; wow is that ever biased! 

Just to be completely clear: we do not claim to be unbiased.  People who attend church do not claim to be without sin, and we do not claim to be without bias.  People at church do claim to be trying to overcome sin, and we claim to be trying to overcome bias.  You would be right to think us hypocrites if it seemed we weren’t even trying to overcome bias, but instead just wanted to feel superior by pretending to try. 

Some complain we talk too abstractly, without enough concrete examples.  Others complain we too often take positions on concrete issues, arbitrarily painting those who disagree as "biased."  We will hopefully continue to try to find the right middle ground between these extremes. 

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

    Although I feel compelled by reason to reject the existence of objectivity, I respect and value what you are doing with this blog. I’m learning from it.

    I read “overcoming bias” as the ongoing struggle to gain equal access to all potentially useful ideas.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • Curt Welch

    I need to read more of this web site to understand the full point here, but I would like to simply point out that all human behavior is biased. That’s what human behavior is and where it comes from. It’s a biased reaction to the environment we have learned from past experience. We are biased to believe that food is good. We are biased to believe that harming our body is bad. We grab a cookie and stick it in our mouth because we are biased to believe this will produce pleasure for us. We don’t pick up dog shit and stick it in our mouth because we are biased to believe that would not taste good. Everything we do, and think, and believe, is a result of bias developed in us by all our past experience since birth. Babies, when they are born, have not yet learned any bias – they aren’t biased to eat cookies instead of dog shit.

    Bias is not something you want, or can, overcome. It’s what we are. To overcome our bias, would mean you want to go back to the point of not knowing that dog shit should be left on the ground.

    So just what bias do you want to overcome? The answer of course is any bias which is incorrect, or bad. But how do you identify which beliefs, and which actions, are incorrect? I assume this is the true topic of this web site. Not to overcome bias, but to only overcome any bias which is incorrect, or unjustified. But in order to identify these, you have to first correctly identify where “good” and “bad” come from and what they are. They come from the operation of our brains. Our brains and body define for each of us what is good, and what is bad. It’s a big part nature, and a big part nurture – but most important, it’s different for every one of us. It’s a function of what type of body we have, and what is good and bad for our own body, and it’s a function of all our own past experience.

    If you have a body which produces an allergic reaction to milk, then milk is not good for you.

    We have to come to grips with the fact that good and bad is defined in each of us, by the operation of our own brains. And since no two of us have the same brain, or the same past experience which has shaped the behavior of our brains then there are no two people in the world that are working with the same definition of good and bad. It’s not something we can every agree on.

    Humans share many traits, and as such, we share many beliefs about good and bad. This allows us to form societies with a large number of rules about what will be right and wrong in our society. However, as you try to identify good and bad behaviors to higher levels of detail, you find greater amounts of disagreement. You eventually reach the point where at some level, you can’t get to people to agree on what is right and wrong. Is using foul language in the presence of children good or bad? Is showing anger in public good or bad? Is having sex with children good or bad? There is a minority of people that think it’s not bad even though the majority think it’s extremely bad. It’s just not possible to identify universal good and universal bad, because it just doesn’t exist. There is only personal good, and personal bad, and we have to learn to live with that. Everyone, will always, disagree.

    So, to overcome bias, is absurd. All our behavior is biased. You don’t want to overcome bias. But, to overcome a bad bias, is a good thing (simply by definition). But to overcome bad bias, is nothing more than a specialized case of learning to produce better behavior – which is something we have all been working on since birth.

    The big things, are not too hard to reach a basic agreement on, when you try to get agreement on good vs bad in a group of people. Harming others we put on the bad side, helping others we say is good. Working hard to stay alive and make life better for us, we put on the good side, etc. But when you get down to the fine details, it all gets very messy. Not only is it hard to know what we should do in life, but we don’t even know what tools we should use to guide our personal choices in life. Should we use the bible and the advice we find there? Or should we use science, and the advice we find there? Or should we listen to our parents, or our friends? Should we be rational and logical, or should we just follow our heart? Is killing a fetus worse than bringing an unwanted child into society? These are not questions that have a correct answer. These are the questions that each of us use our own large collection of person bias, to answer for ourselves. And in the end, we will all have different answers, because we all have a different collection of person bias because of our differences in nature (DNA) and our differences in nurture (past experience).

    I am biased to believe that the brain is a pleasure seeking machine. It selects behaviors based on statistical techniques applied to past experience. Behaviors that lead to increased (long term) pleasure are repeated and behaviors that cause a decrease in long term pleasure are avoided. This is the source of all our behavior, and the source of all our bias, and the very definition of good and bad for us. Good things lead to an increase in long term pleasure, and bad things decrease long term pleasure. We seek out the behaviors that increase our pleasure. All human behavior, and beliefs, and thoughts, can be understood on this simple foundation.

    As such, when trying to answer questions of right and wrong (for humans) the answer is that we are all forced, by the very design of our brains, to maximise personal long term happiness. But this is no easy problem because nearly everything we do is a trade off. Almost every action we take creates some type of good, and bad, at the same time, so we are constantly trying to estimate the level of good and bad, and do the things which create the most good with the least harm. We eat a cookie, and it creates great pleasure in us, but it’s offset but the belief that too much food and too much sugar is bad for our long term health.

    And likewise, though we are built as selfish machines, we are more than smart enough to understand that ignoring the needs of other humans, is not good for our own long term happiness. If we eat, and let others starve, they will likely turn on us, and take our food, and maybe even kill us. It’s our core selfish nature, which trains us to be altruistic. Anyone who was raised in a loving environment, filled with plenty of examples of altruism making life better for everyone, will learn to love altruistic behaviors. But for someone raised in a harsh dog-eat-dog environment were most acts of kindness towards others simply produced a loss of a scare resource will train them to be far more selfish. What’s right and wrong for these two people are different, simply because they live in different environments. There is no universal right and wrong which we can apply to everyone. Everyone developed their own sense of what is right and wrong for them, and constantly tries to refine their own understanding of right and wrong.

    But our environment can change over time, and what we learned when young, might no longer be valid. The brain is not very good at forgetting the lessons of the past, and as such, we will carry a past bias, which was once valid, forward, into a time where it is no longer very valid. If we can identify where our brain is making those types of errors, we can use our rational behaviors (our language behaviors) to help regulate, and re-train, our low level emotional behaviors to correctly match our current environment.

    It’s these biases in our behavior, that we can address, and try to overcome – the ones which we can rationally understand our sub-optimal to our ling term happiness.

    The hard part of the equation however, is trying to figure out what makes us happy – because it’s different for each of us, so we each have to figure it out for ourselves.

  • gluetube

    i found this long list of cognitive bias’ at wikipedia the week before i came across this blog and i presume its connected !!. i think its part of an evolution away from “right and wrong” and toward greater ‘accuracy’ and purpose in living, there seems to be a groundswell of criticism aimed at the blog like the comment above that seems to think these guys are saying they are right about something. its obviously down to each of us to “figure it out for themselves” … and when we are on the net looking for ways we can figure it out more accurately, and avoid making the same mistakes of judgement humans keep making, its refreshing to come across such excellent research tools

  • Kyle

    Maybe you’re referring to the comments in the posts, I didn’t read those, but none of the posts you linked to appeared to be making that argument. Rather, they addressed the value of overcoming bias and when bias may or may not be useful. The only accusation of bias I saw was a “you’re biased towards reducing bias, which is a good thing” by Tyler.

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

    Kyle, yes I was referring to the comments to the posts, as signaled by my saying “comments about … can be found at these posts.”

  • Kyle

    Ah, I misread it at saying that the posts were commenting on Overcoming Bias. My bad.