Me At Pale Blue Dot

In this audio interview at Pale Blue Dot, we discuss the title topic of this blog, how to overcome bias.  I’m less optimistic about personal checklists of biases to avoid, and more optimistic about track records and other ways to change your incentives. Unfortunately, we talked over the phone, so my voice sound is low quality.  But if you can get past that, the topics are interesting.

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  • Robin, you always make me think. I’ll give you that. Thank you.

    This interview was no exception. There were some interesting points, and they lead to an interesting question for me.

    1. You poo-poo rules of thumb (lists of fallacies and psychological blind spots, etc.) toward the beginning. You seem to say that more often than not they tend to be used to beat others over the head, and to rationalize the belief that we are smarter and better than others.

    2. You are suspicious of communities that aim to eliminate bias. Using Science as an example you mention that whenever a group gets a reputation for being relatively unbiased, other groups try to ride the coat tails and so forth.

    3. You question the wisdom of trying to get rid of all bias. After all, it’s natural, and often good for us to be biased.

    4. You encourage us (those who claim to want to “overcome bias”) to take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we in fact are as concerned with ridding ourselves of bias as we think we are, or if we are claiming to want to rid ourselves of bias in order to do other things (such as gain status or whatever).

    All interesting points. But I don’t think they support the degree of pessimism you expressed during the call.

    I came away still thinking it’s a good idea to want everyone to try to overcome bias in many large areas of their lives — and wanting to work toward that end.

    And I was encouraged by other things you said during the call.

    At times you supported the idea that rules of thumb and other procedures can help.

    Even if science can be misused, scientific procedures have certainly helped us overcome many common biases. Still lots of room for improvement, but it’s been a spectacular success so far, no? (at least compared to making no such attempt)

    You suggest a procedure yourself — keeping a track record of your predictions to see what your biases are, and trying to correct for these biases.

    You seem to support the idea that considerations of evolutionary psychology can help us predict when biases are most likely to show their heads. And this, in turn, seems to suggest a procedure for catching a lot of our biases.

    Also, while you make a good case that we should probably not try to undo all of our biases (for starters it’s a huge job that might keep us from living our lives) it seems that the times most anti-bias people are most concerned about are when interpersonal conflicts and public debates arise, not cases of picking what color shirt to wear. You’re right that it wouldn’t be profitable to worry about bias in absolutely every decision we make.

    But couldn’t one still reasonably lobby for the idea that we should try to correct for bias when debating controversial issues publicly?

    Finally, I’m not familiar with the theorem you talked about. You reported that if we and our discussion partner aim at truth and we can each be assured that this holds, then there will be no disagreement.

    This seems plausible for empirical matters. What about normative or value-based issues? Does the theorem assume a cognitive theory of value jugments?

    What’s the name of that theorem anyway?

  • Practical society is much can’t solve the problem, but the continuous progress of science,scientific procedures have certainly helped us overcome many common biases. Still lots of room for improvement, but it’s been a spectacular success so far, no? (at least compared to making no such attempt.

  • I have worked in international broadcasting, especially looking at the problem of hate speech in regions of Asia and Africa. I note that it is Western European broadcasters that keep pushing the word ‘unbiased’, yet everything they do is based on their own perspective on the issues, as well as their values and norms. To tell the complete story, without any bias, would probably take too long and end up being intensely boring. Instead, we assumed the material we broadcast would have an inevitable bias, but opened the topic up for discussion afterwards. Our role was to be a catalyst for conversation, with the premise that isolated communities are the most vulnerable to radicalisation by extremist views.

    I hope you get another chance to do a presentation in a studio somewhere or in front of a webcam. The mobile phone filters all form of emotion out of your voice and that makes it more difficult to follow your train of thought. But carry on the great narrative.