Author Archives: Nick Bostrom

A game for self-Calibration?

It seems that people on average are overconfident in their own beliefs. But some people probably are unusually reliable. When there is a disagreement, these people are generally on the right side. If you are one of these people, then you would be better off (epistemically) following your own gut rather taking the advice of your friends. Of course, if you delude yourself in thinking your intuitions are more reliable even though they aren’t, then you’ll be worse off.

One response to this predicament is to take the advice of all your friends, on the argument that on average this makes people better off. One problem with this recommendation is that if only the best people follow it, then the net effect may be that average belief accuracy declines. "The problem with the world," wrote Bertrand Russell, "is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." I’m not sure this is true with regard to intelligence, but if we substitue "wisdom", it may be more plausible. The modesty response could amplify the problem.

Is there a better way?

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What exactly is bias?

Bias is something bad from an epistemological point of view, but what exactly is it and how is it distinct from other kinds of epistemological error?

Let’s start with one remark Robin made in passing: "Bias is just avoidable systematic error." One big question here is what makes a systematic error avoidable. For example, suppose somebody has never heard about overconfidence bias. When such a person (erroneously) rates herself above average on most dimensions without strong specific evidence, is she making an avoidable error?

It seems to be avoidable only in the sense that there is information which she doesn’t have but which she could get which would make it possible for her to correct her beliefs about her own abilities. But in this sense, we would be biased whenever we lack some piece of information that bears on some broad domain. Socractes would be biased merely by being ignorant of evolution theory, neuroscience, physics, etc. This seems too broad.

Conversely, if she is systematically overestimating her own abilities, it seems she is biased even if these errors are unavoidable. Suppose she does learn about overconfidence bias, but for some deep psychological reasons simply cannot shake off the illusion. The error is systematic and unavoidable, yet I’d say it is a bias.

Here is an alternative explication that I’d like to put forward tentatively for discussion: A bias is a non-rational factor that systematically pushes one’s beliefs in some domain in one direction.

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The wisdom of bromides

Apropos Robin’s recent remark that "’No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time in the office,’ the saying goes." and his wondering whether we are really biased to spending too much time in the office.

This makes me wonder about the function of bromides. Consider:

"Look before you leap!"

"He who hesitates is lost!"

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