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Wednesday, April 19, 2006
How Bias Works
"I'm O.K., You're Biased" is the title of an op-ed in the New York Times by Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard. He writes about the way in which our rational faculties often operate within the larger context of our likes and dislikes, our motivations, or our deeper preferences, often subconscious, for how we want things to work out. As an example:
"...researchers asked subjects to evaluate a student's intelligence by examining information about him one piece at a time. The information was quite damning, and subjects were told they could stop examining it as soon as they'd reached a firm conclusion. Results showed that when subjects liked the student they were evaluating, they turned over one card after another, searching for the one piece of information that might allow them to say something nice about him. But when they disliked the student, they turned over a few cards, shrugged and called it a day."
Our a priori preferences influence our powers of assessment, but they are also hidden from our rational minds, so that we feel quite strongly that we have conducted a fair and objective analysis.

I am reminded of Antonin Scalia's comment the other day regarding conflict of interest, and why he felt no reason to recuse himself in a case involving his friend Dick Cheney: "For Pete's sake, if you can't trust your Supreme Court justice more than that, get a life".

Clearly Scalia seems to think that the only danger to our system is a judge engaged in conscious, intentional bias. And that a hypersensitivity to a perception of that type of bias is unwarranted and destructive. What he fails to understand is the very real problem of unintentional bias.

I find that odd coming from a strong conservative. Is it not part of the very foundation of conservatism that humans are understood to be inherently flawed characters - and that an effective governing system, like our own Constitution, derives its strength from its built-in system of checks and balances that are designed to overcome the limitations of individuals?

I think this is an issue that liberals can agree on too. We build structural elements into our system to protect us against willful abuses of power by officeholders, but also to protect us against the inherent limitations of individuals - their limited perspectives, experiences, and their natural biases.

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2 Comments on "How Bias Works"
From the NTY article you site:
"... The human brain knows many tricks that allow it to consider evidence, weigh facts and still reach precisely the conclusion it favors."

Seeking verification of our subjective beliefs is a ubiquitous human cognitive shortcoming.

Deep-seated biases are developed via repeated verification of our beliefs. Refutation provides a powerful tool, but its potential is diminished by the degree to which our minds ignore evidence contrary to our beliefs. In order to learn and to advance knowledge, one needs to be both willing and able to "change one's mind".

Interestingly, this study provides insights into understanding the conceptually (cognitively) differing world views held by individuals embracing various types of knowledge claims. Science advances empirical knowledge of the natural world via testing and refutation. Metaphysical beliefs are cemented via verification of faith in opinion, authority, intuition, tradition, or superstition.

Anonymous Laja @ Thu Apr 20, 10:55:00 AM EDT  
Apologies for the typo-

The first line should read: " From the NYT article you cite:"

Anonymous Laja @ Thu Apr 20, 11:22:00 AM EDT  
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