About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, April 17, 2006

How biased are you?

Interesting op-ed in the New York Times by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, summarizing recent research on bias in humans. The findings show that, of course, people tend to be more biased than they themselves realize: for example, a sample of medical residents thought that 84% of their colleagues would be influenced by gifts from pharmaceutical companies, but only 16% of them admitted to a possible bias of their own.

Perhaps more interestingly, researchers found that we also tend to overestimate the real extend of bias in others. A group of smokers was asked to estimate the degree of support that an anti-smoking ban would receive from non-smokers; vice-versa, non-smokers were asked to estimate the degree of resistance to the same ban on the part of smokers. While there was, naturally, a certain degree of support and resistance by the two groups in the expected direction, it’s also true that both sides overestimated the degree of the other side’s commitment to the cause.

Gilbert’s conclusion is that human beings are aware that other human beings are biased, and in fact systematically overestimate such bias, but somehow tend not to think of themselves as human, thereby underestimating their own degree of bias. Apparently, we all think we live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average...

This kind of research concerns important aspects of society, such as politicians and the potential bias induced by campaign contributions, CEOs of large companies and the fact that their end-of-year bonuses are determined by people whose livelihood is controlled by the executives, or judges involved in cases featuring a defendant that has had personal or economic ties with the judge.

The same scenario also occurs in science, where scientists think of themselves as much more objective than they really are (and often casually dismiss someone else’s opinion as biased, simply because it differs from their own). And yet, science has an undeniable character of objectivity, at least on average and in the long run. Why? University of Minnesota philosopher Helen Longino has asked the same question and suggested a two-fold answer in her “Science as social knowledge: values and objectivity in scientific inquiry” (1990, Princeton University Press). According to Longino, one component of science’s objectivity comes from the simple fact that science deals with a real, independently existing, world. One can deny facts all one wishes (like creationists do), but facts will keep staring us in the face. If you think gravity doesn’t exist, or can be overcome by will power, you are more then welcome to jump off a bridge and join the next slate of candidates for the Darwin Awards.

The second source of long-term objectivity in science is the extended peer-review system. Longino doesn’t mean simply the two or three anonymous reviewers who examine each paper submitted for publication. That’s just the beginning and, due to the small number of individuals involved, actually quite subject to bias. But once published, a paper or book goes through an endless series of peer review episodes, every time another scientist decides to cite it or not, comment on it favorably or not, or even write a response or rebuttal. Because scientists come from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds, as well as genders and sexual orientations, they bring a huge set of individual biases to the common discourse, and these biases – again, on average and in the long run – tend to balance each other, to the benefit of science as an enterprise.

Applying the same system to politics, judges and CEOs, then, it would seem that the worst we can do is to concentrate power in few hands (as in a system with only two parties, for example), because that decreases the number of independent (biased, but in different directions) voices contributing to the discussion. That’s the real meaning of the “market of ideas.”

1 comment:

  1. What helps prevent the bias (I freely admit I am as biased as anyone) is a satisfaction that comes with being wrong. I find that it is not always easy to achieve this satisfaction. It actually comes for two reasons.
    1. You realize that you have learned something.
    2. You take statisfaction letting yourself and other people know that you are humble enough to not always be right.
    Obviously having a bias on the origional idea is different than being right or wrong afterward. But one does carry over to the other.


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