Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘bias’

Megan’s article reminded me of some thoughts I have had in the past about political polarizations.

There are several commonly held intellectual blinkers, or, to use a Robin Hanson terminology, roads to rationality ruin, that prevent us from properly appraising the value of a political position. This is true with respect to positions we support as well as those we oppose. In the past, I have blogged or linked to articles about several of these. One that is unfortunately rather common among  people who feel alienated from the thinking of the masses is the pleasure they derive from believing something different than most people. As Hanson says, this pleasure is evil because it clouds rational thinking. Another that seems to afflict a lot of people of every political stripe these days is to assume bad-faith on the part of their opponents. Megan’s article, linked above, is a great take on this issue. Then, there is the confirmation bias, which means that we tend to put more weight on evidence that agrees with things we already believe in, and discount those that don’t.

There is a common way in which many of these biases express themselves when actually appraising a political position. In a way, this expression is so common that people rarely write about it. However for precisely that reason I will repeat it here. And that is simply this, when evaluating a policy proposal, people tend to disproportionately look at only one side of the cost-benefit equation. (Those who support it, mainly look at the benefits, those who oppose it, mainly look at the costs). I am not saying that people are unaware of the other side, simply that they put far less effort in making an intellectually honest appraisal of it. This is related to but not the same as the confirmation bias. Think of the confirmation bias as a kind of blinker that biases evidence-gathering, and this as a blinker that biases decision-making.

Sometimes this blinker leads to contradictions within the views held by the same person. To start with an almost trivial example, polls show that most people favor cutting taxes. Yet, they also want the government to provide for a lot of things that would be impossible unless accompanied by extremely high levels of taxation.  Clearly there is a wide gap between what most people want and what most people are willing to pay. This is an example of the kind of dissonance I have been talking about. When thinking of benefits they want, people often fail to properly appraise the cost that is necessary to provide the benefit.

But at least the issue of taxation, when posed in a plain-vanilla style, is one that unites most people. So it is not really an issue that causes political polarization. Things get trickier when one moves on to more subtle questions.

For instance, should some version of the Glass-Steagall act, that was weakened over the years and ultimately repealed by Clinton, be reinstated? Most progressive say yes, conservatives and libertarians say no. And anyone who follows politics seems to have an opinion on that matter.

What seems to clear to me however, is that most people have something of a blinker on when appraising this issue. Progressives rarely consider in a detached manner the question of whether there are gains of uniting commercial and investment banking. Very few have read papers like this which argue that unified banking is actually safer, while they have all certainly read Krugman’s pieces. They tend to forget that that without the repeal of the Glass-Steagall, many of the acquisitions that mitigated the effects of the crazy financial meltdown in 2008 would have been legally impossible. On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives tend to ignore anything written by a liberal economist. This is perhaps justifiable when the issue is one you have thought deeply about already but such is rarely the case, especially about questions on current affairs which are politically charged. For instance, if asked whether unified banking (repeal of Glass Steagall) led certain institutions like Citi to make riskier ventures than they would have otherwise (this question, which is a very different one from whether the effects of the repeal were a net negative, has in my opinion the correct answer Yes), many conservatives would reflexibly answer no.

So my prescription to those wishing to seriously understand a subtle political issue is this. See what you initially think of the proposal. Do some research. Form an opinion. Then, look around. Think seriously about practical and philosophical objections to your position. If you are supporting a law under discussion, have you really considered its fiscal, social and moral costs? If you oppose it, have you considered its benefits?  Even if your morality/basic philosophy impels you to take one side, it is still important to research both sides. This is because of two reasons. One, you may otherwise overlook some opposing point that is also morally relevant to you. Two, because your moral philosophy can sometimes change or get more refined when faced with new arguments and evidence.

In short, do not claim to have a well-formed opinion on an issue until you have exhaustively researched the  opposing view. Anything less is intellectual laziness.

Talking of intellectual laziness, I am struck by two different contexts in which the word ‘extreme’ in used in politics.

One of them refers to people with political opinions that are fringe or out of whack with the mainstream. But having an opinion that is out-of-whack but well-considered should really have no negative connotation attached to it. If anything, it is among these people that one usually finds the visionary thinkers of each era. Furthermore, it is very difficult to evaluate out-of-whackness. What do you call someone who does not neatly fit into the conventional left-fight spectrum, for instance? Yet, the words extreme and extremist are bandied about in this context with implications that are not particularly positive.

The second, very different, context in which the word ‘extreme’ is used is with respect to strongly held political feelings, rather than fringeness of views. At the edge, it refers to people who are bitter, violent or reactionary in their political expression. Going through the blogosphere, I would estimate that about 80% of those who regularly comment on partisan blogs fall in this category. They tend to demonise the opposing view, assume bad-faith from the outset, are verbally vicious and show remarkable little evidence of having deeply considered both sides of the matter. Of course, it is possible I am wrong about some of them; after all, one reason to write is to quickly release frustration. Nonetheless, I do think that many of these people, which include not just a lot of commenters but also certain popular writers and journalists, radio and TV show hosts, and film directors, suffer from all the biases I have mentioned above. In short, whether they are right or wrong, they certainly are intellectually lazy, and thus do not deserve to be taken too seriously. People like those are much more deserving of the epithet extreme in a derogatory sense.

Now I of course realize that those who are extreme in the one sense are occasionally extreme in the other sense, but the difference between the two meanings is worth emphasizing.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Arianna Huffington’s latest article condemning laissez-faire as a failed philosophy hits all the right lefty notes. Parts of it almost seem lifted from Obama’s election rhetoric. Not wholly unexpected from a woman who once proclaimed that she only texts three people: her two teenage children and Barack Obama.

Actually, Huffington’s piece is so bad that it almost reads like a self-parody. From her depiction of Bush — a man who oversaw the biggest regulatory expansion since Nixon — as the ultimate free market champion to her refusal to even attempt any kind of analysis,  Huffington reveals herself, like so many others, as a person blinded by her love for the echo chamber she lives in. Naomi Klein’s terrible book which conveniently lumped together all her enemies into an undefinable mass that she could pummel still made a basic, incontrovertible point — times of crisis give those in power an opportunity to extend their sway. Even the Times article Huffington so approvingly links to contains some redeeming features — interesting quotes, lots of relevant history, a (correct) indictment of Bush’s disastrous home-ownership-at-all-costs policy — that make it a good read. Articles by Krugman and Stiglitz, despite their obvious bias often bordering on intellectual dishonesty, usually contain one or two nuggets of truth. Huffington’s piece, full of huffy moralizing and utter lack of intellectual depth, makes you wonder why you just gave up two minutes of your life.

Read Full Post »

The age bias

I have realized that I suffer from the age bias, and I suspect I am not alone in this.

When I come across a political or philosophical writing by someone who is younger than me, I subconsciously view this fact as increasing the probability that he is wrong. In short, my immediate emotional instinct is to correlate age positively with regard to wisdom. If I read something I disagree with and the writer is 19, I am likely to go — Ah he is inexperienced! If he is 28, I will probably still think he is wrong, but I would be just a teeny-weeny bit more likely to take him seriously. This bias sometimes manifests itself even when I am impressed with the writer, as happened earlier tonight when I discovered this excellent philosophy blog written by a Princeton student. When I realized he is younger than me, some part of my brain immediate kicked off subtle, fleeting ‘be-on-guard’ signals.

But what’s wrong with that, you might ask. After all, biases, when rational, can be useful agents of initial quality control. And it does seem reasonable to suppose that the older you get (up to a point) the more likely it is that your views are mature, wise and useful, considering that you have had so many more years to chew on them and so many more facts to weigh them against.

But here’s the problem, my age bias isn’t entirely rational. For one, I do not seem to attach a positive weight to those who are significantly older than me but instead tend to think of them neutrally (and indeed, may take off points if they are too old). If I am attaching a negative weight to someone being three years younger than me, it seems reasonable that I should attach at least that much of a positive weight to someone being ten years older. But I don’t do that!

Well, you might counter, things don’t necessarily have to be viewed that way. It is at a younger age that people are likely to make mistakes; after the brain completely matures and has a few years of experience, it is conceivable that little changes afterwards. So while the man of 25 is indeed likely to be more intelligent (philosophically) than a lad of 22, the same is not true five years down the line.

But there’s a problem with that too. My age bias shifts its goalpost according to my age. When I was 23, my bias extended only to those younger than me; when I will be 30, I am pretty sure I will not limit my bias to only those 25 and below.

Clearly there is something mildly irrational going on here. In my defence, I am aware of it, so all is not lost.

Read Full Post »

A nice follow-up by Robin Hanson to his earlier post I had linked to:

You just can’t fight “conformity” by indulging the evil pleasure of enjoying your conformity to a small tight-knit group of “non-conformists.”  All this does is promote some groups at the expense of other groups, and poisons your mind in the process.  It is like fighting “loyalty” by dogged devotion to an anti-loyalty alliance.

Best to clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments and ask, if this belief gave me no pleasure of rebelling against some folks or identifying with others, if it was just me alone choosing, would my best evidence suggest that this belief is true?  All else is the road to rationality ruin.

Indeed. Whether your views are simple and mainstream or whether you subscribe to some fringe philosophy such as libertarianism, it is always a sign of danger when your beliefs and conclusions are affected and (subconsciously) dictated by emotions derived from your identification. I guess the human psyche, by its very nature, is hopelessly susceptible to this kind of bias; the first step in fighting it is to realize that it exists and it is poisonous.

[Edit] Just in case it wasn’t clear, I am not saying one should have no emotions associated with one’s beliefs. However, you need to be wary when your emotion is at least partially derived from loyalty to your group or your ideology; for it can then affect your reasoning ability when faced with a new issue. The pleasure of non-conformity should not get in the way of dispassionate analysis. See Robin’s last paragraph above, also see my comment below.

Read Full Post »

In this post on anti-Windows-Vista-bias, I wrote

Now, there’s nothing wrong with not liking a product- but the strange thing is that Vista loathing seems to be strongest among those who have never used the software (or barely used it).

It seems the Microsoft marketing team noticed this too, for there is now an entire website built around this concept! Or maybe they visited my blog and took my observations too seriously? ;-)

Read Full Post »

Here is a link to an article by Christina Sommers in which she talks about gender politics, affirmative action in higher education and recent, extremely worrying developments. Read the whole article, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

(Link via The Volokh conspiracy)

Read Full Post »

I have posted about the anti-Vista bias before. Now, there’s nothing wrong with not liking a product- but the strange thing is that Vista loathing seems to be strongest among those who have never used the software (or barely used it). The latest example is my officemate who bought a new laptop the other day that came pre-loaded with Windows Vista Home Basic. He immediately proceeded to delete the incumbent operating system and install XP (though after grudgingly acknowledging that Vista “does look good”). Since then he has been struggling to download the drivers necessary for the downgrade, going through so much pain just so he can get back to warm fuzzy XP. He is almost done now; Vista is completely gone, XP is back, his system works fine except it still shows an unknown device for which the driver is missing (and he doesn’t know what device that is). I am sure he will figure it out by tomorrow. And the total amount of time he spent on Vista was about three minutes.

Bias is an unfortunate and immensely complex thing, affected as it is by so many externalities, but it is always funny to see it in action. 

Read Full Post »