Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Seven Principles of Bias

This is a long overdue post. A topic that has come up on many occasions, and is fundamental to disputes between rationalists and anti-rationalists, is that of bias. There are many misconceptions surrounding the topic of bias, and I'd like to try to clear them up. And so, I formulated seven principles of bias:


1. Everyone is biased

And I mean everyone. Every single person, in every assessment that they make, has all kinds of biases. Sometimes it is as obvious and powerful as confirmation bias - the tendency to interpret matters in a way that confirms one's prior views. At other times it can be as subtle as emotional associations, either positive or negative, with something from one's childhood. No person is a computer.

2. There is nothing wrong with being biased

Being biased is part of the human condition. It hampers one's ability to objectively appraise a topic, but that handicap does not reflect badly one someone any more than a physical handicap. For example, as someone who grew up Jewish and lives in Israel, of course I am biased towards seeing Israel as the good guy in the Israel vs. Palestinian conflict. There's no shame in that bias.

3. Being biased doesn't mean that you are wrong

This is a corollary of the first principle; since everyone is biased, of course being biased cannot mean that one is wrong. And even if, in a dispute, one person is substantially more biased than the other, it still does not mean that he is wrong.

4. There are different degrees of bias

This is an extremely important point. Although everyone is always biased, the degree of bias can be so drastically divergent that it becomes qualitatively different. Confirmation bias is extremely powerful. Confirmation bias to one's religious worldview is often fundamental - which means that even overwhelming evidence will not convince someone that their position is false.

5. Bias affects credibility

As noted earlier, being biased has nothing to do with being wrong. However, it justifiably affects credibility in the eyes of others. When evaluating claims, we put a certain degree of trust in the person making the claim (which varies depending on how much we can research the evidence ourselves). To the extent that the person is biased, there is less basis for this trust.

6. People who do not acknowledge their biases are more likely to be crippled by them

Many people believe that they are able to be fully objective in evaluating claims - even those which run counter to their deeply-held beliefs. They further believe that by claiming themselves to be objective, this is reason for others to accept that they are objective. Not only is this false, but in fact the reverse is often true. People who delude themselves into thinking that they are objective are even more likely to fool themselves in other areas. The first step in overcoming bias is acknowledging its existence.

7. There can be clues that someone lacks fundamental bias and/or has the ability to overcome it

This has be handled carefully. There can be clues that someone else, or oneself, has the ability to overcome bias, at least in certain areas. One clue is that the person has demonstrated the ability to admit error in the past. (However, this is not always a valid indicator; sometimes there is a "born-again" mentality in which there is a drive to cleanse oneself by denouncing a former way of life and of thinking.) Another clue is that a person is freely able to admit to certain weaknesses in their position and strengths in their opponent's position, even if overall they consider themselves to be correct.


These are the principles that I came up with - I'd be glad to hear other people's reformulations or additions.

36 comments:

  1. > "3. Being biased doesn't mean that you are wrong"

    You mean, it doesn't necessarily mean you are wrong. That's an important addition. You can be biased, and therefore interpret something one way when there is really no basis for it in reality.

    There is also a possibility for being completely objective, is there not? If I became a journalist and reported on the bank crisis in Ireland, what bias could I possibly have?

    Or let's say I wanted to research the effectiveness of cow manure as fertilizer. Once again, what bias could I possibly have?

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  2. You mean, it doesn't necessarily mean you are wrong.

    No.

    You can be biased, and therefore interpret something one way when there is really no basis for it in reality.

    So being biased can MAKE you wrong. But the fact that a person is biased does not MEAN that he is wrong.

    There is also a possibility for being completely objective, is there not?

    I don't think that you can ever be sure that this is the case. In your examples, maybe you have negative associations with Ireland or cows, or a desire to spin a story in a certain way. And the people that you rely upon for information have their own biases.

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  3. "2. There is nothing wrong with being biased"

    I'm not sure what this means. Intellectually wrong? Well, of course it makes it more likely you'll be wrong. Morally wrong? I guess that depends on how much you value truth as well as the impact your potential misapprehensions have on others. For example, if Israel is wrong for occupying people's land and treating them unfairly, and you support this because of your biases, then you are wrong.

    In short, bias may be part of the human condition, it may even have beneficial effects, but it certainly has negative effects as well, and we should recognize that.

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  4. if Israel is wrong for occupying people's land and treating them unfairly, and you support this because of your biases, then you are wrong

    If that is the case, then it is wrong to support it; it is not wrong to have the bias.

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  5. Was Moshe Rabeinu biased?

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  6. "If that is the case, then it is wrong to support it; it is not wrong to have the bias. "

    Then you can same the same thing about any personality trait (which you do imply with your comparison to a physical handicap), and perhaps your right (though it's not a very frequent rabbinic position). But nevertheless, bias can lead to wrong as can other persoality traits, and it would behoove us to recognize this propensity.

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  7. This is an example of why you’re so dangerous to Chareidi Judaism. If one cannot dismiss those who question the party line as biased, as nogeah b’davar and just looking for excuses to throw off the ol hatorah (or at least to practice a watered-down MO version of Judaism) then one has to actually address the questions.

    > 3. Being biased doesn't mean that you are wrong

    I would add that being biased has nothing to do with whether someone is right or wrong. The truth of one’s statements and the strength of one’s arguments determine if one is right or wrong.

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  8. I think that the answer to my prior question is 'yes'. I am not sure where we r going with this discussion.

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  9. Nice start. From my perspective, the biggest issue is not bias, per se, but the overlapping issue of respect for other views. I shudder when I see postings in the name of saving “authentic” Judaism that accuse fellow Jews of kefira, or use language that shows disrespect for those with whom they disagree.

    Accusations of kefira in normative Rabbinic Judaism, historically, were rare and far between. Even as late as the 1970s, when I was coming of age, there was greater gentleness and tolerance -- if only due to the understanding that the Shoah impacted people in many different ways.

    So, I would suggest that together with principles regarding “Bias” there must be principles of “Respect”. The Talmud teaches us:

    שלוש שנים נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל
    הללו אומרים הלכה כמותינו
    והללו אומרים הלכה כמותינו
    יצאה בת קול ואמרה
    אלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים הן
    והלכה כבית הלל
    וכי מאחר שאלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים
    מפני מה זכו בית הלל לקבוע הלכה כמותן
    מפני שנוחין ועלובין היו
    ושונין דבריהן ודברי בית שמאי
    ולא עוד שמקדימין דברי בית שמאי לדבריהן

    מסכת עירובין י"ג ע"ב

    For 3 years, there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the one asserting the halacha is according to our view, and the other asserting halacha is according to our view. A voice from heaven announced: both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halacha is according to Beit Hillel.

    Afterwards, it was asked, if “both these and these are the words of the living God” then for what reason is the halacha according to Beit Hillel? Because they were kindly and humble, and because they studied/debated their own rulings as well as those of Beit Shammai; and (in their argumentation) they even preceded their own views with a thorough exposition of Beit Shammai’s views. Masechet Eruvin 13b

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  10. R. Slifken, what if one is biased by faith? My understanding is that religion cannot be rationally proven; otherwise, I would assume that the greatest minds in the generation would be religious. Therefore, belief is a matter of faith and to a lesser extent tradition. Faith is a spiritual feeling which, in my personal view, is built on ingrained bias. An analogy is Rambam’s statement in Hil. Gerushin 2:18:

    לפיכך מי שאינו רוצה לגרש--מאחר שהוא רוצה להיות מישראל, רוצה הוא לעשות כל המצוות ולהתרחק מן העבירות; ויצרו הוא שתקפו. וכיון שהוכה עד שתשש יצרו ואמר, רוצה אני--כבר גירש לרצונו

    A Jew has an “ingrained spiritual nature” to follow God. From a purely rational perspective, this is a classic bias.

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  11. Avi, I'm not sure what you're asking. I agree that religion cannot be rationally proven. And we are certainly biased towards Judaism - after all, we were born into it! But, as I said, there's nothing wrong with being biased.

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  12. "I would add that being biased has nothing to do with whether someone is right or wrong. The truth of one’s statements and the strength of one’s arguments determine if one is right or wrong."

    Of course bias impacts truth probability. The more biased one is, the more likely he has reached his opinion as a result of bias. This is common sense. If RNS argues for the position of Israel vs. the Palestinians, he might be right, but good chance his appreciation of the evidence is biased. If he argues for the Palestinians, he probably reached his conclusion impartially (considering his own self-described bias on this issue). Obviously he could argue for the Palestinians and be wrong, but it's less likely. It's strange that I even have to point this out.

    For those (biased people) who only agree to something after it's shown to be part of traditional Judaism, the halacha is that one's relative can't be his judge or witness. As is completely obvious, the reason is because a biased person is more likely to be wrong.

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  13. I must add that it's a pleasure to see Rav Slifkin adhering to what he writes in the penultimate sentence of this posting. Even amidst unwarranted and improper Slifkin bashing he is able to unabashedly cite, nay, explain, the opposing views opinions.

    This is a very important lesson, one of the motifs of these past few parshios. Much of our pain and suffering is due to our inability to respect or try to understand the other sides opinion.

    And this issue is found across the board. Rav Slifkin himself reminds his readers now and again the importance of this principle.

    Alas, that we all would take heed. Perhaps if each of us would take upon ourselves to excel in this virtue we would influence those around us.

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  14. I think this would be a good, if somewhat more technical, reiteration of your post:

    The logos strength of an argument is independent of its proponent. The ethos strength of an argument is variable based on several characteristics of the proponent, among them the strength of the proponent's bias.
    Therefore, with very few exceptions, the ethos strength of any argument is flawed. However, ethos is only a secondary consideration in an argument, and the validity of an argument is ultimately based on its logos.

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  15. I think bias is to be lauded. I enjoy the sense of calm superiority being a Jew gives me. I especially love the lectures and shiurim given that stress the fact that we are a better class of being because we have Torah, and they don't. So, I strut down the main thoroughfare on Shabbos with my head held high, and look down upon all the goyim, and feel great about it, knowing that this is what I have been given to personally fend off their idiotic beheima-dikke way of life.
    So bias is good. I enjoy it. I love that I and my fellow Orthodox Jews view everything thru the lens of Torah, and allow no other opinions to sway them left or right, exactly as the Torah says not to do. Whether it's maligned as racist, egotistical, or supremacist, it really matters not, because we are the Chosen ones. The rest can disappear for all I care.
    I wish you all would stop using words that a lot of people don't understand (ethos, logos, epistemology, etc.)It only convolutes everything and eliminates average Joe's from the discussion. Besides, this is not a logical lifestyle by any means, so it can't be analyzed using logic. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it, is the crux of our religion.

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  16. Having biases is inescapable.
    Failing to acknowledge them is dishonest.
    Letting them blind you to truth is unforgivable.

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  17. "Another clue is that a person is freely able to admit to certain weaknesses in their position and strengths in their opponent's position, even if overall they consider themselves to be correct."

    As I see it, this is the key that distinguishes "rigorous intellectual"(R. Adlerstein's terminology) discussion of hashkafah, ikkarie emunah, or kiruv from that which is not (the obvious caveat is that "overall they consider themselves to be correct"; you have to also come out on the side that is pro-Torah).

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  18. "And we are certainly biased towards Judaism - after all, we were born into it!"

    What about converts? Additionally, are you implying that searching for truth, with a capital T, is ultimately futile? In not, why not?

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  19. " No person is a computer".

    Bland formulation. Lacks punch. Use of the traditional generic masculine would make it stronger. ("No man is a computer. Or island.")

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  20. Todd writes: "Letting (biases)blind you to truth is unforgivable."

    Well, I'm biased towards forgiving people for doing this.

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  21. "A topic that has come up on many occasions, and is fundamental to disputes between rationalists and anti-rationalists, is that of bias.
    "

    Is any bias showing in portraying these two positions as just two positions, instead of a spectrum?

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  22. Poshuter is back now he is Steny! RS, please compare the IP addresses and u will see that I am right.

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  23. For those who want to go all out in learning about biases, check out wiki.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

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  24. Steny wrote: "I enjoy the sense of calm superiority being a Jew gives me. I especially love the lectures and shiurim given that stress the fact that we are a better class of being because we have Torah, and they don't. So, I strut down the main thoroughfare on Shabbos with my head held high, and look down upon all the goyim, and feel great about it,"

    Wow.

    I'm pretty sure that's more than a mere bias. I also highly doubt this was a serious comment.

    "Strut down the main thoroughfare?"
    Really?

    Thanks for the laughs in any case.

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  25. Is Poshiter Yid also "Steny"? I don't think that this can be established from the identical IP address. IP addresses are within the realm of nature, whereas Poshiter Yid/Steny is clearly outside the realm of nature. Therefore, no proofs from the realm of nature can pertain to him/her/it.

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  26. Steny was being facetious, but I think that "Poshiter Yid" was for real.

    I don't think it's possible to check IP addresses with Blogger.

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  27. are you implying that searching for truth, with a capital T, is ultimately futile?

    Definitely. After all, how can you be sure that you're not living in The Matrix, or something similar?

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  28. Rabbi Slifkin,

    1) You're trying to take a word that has negative connotations and make it seem harmless. When people say someone has a bias they mean something worse than that person is human.

    2) I'm surprised that you answered "Definitely" to the question of whether the search for truth is futile. I have no idea why you spend so much time writing books if you believe that.

    3) Can we all agree that there's a world of difference between someone who's trying to be objective when looking at evidence and someone who's not?

    4) You have in the past cast aspersions on people (Lubavitchers and others) who have an agenda. I never quite understood that. It's clear why Lubavitchers (or Christian creationists, for that matter) say what they say. But the question isn't why they say it but whether what they say is true, reasonable, likely, unlikely plausible, etc. This is the only issue that matters.

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  29. 1) I differentiated between different degrees of bias

    2) The question was as to the search for Absolute Truth. My books deal with smaller questions.

    3) Yes, but the fact that someone says they are trying to be objective and even believes themself to be doing so, does not remotely mean that they ARE objective!

    4) The point is that it's futile to engage in debate, because there is a more fundamental difference between us which determines the other issue.

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  30. Steny was being facetious, but I'm not sure what he said is wrong. [I mean, his point, not the way he said it.] When Christians believed and were proud to teach openly that they were the culmination of religion, they were unstoppable. Exploring here and building nations there, all in the name of Christianity. It's only lately when through political correctness they have stopped being proud of their beliefs, that they have ceased to be the force they once were.

    Same with Jews too. We are taught from birth to think ourselves higher and yes better than the average man on the street. I understand all the problems inherent with that beleif, but nevertheless, that it what we are taught. Dont kid yourself, even non religious Jews are taught this at home. Undoubtedly this gives Jews a sense of confidence, which is a wonderful thing. Sometimes that confidence gets blurred into a patronizing attitude of superiority, which is the intent of וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר תָּרִיד, וּפָרַקְתָּ עֻלּוֹ מֵעַל צַוָּארֶךָ

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  31. > After all, how can you be sure that you're not living in The Matrix, or something similar?

    I think that it’s reasonable to contingently accept that the world we perceive is real, and then investigate how it functions. The world appears to work according to consistent rules. If nothing else, I’m learning the rules of my delusion. And it beats just making stuff up because we can’t be sure that it’s false, which in my experience is how many intellectuals justify their superstitions.

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  32. I agree with all you say except for #2 "There is nothing wrong with being biased" - since it's part of the human condition. So what? Would we say that there nothing wrong with be a self-centered, agressive, hyper-sexed, materialistic, addictive person because that's part of being human? Of course we are sympathatic to people exhibiting such qualities, but would you argue that "there's nothing wrong with being an addict"?

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  33. Bias results from a strong emotional attachment to something and/or habit/upbringing. There's nothing inherently wrong with either of these. In fact, they are praiseworthy!

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  34. Rabbi Slifkin, while confirmation of Absolute Truth is impossible for several reasons, you can derive a possible Truth and have lower or higher confidence in it. So the search for Absolute Truth isn't pointless/impossible, its just not entirely conclusive. On the other hand, the laws of gravity aren't absolutely conclusive either, and we seem to do alright with them (admittedly there are astronomical observations that would apparently contradict our calculations, but those are being investigated and for all local intents and purposes the laws of gravity are accurate).

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  35. After all, how can you be sure that you're not living in The Matrix, or something similar?


    Now I'm the one wondering if this is just a joke or Purim Torah. Here comes Keanu Reeves and Larry Fishburne. Maybe they have the answer.

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  36. While reading point 7, I was struck that you seem to be forgetting a third possibility.

    It is entirely possible for a single person to argue and debate both sides of an argument. And they can convince listeners, that they fully believe what they are arguing.

    If a person is able to fully take on all positions necessary for one side of an argument or another, I don't understand how bias becomes a factor.

    Perhaps you might argue that at that point in time the person takes on the bias of the position they are arguing... but then you have made the word bias completely meaningless by your assertion that everyone is bias.

    Perhaps most people are bias in regards to one issue in particular, but I think it is false to claim that everybody is bias about everything. And the claim of bias is really just a more nuanced version of the ad homimen logical fallacy.

    If and only if a person is unable to see the other side of an argument, then at that point, it seems reasonable to claim that their biases are getting in the way.. but if a person can full see and appreciate all sides of the issue, then I would claim that they have no bias.

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