Checking for Bias

116_2014_b1-oliv-thumb-scale8201If there’s one thing you should take away from an introductory-level philosophy class, it is the insight that we are often blind to our own cognitive mistakes. From Socrates pointing out the importance of knowing what you don’t know, all the way down to contemporary discussions of the Dunning-Kruger effect, we find that most people fool themselves most of the time.

If we’re going to be exceptions to this rule, it’s going to take some effort. You’ve probably also noticed that it isn’t easy to analyze arguments, weigh evidence, and assess the epistemic situation of yourself and others. Being rational can be difficult work.

All of this applies to professional philosophers as well. Which is one reason that I like to run occasional rationality checks on myself. Nothing profound, and I get nothing but a cookie if I pass, but I still see it as a way of trying to keep my own foolishness in check.

One exercise I recommend is that of honestly comparing your opinions to those of someone smarter than you.  But that’s not as easy as it sounds:

There’s an obvious threat of selection bias here. We can always find smart people who agree with us, and there will usually be smart people who disagree with us too. If we just look for someone who’s on our side and who is also smart, this exercise will tell us nothing.

So what we want is someone that we independently believe is intelligent and well-informed. And the easiest way to make sure that our judgments of intelligence aren’t biased by our commitment to some cause (e.g., climate change) is to be ignorant of someone’s views on that topic.

So when I see someone who seems scientifically savvy, I sometimes like to check what that person’s views on climate change are. Recently I stumbled on this very nice video explaining how you can understand the interchangeability of the electric field and magnetic field as a special relativistic effect:

It’s a great explanation that I had never heard before. This Veritasium guy seems bright. I had no idea what his position on global warming was, so I decided to check. It wasn’t hard to find.

Of course, one vlogger is hardly decisive, but it is at least one check that I’m not completely biased in selecting who I’m listening to.

Here’s another check I’ll run right now. Ben Goldacre is someone who knows a lot about science, and fights against corruption is science. Actual problems, like corporations paying for research and then only publishing results if they support their position (the trash can effect). So he’s not someone who shies away from calling out scientists.

I don’t happen to know whether he’s taken a position on climate science. So let me ask google:

Google tells me that his take on it is very much like my own. While he doesn’t seem to have much to say about the science itself, he recognizes that the anti-climate-danger movement is an example of denialism, and in general we don’t have reason to more skeptical of climate science than of other areas of science.

I’ve never come across someone who I independently think is intelligent and well-informed who has questioned evolution or global warming.

I very much doubt that climate change contrarians could successfully pass this rationality check.

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