Deflationary Theory of Bias

This article will argue that people are biased and that we should often listen to them anyway.

Generally, bias is an inescapable feature of intelligent entities. The fact that a person is biased doesn’t mean they are wrong. When a person makes an argument it should be addressed head-on, rather than dancing around the issue with things like appeals to credibility or bias and so on.

When I tell you 2 + 2= 4 don’t say, “Well you know, you are an English teacher, not a math teacher, so I’m not so sure about that.” Deal with the question directly.

Most people know that bias can lead to incorrect conclusions, but many people do not realize that bias is equally or even more capable of leading to correct conclusions or efficient behavior. I have written on this previously:

  • The Halo Effect and Unconscious Accuracy – The halo effect is a known cognitive bias. I demonstrate that this cognitive bias has a tendency to produce correct results.
  • Kahneman and Efficient Bias – Among other things, I demonstrate that substitution bias is an efficient and often correct behavior.
  • Literal, Anachronistic, or Shallow? – I argue that any interpretation of the Bible is a biased interpretation, even if it is a correct interpretation. Therefore, I argue, it is possible and even good to be biased towards the truth, while it is impossible not to be biased. It perhaps follows that the conclusions of a person admitting to be biased should be more trusted than the conclusions of a person claiming not to be biased.

Mike Weishar is a self-identified progressive liberal, but he hits the nail on the head of this topic as well. His article The Myth of the Fair and Balanced Media is full of excellent quotes like these:

  1. “A fair and balanced media does not exist, nor should it”
  2. “If you look at the three main cable news networks; MSNBC, Fox and CNN, not one of them really lives up to that motto anyway.”
  3. “To suggest that the news should be fair and balanced is to suggest that there are multiple sides to every truth or fact. There isn’t, facts are facts.”
  4. “For instance, ninety percent of people in the United States support background checks for purchasing firearms. If that’s the case, isn’t it disingenuous to be interviewing one person who supports it and one person who doesn’t?”

Mike makes statements I disagree with along the way, but the fact that such different people can agree that a fair and balanced perspective is a myth helps show how basically true it is.

I’ve deflated bias and shown that it is often good, but I don’t intend to deflate it completely. I will quickly reaffirm that bias is in some ways a predictably bad thing. I will then conclude with a particular example of truth and bias related to a debate about intelligent design.

One of Murray Rothbard’s lesser known feats is that he contributed to an objective study of establishing the motives of individuals. From page 9-10 of A History of Money and Banking:

In general, the question of “Cui bono?” – or “Who benefits?” – from changes in policies and institutions receives very little attention…new economic historians have sought to explain the ex post aggregate distribution of income that results from a given change in the institutional framework or in the policy regime. What their method precludes them from doing is identifying the ex ante purposes as well as ideas about the most efficacious means of accomplishing these purposes that motivated the specific individuals who lobbied for or initiated the change that effected a new income distribution. However, avoiding such questions leaves the quantitative data themselves ultimately unexplained. The reason is that the institutions that contribute to their formation, such as the railroads or the Fed, are always the complex resultants of the purposive actions of particular individuals or groups of individuals aimed at achieving definite goals by the use of specific means. So the new economic history is not history in the traditional sense of an attempt to “understand” the human motives underlying the emergence of economic institutions and processes.

Murray claims the study of motive is essentially subjective, but he offers an objective mechanism. Asking “cui bono?” helps objectively establish motive because people are teleological. For such people perceived incentives are motives. Criminal investigators may do something comparable. Economists also have the tool of revealed preference.

So we essentially have a strong argument that people act in order to achieve perceived personal benefits. When a person has a perceived personal interest in saying X, but X is not true, that is when we run into the real issue of bias leading to falsehood.

It is important to note that such incentives neither imply nor exclude conscious dishonesty. I can have an interest in saying X and genuinely believe it to be true, even though it’s not, or I might be intentionally lying.

One relevant case study occurs in the context of the intelligent design debate. The Discovery Institute is an institution devoted to the study and advocacy of intelligent design. Stephen Meyer, one of the leading thinkers working with the institute, admits as much in the following C-SPAN interview at the 22:50 mark:

Now, the Discovery Institute is clearly biased in favor of intelligent design and they are rather straightforward about that. Does this mean that we should ignore or discount the material produced by DI? I think the answer is no.

I recently criticized an article from Nick Matzke at Panda’s Thumb. I updated my article after finding a similar article by DI which presents even more information against Matzke. DI is in favor of ID, but are they are also correct:

  • The actual author was Casey Luskin and is backed by DI. Luskin is a DI guy. This wasn’t an official response but it might as well have been.
  • Matzke says the Cambrian Explosion took at least 30 million years. Luskin says expert opinion shows it was far shorter. In the article I wrote criticizing Matzke I show that most scientists show it around 20 M years.
  • Matzke says Meyers called the Cambrian Explosion “instantaneous.” Luskin states, and it is easily verified, that Meyers never said any such thing in the book.
  • Matzke also claimed the Cambrian Explosion wasn’t particularly sudden. In contrast to Matzke’s claim, most evolutionary biologists in the literature agree that it was sudden.
  • Matzke ignores Meyer’s calculations in chapters 10 and 12 of Darwin’s Doubt which demonstrate that even if the Cambrian lasted longer than 30 million years it would still be unexplained by standard principles of population genetics.

Let me also clear up my position on ID while we are at it:

  • Evolution is that it’s a thing but it doesn’t explain everything. ID is also that it’s a thing but it doesn’t explain everything. They both have some problems but they are both generally useful frameworks.
  • Macroevolution and chemical evolution have problems because they just don’t fit the data. Evolution also has a problem in that it means different things which are often conflated. Evolution is also unfortunately perceived to exclude the truth of God, religion, and so on.
  • Intelligent design has a couple problems. It assumes a constant profile of intelligence and has a hard time dealing with the concept of levels of intelligence. Also, some of it’s proponents think it must displace alternate theories rather than cooperate with them.
  • I think ID deserves better consideration than it gets presently. I also don’t think it has to be one or the other. Breeding, for example, is part each.

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