Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Word about Bias

We all have bias. We all love bias. We all hate bias. We all love to hate bias. We all hate to love bias. But we do not all have the same amount of it. This is because, while we all begin with the same germ of bias, this germ proliferates in some people and some situations more than in others. This blog has a bias, in case you haven’t noticed.

We all want to believe that the ideas to which we have devoted our lives are true. I will use myself as an example. I am a scientist, and I want to believe that the scientific method reveals truth. But suppose that I am wrong. Suppose that it is not, in fact, possible to figure out the truth by observing and measuring the physical world. Suppose that everything we see in the universe really is a delusion created by an evil god who enjoys watching us suffer. There is no evidence for this idea, so I reject it. But suppose there was evidence for it. Suppose that unexpectedly, as unexpectedly as that asteroid came by a few weeks ago, this evil god appeared in the sky and told us that everything in our lives and that we thought we knew about the universe was a trick he was playing on us. I would reject this observation, assuming myself to be deluded for having seen this god in the sky. It would take a lot of evidence to make me change my mind.

We also want to believe that the sources of our money are good. I work in higher education. I want to believe that a college education improves the lives of graduates in almost every way, not the least of which is employability. But suppose that it turns out that college education is worthless—that we Americans would be just as well off working in unskilled jobs for companies owned by China or Singapore or Germany as we would be in creating our own innovations. Of course, there is no evidence for this. But suppose there was. It would take a long time before I would admit it.

Bias, therefore, proliferates where there is money. A professor with a doctoral degree at a small university, earning just a little more than the national median, is less likely to be biased than a petroleum engineer with less education but earning twice as much, when it comes to issues such as global warming. Certainly such a professor is less likely to be biased on this subject than oil company executives or the conservative politicians to whom they give uncounted millions of dollars. The money-stoked intensity of bias in conservative politicians blinds them to even the most obvious truths.

So, if you want to know whom to believe on any particular issue, ask not only what the evidence is, but also follow the money.

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