Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Transparent Eyeball

Adam Gurri:

An optimist might be tempted to predict that increasing awareness of the cognitive biases literature would cause a proportional increase in humility. After all, the basic message of the literature is that we are systematically flawed in our perceptions of the world and in particular of other people, as well as ourselves. Of course, humility is not the reaction that the literature would actually predict—and indeed, what we see instead is simply a proportional increase in pundits arguing that people who disagree with them are blinded by biases. 

Yes, indeed, it's enough to make a fellow get all Schopenhauerian about it — there's no such thing as objectivity! There's only the puppetmaster, the omnipresent, ravenous Will which animates us all! But Jonathan Rauch also had some relevant advice to keep us from despair:

People often perform experiments and dive into research, not with wide-open minds, but because they want to vindicate their prejudices, or to "get that bastard." And, within reason, that's fine. It is important to see that the game of science allows you to feel sure you have the right answer — as long as you play by the rules, submitting yourself to criticism and staying in the game even when it goes against you. If you do that, you can be as dogmatic as you like, but the system will be undogmatic. A science writer I know once said of a famous biologist, "He's as dogmatic as they come, but he also knows the rules of the game as well as anyone." As long as that biologist sticks to the rules — claiming no final say, no personal authority — his pigheadedness serves society by making his opponents work harder, although he risks being isolated and passed by in the end.

The genius of liberal science lies not in doing away with dogma and prejudice, it lies in channeling dogma and prejudice — making them socially productive by pitting dogma against dogma and prejudice against prejudice. Science remains unbiased even though scientists are not... Biases and prejudices make us human and give sparkle to our minds. What is to be condemned is not bias but unchecked bias. The point of liberal science is not to be unprejudiced (which is impossible); the point is to recognize that your own bias might be wrong and to submit it to public checking by people who believe differently.

...For not only is wiping out bias and hate impossible in principle, in practice eliminating prejudice through central authority means eliminating all but one prejudice — that of whoever is most politically powerful.

Editorial note: that's the funny thing about Emerson's image of a transparent eyeball which sees all. In actuality, it would be blind. Perhaps there's a lesson there — an unbiased God's-eye view, rather than making us omniscient, would leave us unable to relate to a human perspective anymore, negating any advantage we hoped to use it for. We have no choice but to rely on each other in all our stunning fallibility.