Secondly, bias is more like an onion than like scales of justice. We endeavor to remove a discovered bias in hopes of reaching some point of complete neutrality and objectivity, but what we find is that there were other biases underneath the one we took off. Depressing, really, but there's nothing for it. We must muddle along and do the best we can. I continue to believe that removing a bias in ourselves makes things at least some better.
It is a group blog, and the post linked above is by Eliezer Yudkowsky. In quick summary, he woke up in Sept 2001 and was immediately worried that the reaction to 9-11 would be "ten times worse" than what had happened in the attack. He relates his worry to the quite reasonable idea that when passions are aroused, people will believe any evil and no good about their enemies - to the point of ridiculousness. Notes of caution will be drowned out by the public chorus. It is entitled "When None Dare Urge Restraint."
The longer I consider this post the more it troubles me. Your argument is The American public was destined to overreact to the events of 9-11. Therefore, what they did do must be an overreaction. When I state it that way, you would of course rise in protest – “No, no. What the American response was to 9-11 can be demonstrated to be an overreaction in its own right. That goes without saying.”
Well, it did go without saying, because you didn’t say it. You provide no evidence for either half of the argument and are going in a circle. I could as well write “I woke up on the morning of 9-11 and just knew that even though we are under attack, those buffleheads at Overcoming Bias would underreact.” Then I could define whatever you did as underreacting and prove myself correct, at least in my own mind. Who would choose between us, then, whose actions were over…and whose under?
You may well have offered elsewhere why you believe our responses have been an overreaction, but it is not here or in the linked article that preceeds it. The entire focus of this essay was the groupthink of the public, and how difficult it is to counteract that, combined with (I am sorry to have to say it) your weary superiority. That simply isn’t enough. Worse, the mere fact that it was the focus suggests that this part of the equation predominates over the real question.
That one notices a bandwagon effect and deplores it does not in itself persuade me that it’s a bad bandwagon to be on.
I will note additionally that this is precisely the accusation that conservatives often make against progressives: that they are elitists who “just know” that GW Bush and the neocons are wrong because “everyone knows it,” but when pressed are unable to provide sustained arguments for the premise. You should thus be especially careful not to step in that whole if you hope to persuade. Many commenters on the thread demonstrate the same sloppiness. I don’t hold the host responsible for that, of course, but it may be significant that the same error occurs so frequently in the group.
Thus also with the discussion of courage, which you call the “best example” and wave off counterarguments dismissively. I grant that it takes a modicum of physical courage to face certain death, but let’s not overrate it. The hijackers faced no prospect of pain or even discomfort – they didn’t even deny themselves lap dancers the night before. In a state of excitement for what one believes to be a noble cause, even cowards can nerve themselves up for a few moments, especially under group pressure. That the network itself is cowardly is also easy to demonstrate: they sent a very few to kill many innocents who were unprepared. I take your point that there is a phenomenon by which we will hear no ill of our own and no good of our enemies, but if this is your best example then perhaps you overstate how important this is in group psychology.
Note two: Studies from evolutionary psychology, PTSD, depression, and personality disorders suggests that day-to-day civilization and cooperation is dependent on our wearing blinders. Life is far more painful and dangerous than we could endure if we did not delude ourselves slightly in an overoptimistic way. As events like 9-11 recede in time, we come to regard them as one-off events which should not rule our lives. Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps those events are closer to human reality, and the receding of the fear is reentering the too-rosy narrative we call normalcy. Those who are not directly in harm’s way, then, would be especially likely to underestimate threats.
I doubtless noticed this because I do not believe America’s actions to have been an overreaction. Iraq is not much more than a police action, made outrageously expensive by our insistence on creating as few fatalities as possible, whether our own troops or semi-innocent bystanders. I approve of that insistence despite the expense because it is consonant with our values. But I have every recognition that this is a new way of waging war, made necessary by the impact of media and quick communication on our foreign policy.