Monday, December 10, 2007

Overcoming Bias

There is a post over at Overcoming Bias which was linked from Maggie's Farm. Though I take that post to task here, the site is quite interesting. To name your blog "Overcoming Bias" is to beg to be slapped around by every wanderer who wants to show how clever he is by illustrating your bias. So it takes a fair bit of courage to even show up in the arena. I recall visiting the site some months ago, but I do not recall whether my view was positive or negative then.

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."

My reply:
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.


donnie said...

Dear Assistant Village Idiot,

I like your blog. I clicked over here from your comment on Overcoming Bias, where I am a regular lurker and occasional commenter.

Your comment was thorough, sane, and well-reasoned. It's actually very good writing: precise and forceful, without bluster.

If I may quibble? You really threw your train off the rails at the end with the mention of "semi-innocent" bystanders. There have obviously been many, many just-plain-innocent Iraqis killed directly by US force (especially the Air Force), and many, many more killed by third parties as a result of the whole endeavor. Your argument still stands that the war is made more expensive and difficult by our squeamishness about this, but to call them "semi-innocent" seems to betray a kind of chauvinist, or perhaps racist bias. I do not accuse you of such bias; merely I wish to point out what that phrase implies.

I acknowledge that such a class of people (semi-innocent) may exist, especially in a messy place like Iraq. But certainly they are not the only victims of our "police action."

And, sadly I feel the need to point out (since this is the internet and one is always assumed to be either a raging nazi conservative or a godless pinko fool, based on whether one's argument might be coneivably grouped into either a "liberal" or "conservative" camp), I am no knee-jerk liberal. Merely a pursuer of the truth. As you strike me to be, as well.

Keep up the great blog! I've got it bookmarked.


Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, "overcoming bias," the "blinded by brilliance" cohort.

I will comment on this particular matter as 'anonymous,' because, as most women know, some people are just too smart to deal with. Doesn't mean they're right. Just that they have declared themselves uniquely qualified to define the knock-out punch.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Daniel - point taken. I was trying to point out that not all the supposed innocents killed in Iraq are. There is an untoward percentage of men of military age among those regarded as bystanders. It is too readily assumed that everyone we cannot absolutely demonstrate has been recently shooting at us is an innocent.

But you are correct - by inserting that comment, I implied the opposite: that there are few real innocents among the dead. That is of course not so, and I should not have suggested it.

Thank you for your kind words. We have a small but chummy group over here, and you will rapidly get a sense of some of the usual commenters. Most tend center-right, though we have a few from the moderate left, and an occasional visitor from a more intensely rightwing stance. We used to have a regular far-left commenter who I hope you get to meet.

About one-third of the regulars are known to me in real life.