Bias Against Speculation?
By Bryan Caplan
Robin Hanson recently discussed research finding that atheists are widely disliked because people see them as less trustworthy. He then posed a logical followup question: “So are atheists actually less trustworthy?” and offered a tentative answer: “I’d guess that they are, but that the difference is less than people think.”
To my surprise, Robin’s answer sparked quite a backlash. From the comments on Overcoming Bias:
I’d be very, very hesitant to make that claim without some actual proof. (Brett)
“Guessing” that Athiests are less
trustworthy than the religious and requiring evidence to prove
otherwise (rather than starting from a null hypothesis that there is no
difference) is bigotry, plain and simple. Replace “atheist” with
“black” in the above post and comments if this isn’t readily clear to
I see clearly that this blog is run by a bigot, and that many of his
followers are as well. I’ll be unsubscribing now and hope anyone else
who feels that they can be “good without god” does as well. (Locklin)
You could interpret Robin’s critics as simply calling for greater sensitivity.* But I sense a more fundamental complaint. Namely: Robin is “biased” because he freely shares his speculation. The fact that he explicitly distinguishes between (a) claims backed up by research, and (b) his best guess, is no excuse. A truly unbiased person, apparently, would either base every assertion on research or remain agnostic and silent. (This position is similar to one held by most academic economists, but they’re more likely to distinguish between what they can “say as scientists” and what they really think).
But what’s wrong with freely sharing your speculation? On the Bayesian definition of rationality, beliefs are inevitably a combination of your initial speculation (“prior”) and the evidence. You cannot not speculate. Guessing that theists and atheists are equally trustworthy is just as speculative as guessing that they’re not. Given this inevitability, it seems better for people to expose their speculation to public criticism instead of pretending that their beliefs are based on “evidence alone.” If you want to “overcome bias,” you will reward candor, not feigned agnosticism.
That’s my speculation, anyway.
Challenge: As long as speculation is clearly labeled, shouldn’t truth-seekers want people to freely speculate? If not, why not?
*He actually updated his post to note that he is an atheist, appealing to the norm that you can speak more frankly about groups you identify with.