Avoiding Biases: Lessons from Michael Huemer
The featured image of this post is a photograph I took two weeks ago less than a mile from my home in Maine. It is only illustrative but, I think, powerfully illustrative.
In evaluating the truth, objectivity requires one to check one’s own biases. It is not absolutely impossible that in an advanced society with multiple independent officials and checks against election fraud (as opposed to a banana republic), the government’s party steals an election. It is not absolutely impossible either that the opposition steals the election, as some claim happened in the 2020 federal elections. It is however very unlikely. This remains true if one—like your humble blogger—does not like the party that actually won.
In his recent introduction to philosophy for college students, Knowledge, Reality, and Value: A Mostly Common Sense Guide to Philosophy (self-published, 2021), University of Colorado’s Michael Huemer offers interesting thoughts on rationality and the difficulty but necessity of avoiding biases. A few quotes from chapter 3 on Critical Thinking:
Rationality is the master intellectual virtue, the one that subsumes all the others. (p. 32)
Objectivity, like all other intellectual virtues, is part of rationality. The character trait of objectivity is a disposition to resist bias, and hence to base one’s beliefs on the objective facts. The main failures of objectivity are cases where your beliefs are overly influenced by your personal interests, emotions, or desires, or by how the phenomenon in the world is related to you, as opposed to how the external world is independent of you. (p. 32)
The purpose of intellectual discussion is promoting truth (for yourself and others). If your view can’t survive when you treat the opposing views fairly, then that pretty much means your view is wrong. As a rational thinker, you want your beliefs to be true, so you should welcome the opportunity to discover if your own current view is wrong; then you can eliminate a mistaken belief and move closer to the truth. If you are afraid to confront the strongest opposing views, represented in the fairest way possible, that means that you suspect that your own beliefs are not up to the challenge, which means you already suspect that your beliefs are false. (p. 34)
The human mind is not really designed for discovering abstract, philosophical truths. Our natural tendency is to try to advance our own interests or the interests of the group we identify with, and we tend to treat intellectual issues as a proxy battleground for that endeavor. Again, we don’t expressly decide to do this; we do it automatically unless we are making a concerted, conscious effort not to. And naturally, when we do this, we form all sorts of false beliefs, because reality does not adjust itself to whatever is convenient for our particular social faction. (p. 35)
If you can only maintain your beliefs by being biased or irrational, then your beliefs are almost certainly wrong. (p. 38)
Irrationality and bias can support any ideology, including your opponents’. Nazis, Marxists, flat-Earthers, and partisans of any other crazy or evil view can base their beliefs on irrational biases, and there is no way to reason them out of it if you’ve rejected rationality and objectivity. So don’t attack objectivity and rationality. Unless you’re an asshole and you just want intellectual chaos. (p. 39)
Also, by the way, collect information from the most sophisticated sources, not (as most people do) the most entertaining sources. (p. 39)
Dogmatism is probably the most common kind of failure of objectivity. (p. 40)
A related quote from Huemer’s book (p. 303), which co-blogger Bryan Caplan reproduced in his recent Econlog series on Knowledge, Reality, and Value:
If you have a philosophical view (or any view really), and you know that a lot of smart people disagree with it, you really need to think about why they disagree. And I don’t mean “Because they’re jerks” or “Because they’re evil.” What you need to think about are the best reasons someone could have for disagreeing. If you can’t think of any, then you probably haven’t thought or read enough about the issue; you should then go look up some intelligent opponents and see what they say. And I don’t mean television pundits or celebrities on Twitter. The best defenders of a view are usually academics who have written books about it. You should then think seriously about those objections and whether they might be correct. If you don’t find them persuasive, try to figure out why. This is the part of rational thought that most human beings tend to skip.
I confess I have sinned before, but I think I am better at controlling my own biases than when I was younger. It remains a work in progress.