Tag Archives: bias

Bernard Davis

In The Mismeasure of Man Gould fails to live up to the trust engendered by his credentials. His historical account is highly selective; he asserts the non-objectivity of science so that he can test for scientific truth, flagrantly, by the standards of his own social and political convictions; and by linking his critique to the quest for fairness and justice, he exploits the generous instincts of his readers. Moreover, while he is admired as a clear writer, in the sense of effective communication, he is not clear in the deeper sense of analyzing ideas sharply and with logical rigor, as we have a right to expect of a disciplined scientist.

It has been uncomfortable to dissect a colleague’s book and his background so critically. But I have felt obliged to do so because Gould’s public influence, well-earned for his popular writing on less political questions, is being put to mischievous political use in this book. Moreover, its success undermines the ideal of objectivity in scientific expositions, and also reflects a chronic problem of literary publications. My task has been all the more unpleasant because I do not doubt Gould’s sincerity in seeking a more just and generous world, and I thoroughly share his conviction that racism remains one of the greatest obstacles.

Unfortunately, the approach that Gould has used to combat racism has serious defects. Instead of recognizing the value of eliminating bias, his answer is to press for equal and opposite bias, in a virtuous direction—not recognizing the irony and the danger of thus subordinating science to fashions of the day. Moreover, as a student of evolution he might have been expected to build on a profound insight of modern genetics and evolutionary biology: that the human species, and each race within it, possesses a wide range of genetic diversity. But instead of emphasizing the importance of recognizing that diversity, Gould remains locked in combat with a prescientific, typological view of heredity, and this position leads him to oppose studies of behavioral genetics altogether. As the reviewer for Nature stated, The Mismeasure of Man is “a book which exemplifies its own thesis. It is a masterpiece of propaganda, researched in the service of a point of view rather than written from a fund of knowledge.”

In effect, we see here Lysenkoism risen again: an effort to outlaw a field of science because it conflicts with a political dogma. To be sure, the new version is more limited in scope, and it does not use the punitive powers of a totalitarian state, as Trofim Lysenko did in the Soviet Union to suppress all of genetics between 1935 and 1964. But that is not necessary in our system: A chilling atmosphere is quite sufficient to prevent funding agencies, investigators, and graduate students from exploring a taboo area. And such Neo-Lysenkoist politicization of science, from both the left and the right, is likely to grow, as biology increasingly affects our lives—probing the secrets of our genes and our brain, reshaping our image of our origins and our nature, and adding new dimensions to our understanding of social behavior. When ideologically committed scientists try to suppress this knowledge they jeopardize a great deal, for without the ideal of objectivity science loses its strength.

Bernard Davis, ‘Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the Press’, The Public Interest, vol. 74 (Fall 1983), pp. 57-59

Edward Thorp

As I finally had some capital from playing blackjack and from book sales, I decided to let it grow through investing while I focused on family and my academic career. I bought one hundred shares at $40 and watched the stock decline over the next two years to $20 a share, losing half of my $4,000 investment. I had no idea when to sell. I decided to hang on until the stock returned to my original purchase price, so as not to take a loss. This is exactly what gamblers do when they are losing and insist on playing until they get even. It took four years, but I finally got out with my original $4,000. Fifty years later, legions of tech stock investors shared my experience, waiting fifteen years to get even after buying near the top on March 10, 2000.

Years later, discussing my Electric Autolite purchase with Vivian as we drove home from lunch, I asked, “What were my mistakes?”

She almost read my mind as she said, “First, you bought something you didn’t really understand, so it was no better or worse than throwing a dart into the stock market list. Had you bought a low-load mutual fund [no-load funds weren’t available yet] you would have had the same expected gain but less expected risk.” I thought the story about Electric Autolite meant it was a superior investment. That thinking was wrong. As I would learn, most stock-picking stories, advice, and recommendations are completely worthless.

Then Vivian remarked on my second mistake in thinking, my plan for getting out, which was to wait until I was even again. What I had done was focus on a price that was of unique historical significance to me, only me, namely, my purchase price. Behavioral finance theorists, who have in recent decades begun to analyze the psychological errors in thinking that persistently bedevil most investors, call this anchoring (of yourself to a price that has meaning to you but not to the market). Since I really had no predictive power, any exit strategy was as good or bad as any other. Like my first mistake, this error was in the way I thought about the problem of when to sell, choosing an irrelevant criterion—the price I paid—rather than focusing on economic fundamentals like whether cash or alternative investments would serve me better.

Anchoring is a subtle and pervasive aberration in investment thinking. For instance, a former neighbor, Mr. Davis (as I shall call him), saw the market value of his house rise from his purchase price of $2,000,000 or so in the mid-1980s to $3,500,000 or so when luxury home prices peaked in 1988–89. Soon afterward, he decided he wanted to sell and anchored himself to the price of $3,500,000. During the next ten years, as the market price of his house fell back to $2,200,000 or so, he kept trying to sell at his now laughable anchor price. At last, in 2000, with a resurgent stock market and a dot-com-driven price rise in expensive homes, he escaped at $3,250,000. In his case, as often happens, the thinking error of anchoring, despite the eventual sale price he achieved, left him with substantially less money than if he had acted otherwise.

Mr. Davis and I used to jog together occasionally and chat about his favorite topics, money and investments. Following my recommendation, he joined a limited partnership that itself allocated money to limited partnerships, so-called hedge funds, which it believed were likely to make superior investments. His expected rate of return after paying his income taxes on the gains was about 10 percent per year, with considerably more stability in the value of the investment than was to be found in residential real estate or the stock market. I advised him to sell his house at current market just after the 1988–89 peak. He would have received perhaps $3,300,000 and then, as was his plan, moved to a $1,000,000 house. After costs and taxes he would have ended up with an additional $1,600,000 to invest. Putting this into the hedge fund he had already joined at my recommendation, the money would have grown at 10 percent per year for eleven years, becoming $4,565,000. Add that to the $1,000,000 house, whose market price would have declined, then recovered, and Mr. Davis would have had $5,565,000 in 2000 instead of the $3,250,000 he ended up with.

I’ve seen my own anchoring mistake repeatedly made by real estate buyers and sellers, as well as in everyday situations. As I was driving home one day in heavy traffic, an SUV forced its way in front of me, giving me a choice of yielding or “maintaining my rights” and having a fender bender. Since I receive these invitations daily, I saw no need to accept this one for fear I would miss out. The SUV was in “my” space (anchoring: I’ve attached myself to an abstract moving location that has a unique historical meaning to me, and am allowing it to dictate my driving behavior). We were now lined up about seventy cars deep in the most notoriously slow left-turn lane in Newport Beach. Ordinarily the road is two lanes wide, but construction had narrowed it to one, and the complex sequence of light changes allowed only about twenty cars through on each two-minute cycle. What if, when we finally got to the signal, the evil SUV was the last one through the yellow? Since it was really “my” space, was I justified in risking an accident by rolling through on the red? Otherwise, the time thief gains two minutes at my expense. The temptation may sound as foolish to you as it does in cold print to me, but I see this kind of behavior regularly.

Having learned the folly of anchoring from my investment experience, I have seen that it can be equally foolish on the road. Being a more rational investor has made me a more rational driver!

Edward Thorp, A Man for All Markets: From Las Vegas to Wall Street, How I Beat the Dealer and the Market, New York, 2017, pp. 146-148

Paul Bloom

Don’t try to establish equality and justice by raising others up to the level of those you love. Don’t try to make them more weighty. Rather, make yourself less weighty. Bring everyone to the same level by diminishing yourself. Put yourself, and those you love, on the level of strangers.

We see this sort of advice spelled out by Bertrand Russell, who says that when we read the newspaper, we ought to substitute the names of countries, including our own, to get a more fair sense of what’s going on. Take “Israel” and replace it with “Bolivia,” replace “United States” with “Argentina,” and so on. (Perhaps even better would be to use arbitrary symbols: X, Y, and Z.) This is an excellent way to remove bias.

Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, New York, 2016, p. 109

Ludwig Wittgenstein

[Freud] always stresses what great forces in the mind, what strong prejudices work against the idea of psycho-analysis. But he never says what an enormous charm that idea has for people, just as it has for Freud himself. There may be strong prejudices against uncovering something nasty, but sometimes it is infinitely more attractive than it is repulsive.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted in Normal Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford, 1958, p. 39

C. D. Broad

I must confess that I am not the kind of person whom I like, but I do not think that that source of prejudice has made me unfair to myself. If there should be others who have roses to strew, they can now do so without feeling the need to make embarrassing qualifications.

C. D. Broad, ‘Autobiography’, in Arthur Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of C. D. Broad, New York, 1959, p. 68

Nick Cooney

Consider for a moment how you came to be doing the type of activist work you’re doing now. Which of the following better describes what led you down this path?

(a) One day, or perhaps over a period of time, you thought to yourself: “I don’t like suffering and injustice. I don’t like unnecessary death and destruction. How can I reduce as much suffering and destruction of life as possible?”

(b) Personal or circumstantial reasons led you to do the type of work you do: the issue is interesting to you, the issue affects you and your loved ones personally, your friends are involved in this type of work, you had been hearing about it a lot in the media, etc.

Chances are that most of us came to be involved in the work we’re doing for personal or circumstantial reasons. It’s much rarer that someone will make a dispassionate decision to try to create as much change as possible, as described in scenario (a).

Nick Cooney, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us about Creating Social Change, New York, 2011, p. 20

Dan Moller

When earlier versions of this paper were presented (initially in 2003), the author discovered, to his amazement, that audiences varied quite consistently in their receptiveness depending on whether the central example was abortion or vegetarianism. The hostility to philosophical arguments raising a problem specifically with abortion was palpable. Perhaps this is due to intrinsic features of the arguments, or perhaps it is related to the lack of cognitive diversity in many philosophy departments.

Dan Moller, ‘Abortion and Moral Risk’, Philosophy, vol. 86, no. 3 (July, 2011), p. 426.

Darrell Huff

It is worth keeping in mind also that the dependability of a sample can be destroyed just as easily by invisible sources of bias as by these visible ones. That is, even if you can’t find a source of demonstrable bias, allow yourself some degree of skepticism about the results as long as there is a possibility of bias somewhere.

Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics, New York, 1954, p. 19

Nate Silver

You should work to reduce your biases, but to say you have none is a sign that you have many.

Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, New York, 2012, p. 451

Nick Beckstead

[O]ur moral judgments are less reliable than many would hope, and this has specific implications for methodology in normative ethics. Three sources of evidence indicate that our intuitive ethical judgments are less reliable than we might have hoped: a historical record of accepting morally absurd social practices; a scientific record showing that our intuitive judgments are systematically governed by a host of heuristics, biases, and irrelevant factors; and a philosophical record showing deep, probably unresolvable, inconsistencies in common moral convictions. I argue that this has the following implications for moral theorizing: we should trust intuitions less; we should be especially suspicious of intuitive judgments that fit a bias pattern, even when we are intuitively condent that these judgments are not a simple product of the bias; we should be especially suspicious of intuitions that are part of inconsistent sets of deeply held convictions; and we should evaluate views holistically, thinking of entire classes of judgments that they get right or wrong in broad contexts, rather than dismissing positions on the basis of a small number of intuitive counterexamples.

Nick Beckstead, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future, doctoral dissertation, University of Rutgers, New Brunswick, 2013, p. 19

Dan Ariely

In sports, […] arguments are not particularly damaging—in fact, they can be fun. The problem is that these same biased processes can influence how we experience other aspects of our world. These biased processes are in fact a major source of escalation in almost every conflict, whether Israeli-Palestinian, American-Iraqi, Serbian-Croatian, or Indian-Pakistani.

In all these conflicts, individuals from both sides can read similar history books and even have the same facts taught to them, yet it is very unusual to find individuals who would agree about who started the conflict, who is to blame, who should make the next concession, etc. In such matters, our investment in our beliefs is much stronger than any affiliation to sport teams, and so we hold on to these beliefs tenaciously. Thus the likelihood of agreement about “the facts” becomes smaller and smaller as personal investment in the problem grows. This is clearly disturbing. We like to think that sitting at the same table together will help us hammer out our differences and that concessions will soon follow. But history has shown us that this is an unlikely outcome; and now we know the reason for this catastrophic failure.

But there’s reason for hope. In our experiments, tasting beer without knowing about the vinegar, or learning about the vinegar after the beer was tasted, allowed the true flavor to come out. The same approach should be used to settle arguments: The perspective of each side is presented without the affiliation—the facts are revealed, but not which party took which actions. This type of “blind” condition might help us better recognize the truth.

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, New York, 2008, pp. 171-172

Daniel Gilbert

There are many different techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing facts, and different techniques often lead to different conclusions, which is why scientists disagree about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of supply-side economics, and the wisdom of low-carbohydrate diets. Good scientists deal with this complication by choosing the techniques they consider most appropriate and then accepting the conclusions that these techniques produce, regardless of what those conclusions might be. But bad scientists take advantage of this complication by choosing techniques that are especially likely to produce the conclusions they favour, thus allowing them to reach favoured conclusions by way of supportive facts. Decades of research suggests that when it comes to collecting and analyzing facts about ourselves and our experiences, most of us have the equivalent of an advanced degree in Really Bad Science.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, New York, 2005, p. 164

James Ladyman and Don Ross, with David Spurrett and John Collier

Attaching epistemic significance to metaphysical intuitions is anti-naturalist for two reasons. First, it requires ignoring the fact that science, especially physics, has shown us that the universe is very strange to out inherited conception of what it is like. Second, it requires ignoring central implications of evolutionary theory, and of the cognitive and behavioural sciences, concerning the nature of our minds.

James Ladyman and Don Ross, with David Spurrett and John Collier, Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, Oxford, 2007, p. 10

Arthur Jensen

Outside the sphere of psychometrics and differential psychology, my attitude toward [Stephen Jay] Gould was largely positive. I admired and supported his battle against creationist efforts to demote Darwinian thinking in high school biology courses and textbooks. When it comes to human variation in psychological or behavioral traits, however, Gould himself seemed to be a creationist rather than an evolutionist. I regard differential psychology as a branch of human biology, and I would have hoped that Gould did also. Too bad he never wrote an autobiography, which might have explained the origins of his antipathy toward psychometrics, the g factor, and their relevance to advancing the scientific study of human differences. That would have been most interesting.

Arthur Jensen, in Frank Miele, Intelligence, Race, and Genetics: Conversations with Arthur R. Jensen, Boulder, Colorado, 2002, p. 156

Eliezer Yudkowsky

The Spanish flu of 1918 killed 25-50 million people. World War II killed 60 million people; 107 is the order of the largest catastrophes in humanity’s written history. Substantially larger numbers, such as 500 million deaths, and especially qualitatively different scenarios such as the extinction of the entire human species, seem to trigger a different mode of thinking—enter into a ‘separate magisterium’. People who would never dream of hurting a child hear of an existential risk, and say, ‘Well, maybe the human species doesn’t really deserve to survive.’

Eliezer Yudkowsky, ‘Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgement of Global Risks’, in Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Ćirković (eds.), Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford, 2008, p. 114

Jennifer Nagel

A more detailed understanding of the biases that afflict spontaneous epistemic judgments could assist philosophers wondering which epistemic intuitions to trust.

Jennifer Nagel, ‘Epistemic Intuitions’, Philosophy Compass, vol. 2, no. 6 (November, 2007), p. 814

Simon Blackburn

I’m very suspicious of the professional ethical scene, which I think has to concentrate on issues of often obsessive importance to certain kinds of middle-class Americans. For example, you find probably 10 articles in the ethical journals on the rights and wrongs of abortions for one article you find on the distribution of resources to healthcare, for example, between the poor and the rich, which seems to me a far more important problem: the fact that the rich command all the health resources available. So, if I were to become a first-order moralist, on these matters, I’d become a first-order political theorist. It seems to me that actually the fundamental moral problem faced in the world is the distribution of wealth. It has nothing to do with whether women should have control over their bodies, or if we should be allowed to red pornography, or whatever might be. These things are side shows. The real ethical issues are the different life-expectancies in different countries, and the different access to the necessities in life [for different] people.

Simon Blackburn, ‘Quasi-Realism in Moral Philosophy, ethic@, vol. 1, no. 2 (December, 2002), p. 114

Colin McGinn

It is by no means inconceivable that the special character of our art and our personal relationships depends upon the cognitive biases and limits that prevent us handling philosophical problems, so that philosophical aptitude would deprive our lives of much of their point. Philosophy might require even more self-sacrifice than has traditionally been conceded.

Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993, p. 156

Florentino Ameghino

Preguntadle a un inglés: ¿cuál es la raza humana más perfecta? La sajona, responderá imperturbablemente. Haced la misma pregunta a un francés o a un italiano, y os contestará: la latina. Si interrogáis a un chino, sus compatriotas constituyen la raza más perfecta y el pueblo más avanzado de la tierra; a los europeos llámanlos con desprecio los bárbaros de Occidente. Así, si nosotros preguntáramos: ¿cuál de los diferentes grupos de mamíferos puede considerarse el más perfecto y cuál de ellos tiene derecho a figurar a la cabeza del reino animal? El hombre, nos contestarían unánimes. Nuestro voto formaría una nota discordante en medio del concordante coro.

Quizá si pudiéramos hacer la misma pregunta a un elefante, a un león o a un caballo y ellos pudieran contestarnos, tendríamos una segunda edición de las contestaciones del inglés, el francés, el chino y el italiano; pero como esto no es posible, vamos a reemplazarlos, figurándonos por momentos que somos un proboscídeo que va a examinar el raro bípedo o un león que contempla una media docena de víctimas distintas para hacerse una idea de la presa de más alto precio.

Florentino Ameghino, Filogenia, Buenos Aires, 1884, pp. 115-116

Bertrand Russell

Carlyle remarked: “The population of England is twenty millions, mostly fools.” Everybody who read this considered himself one of the exceptions, and therefore enjoyed the remark.

Bertrand Russell, ‘How to Become a Man of Genius’, Hearst Newspaper, 1932