Click below for the more-or-less self-explanatory slides for my 2019 Earth week talk at BC.
The idea that everyone is biased has become cliché. As things go with cliché, our thinking about bias has become highly distorted. Standard definitions of bias take bias to be a prejudice or inclination to favorably or unfavorably judge some things, people or ideas. My focus here will just be bias about ideas, or ideological bias. To be biased in our belief or ideology is one way of being unreasonable. Where we are biased, we evaluate some idea on grounds other than good reasons. Perhaps nobody is completely reasonable. But people can be more reasonable or less so. Some people work quite diligently to overcome their biases. Others are quite averse to even trying. The notion that everyone is biased tends to obscure this.
The notion that everyone is biased is often buttressed on the grounds that everyone has their own perspective. But this is not quite accurate. At the core of our capacity to be reasonable is our ability to appreciate multiple perspectives. I may see things one way, but I can listen to another person and gain some appreciation for how they see things. Or I can have a new experience myself and acquire a new perspective more directly. But in any case, perspective doesn’t entail bias. Take an instance of commonplace visual perspective. People sitting around a table will all have different perspectives on the shape of the table. No prejudice is involved here. In fact, there is an important sense in which all of their perspectives are accurate. Obliquely trapezoidal is how the table in fact appears from my visual perspective. But then we can communicate our various perspectives, do some complicated geometry and figure out what these various perspectives indicate about the actual shape of the table. Better yet, in this case we can get up walk around the table and take it in from different perspectives ourselves. And of course, our minds have learned from early on to make quite reliable (unbiased) inferences about the shapes of tables and many other things on the basis of quite limited perspectives. So, perspective can present some obstacles to unbiased judgment, but these are routinely overcome by incorporating the evidence of multiple perspectives and making reliable inferences from these.
The obstacles we face to correcting for the illusions and distortions of perspective are more challenging in other realms. We are creatures of habit intellectually. We frequently get stuck on beliefs in ways that lead us to ignore alternative views and good reasons for preferring these. I think the problem here is twofold. We often suffer from a lack of skill in evaluating reasons. And this is often reinforced in intellectually unhealthy ways by various forms of attachment, often enough simple self-righteousness.
When people lack well developed critical thinking skills, they have a tendency to evaluate reasons as good or bad depending on how they feel about the view at issue. When we don’t know how to evaluate the arguments in favor or against a belief, we are highly liable to deem arguments good when they support the belief and bad when they don’t. This is hardly surprising. When a person lacks the skill needed to understand and evaluate an argument, what would they have to go on except what they have previously taken to be true. So, lack of critical thinking skill is one source of intellectual bias. If we don’t know how to correct a wayward belief, we probably won’t do it.
Often enough though, a person does have some critical thinking ability, maybe enough to do a better job of evaluating the arguments, but refrains from exercising that ability effectively due to an attachment to a view that might be threatened. Attachments can lead us to exercise our critical thinking skills poorly. The roots of our intellectual attachments are varied, but there are a few we are all susceptible to. First, it’s nice to be right. We are often praised or admired for getting things right. And many of us find being wrong highly distressing. We might feel ashamed. It can make us look a bit foolish after all. So, self-righteousness comes naturally for reasons that aren’t hard to understand.
Along with the praise and disparagement we come in for when we are deemed to get things right or wrong, we have a social tendency to gather together into groups on the basis of shared perspectives and beliefs. And then, a sense of belonging with the group becomes a further source of attachment to the shared view of things. Herein lie the roots of tribalism. Bias is further entrenched as, ironically, our powerful social desire not to appear foolish makes us, in fact, more foolish. This is a tragic predicament. There must be a way out.
Happily, if our diagnosis is right, it also points to the cure. If intellectual bias is the product of a lack of critical thinking skill and attachment, the way to avoid this kind of bias is similarly straightforward. Develop your critical thinking skills and get comfortable with relinquishing your intellectual attachments. That is, develop some skill at recognizing when you should change your mind and some comfort and willingness to change your mind. Some people do this. In fact, some people do this extraordinarily well. But just doing it well would suffice for most things. In any case, some people really do care more about being reasonable and seeking truth than appearing to be right, and they have, accordingly, invested some significant effort in figuring out how to figure things out.
A shared commitment to truth and reasonableness can provide a healthier foundation for community and mutual regard than grouping together in the tribalistic fashion around attachment to belief and ideology. And a community of truth seekers is far more welcoming of diverse ways of thinking than a community built around ideology. Diversity of perspective enriches the pool of evidence and argument we have to reason from. Carrying this off successfully does require giving up our self-righteous tendencies. Membership in the community of seekers after truth presumes a recognition of our own fallibility, some admission that as seekers after the truth, we don’t yet have it all figured out. Relinquishing self-righteousness in favor of intellectual humility takes the sting out of getting it wrong once in a while. In this way, communities of critically minded truth seekers grant space for openness, relaxed good humor and shared joy in learning. And this may be why critical thinking belongs at the core of education.