Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bias And Science

There is an interesting article at something called the Cultural Cognition Project
I study risk perception and science communication.I’m going to tell you what I regard as the single most consequential insight you can learn from empirical research in these fields if your goal is to promote constructive public engagement with climate science in American society.  
It's this:  
What people “believe” about global warming doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.
He is close. I would not say it reflects who they are. I would say it reflects what tradition they adhere to. I prefer to say it that way because I have changed traditions and I believe I did it without changing who I am. 

The trouble is he goes in a typical direction with it. That is he decides we need to make people think apart from tradition. The trouble is that humans can't do that. What happens when they try and ditch tradition and embrace pure reason is they form another tradition. The difference is they deny it is there. Denying their tradition becomes part of the tradition.

We see this clearly in religion. Sola Scriptura was an attempt to eliminate all tradition, except for scripture which somehow didn't count, and arrive at truth through reason and the bible alone. You end up with lots of Christians who claim they do it. None of them do. All of them are heavily influenced by their church, their family, the school they go to, the radio station they like to listen to, whatever. Those influences push a person's reason in subtle ways so they think they are doing unbiased biblical interpretation but they are not. They all end up in pretty much the same place while they guys in the church church down the street all up in a different place but agreeing with each other. 

Dan Kahan, who writes this Cultural Cognition blog, displays the hallmark of this sort of thing. He wants to fight bias but he has no real recognition of his own bias. He and those who agree with him are using pure reason and it is all those other guys who have problems being biased by their tribe. He is from Yale Law School. Some would see huge bias in that. He does not. The problem is to get everyone to be as rational as he is. The trouble is that those on the other side tell he same tale. They would point to Dan Kahan as the biased one and hope to get him to yield to the light of pure reason.

The single most consequential insight is not what people believe expresses who they are. It is that human reason has a dark side. Reason can make us very sure of something that is false. We base reason on tradition that can make serious errors and we don't know that we have done it. We trust our conclusions so much. We can see the problem in others but cannot see it in ourselves. Dan Kahan does not look at this data and question his own tradition. It is very rare when someone does that. It is always the other guy that made the error. Our logic seems fine. Of course it does. The subtle twists in reasoning are so ingrained into our subconscious we can't see them. 

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