The Dongola Times

(Anachronistic) Dispatches from the Kingdom of Makuria.
25th of July, 2014

On Choosing Biases Wisely

Biases are the axioms of a thinker.
I remember when I had just encountered the New Atheists, and one of their popular websites at the time was called “Overcoming Bias”. They presented the having of biases as a bad idea. This was typical of the New Atheists: they know very little about the foundations of logic, and they fell in the trap that the logical positivists before them had fallen in. I think around that time, Theodore Dalrymple wrote a good argument against bias-phobia. But it need not be Dalrymple; it could have been Gödel.

Either way, you have to figure out your axioms. You have to figure out your biases. It matters, because your biases literally determine what World you live in. On the Internet, the only practical censorship is ultimately personal bias. You do not read what you do not want to read. But that is as serious as not reading what the authorities do not want you to read. Confirmation biases, in particular, are important tools for the processes of the human mind, and they deserve to be understood and even consciously deployed. For instance, if we knew that self-esteem is essetially egoistic-bias, we are bound to expect people to over-estimate themselves, be blind to their weaknesses, consider themselves more-moral than they actually are, and yet hold themselves to a lower, “more-understanding” moral standard, et cetera. This is to be expected of any person or group that has self-esteem—individual, family, or state. Self-esteem is considered a good thing; it is apparently a bias that is accepted, in spite of the objective irrelevance (and even falseness) of it.

Now, personally, I spend quite a lot of time seeing and reaing things against which I am very biased. But that is not a problem, as long as you know and respect your biases, not as things to overcome, but as pre-determined guides to what must be ultimately true, in spite of what may be alleged in the current case, or even proven for a special case. In particular, since I am aware of my biases, I know when I should actually spend time accessing information, based on whether I am bound to ignore it anyway. There are some benefits for personal efficiency there.

But more-importantly, I know the biases I have, and that puts me ahead of those who do not know their own biases. But even better, I do not pretend about my biases. They don’t have to be justified, or justifiable in other terms. (Which axioms are also theorems?) More-importantly, nobody has to be ashamed of being biased, or even of what biases one has. We are made that way. That we are also fallen is an entirely-separate matter.