The hardest thing with encountering bias is forgiving the person who holds it, especially if it is yourself.
It isn’t easy for people to look at their own prejudices. It also is hard to think of ourselves as believing in something that isn’t true. This is why folks surround themselves with like-minded people, and before long find that they are living in an echo-chamber of their own ideas. It feels good to belong, and so people (myself included) will avoid looking at things that clash with our ideas and ideals.
Eventually there comes a point where you may find yourself in a loop of rationalization, twisting facts and memories to better suit you. At this point, you have an opportunity. You can do nothing, continue on as you have before, and retreat to your echo-chamber. Or you can question your own ideas, challenge them and see if they hold up under scrutiny.
There is a thin line between being committed to an idea, and dogma.
The notion of looking at things dispassionately, without outside influences can seem cold and heartless at first. It can open your mind to new ideas however, and give you perspectives different from what you are used to. Intellectual honesty comes with the price of eating a healthy portion of crow from time to time. It is embarrassing to admit that you have been wrong, or deceived.
Recognizing bias in others
Spotting bias is like spotting a toupee. There are some really horrible and obvious ones that stick out! The subtle ones are harder to spot.
So here are some to the ways to spot bias, and how to evaluate their statements.
- Look for hidden premises. Facts are easily checked, but often times people will replace or suppositions or hypotheses for other evidence. These can be as subtle: “if rich people have more money, they will spend more and make the economy better.” The premise may sound plausible, but is untested or untestable. Which brings us to…
- Unfalsifiable beliefs. I find that an important question to ask is “what will change this person’s mind?” If there is nothing that will change a persons mind about a topic, then you are likely dealing with a dogma rather than a rational belief.
- Controversial ideas. Is the idea widely accepted? Does it go against conventional wisdom? If it does, it doesn’t mean that it is wrong, but people love to play the underdog. With these, there will likely be an underlying hypothesis that needs to be examined or tested. In these cases you may find that they have cherry-picked evidence from disreputable sources, and outright ignore what scientific consensus says. (For example: anti-vaccination movement trusts Jenny McCarthy rather than the American Medical Association)
- Underlying investment. This is a pretty broad category. Would you trust a study denying cancer cases from a tobacco company? How about a parent defending the innocence of their child? Emotional involvement is a tough nut to crack, and you may find that people will reject anything that goes against it.
Overcoming personal bias
Very few people choose what they believe. Rather, they take what they were handed by their cultures/parents/peers and then they rationalize it to themselves. It is easy to distort other positions in support of your own ideology. Personally, I don’t think that it is possible to completely strip away bias and look at the world without any expectations.
It is possible to start to strip away some of the bias that is handed to us. Start with something small, because the more you have invested in something, the harder it will be to change your mind. Start asking questions, and make sure you look from answers from both sides of the debate. As you do this longer and longer, you will find that you are starting to spot logical fallacies more easily. A word of caution: everyone slips up from time to time, and you will find bad arguments and evidence on any side of a debate.
We are all moved to protect ourselves. Try to notice when you are protecting an idea, rather than improving on your understanding. Changing your mind isn’t easy. You will end up feeling embarrassed as hell, but making mistakes is part of being human. You will be a better person for the effort.