Monday, March 19, 2007

Overcoming Bias

Thanks to Alex, I have discovered a thought-provoking blog called Overcoming Bias, hosted by the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.

There is some excellent material on the blog, highly recommended to any POSIWID reader, but I am puzzled by the official agenda.
"Our minds are full of natural tendencies to bias our beliefs via overconfidence, wishful thinking, and so on. Worse, our minds seem to have a natural tendency to convince us we that are aware of and have adequately corrected for such biases, when we have done no such thing. In this forum we discuss whether and how we might avoid this fate, by spending a bit less effort on each specific topic, and a bit more effort on the general topic of how to be less biased. We discuss common patterns of bias and self-deception, statistical and other formal analysis tools, computational and data-gathering aids, and social institutions which may discourage bias and encourage its correction."

In other words, bias is a Bad Thing, and needs to be Overcome. Attention will be focused not on the causes of bias but on remedies for bias. The agenda is largely written in the first person plural - we start by dealing with our own bias, in accordance with the principle taught by Jesus (Matthew 7:5).

I am minded to regard the emphasis on finding (technical) solutions rather than understanding (systemic) problems as itself a form of intellectual bias. We might observe that the Institute was in part funded by James Martin, a noted technology optimist.

I am also minded to regard the agenda of the blog as promoting what Lacan called the Discourse of the University - disinterested, abstract and apparently disembodied knowledge. (Lacan's critique of this discourse indicates hidden subjectivity in the apparently objective.)

However when I browse the actual content of the blog, I find that the contributors have a tendency to talk about the causes of bias rather than the remedies, and to talk about bias in other people rather than themselves. There's an interesting metaproblem there.

The purpose of the Overcoming Bias blog (or for that matter the POSIWID blog) is not what it says it does, but what it does.

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