On Bias and Hyperbole

Bertrand Russell, in his 1918 Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (a free eBook), noted that a person who is inclined to believe in mysticism becomes favorable to any arguments supporting such beliefs:

When the intensity of [mystic] emotional conviction subsides, a man who is in the habit of reasoning will search for logical grounds in favour of the belief which he finds in himself. But since the belief already exists, he will be very hospitable to any ground that suggests itself.

He goes on to note that someone so inclined may too readily agree with reasoning that supports his current beliefs rather than examining the evidence on its own merits:

The impulse to logic, not felt while the mystic mood is dominant, reasserts itself as the mood fades, but with a desire to retain the vanishing insight, or at least to prove that it was insight, and that what seems to contradict it is illusion. The logic which thus arises is not quite disinterested or candid, and is inspired by a certain hatred of the daily world to which it is to be applied. Such an attitude naturally does not tend to the best results. Everyone knows that to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him; and to read the book of Nature with a conviction that it is all illusion is just as unlikely to lead to understanding. If our logic is to find the common world intelligible, it must not be hostile, but must be inspired by a genuine acceptance such as is not usually to be found among metaphysicians.

Preference/inclination/conviction can lead to erroneous thinking. It can also foster persistence, which is crucial when trying to understand something new and difficult. While disinterestedness is not inclined in one direction, it is more inertia than momentum, lacking the passion required to arrive at difficult knowledge. This is why chess lovers are overwhelmingly better at chess than those with no positive feelings towards the game. “Disinterestedness” can also be claimed falsely to disguise bias.

In Rupert Sheldrake’s 1998 article, Experimenter Effects in Scientific Research: How Widely are they Neglected?, the author discusses the “experimenter effect”, namely that experimenters can unknowingly guide their experiments to pre-drawn conclusions. “there is overwhelming evidence that experimenters’ attitudes can influence the outcome of experiments… results tend to be biased in the direction of the experimenters’ expectations.” Experimenters are sometimes either more inclined towards one outcome than they let on— turning over just the rocks they like— or not passionate enough— turning over just the lightweight rocks. Of course, these ills are not limited to experimenters; we are all susceptible.

So both the presence and absence of passion are double-edged swords.

Back in 2004 I ran a site comparing Apple’s and Microsoft’s current operating systems. I don’t need to tell you that was a topic ripe for passionate commentary. I wrote A Note about Bias (pages 4-6 in my PDF of the site) and it still holds true today. I asserted that the issue is not whether we have preferences, but whether we let our preferences inhibit our impartial judgment. Here are a few discussion strategies that indicate impartial judgement is impaired:

  • Is extremely forgiving of the failings of one yet extremely harsh with the failings of the other
  • Changes the subject to reinforce a position
  • Makes apologies, justifications or exceptions for X
  • Omits crucial content that could alter conclusions
  • Exaggerating an issue to strengthen your case

After reading Bertrand’s essay, I’d add another:

  • Takes intellectual shortcuts

Bertrand Russel may have revealed his own bias when he suggested the possibility of biased thinking of the other side —an intellectual shortcut to his own conclusion— rather than provide real evidence to support his position. Bertrand’s impartiality becomes still more suspect when he neglects to highlight the shortcomings of distinterestedness.

Since 2005 I’ve added hyperbole to my vocabulary. What a wonderful word and how critical it is today, as it is everywhere (irony intended). Hyperbole can inject lightheartedness into a discussion, and can convey emotion, as long as everyone knows it is not literally true. Hyperbole is best when used casually; in a formal discussion its drawbacks are magnified. When used in thoughtful debate, hyperbole shuns careful consideration, eroding the conversation. People start believing their own hyperbolic statements. Hyperbole pleads its case solely based on emotion, since factually it is untrue. Hyperbole is popular with fear mongerers and sensationalists. Frequent superlatives are a sure sign of hyperbole: nobody, everybody, forever, never, everywhere, best, worst, most, impossible, etc.

I would rewrite the exaggeration bullet to:

  • Treats hyperbolic statements as factual

The more these strategies pop-up in a conversation, the more likely impartial judgement has been impaired. For me, it’s three strikes and you’re out.

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