Beating your bias

Scientific consensus and the best of the ideologues. Those two phrases represent the best ways that I’ve found so far to beat my own biases.

We all start out biased. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a starting point. It’s better than starting from nowhere and nothing.

But biases aren’t really an entirely good thing either. As biases, they are partial. They get at some piece of the truth, but they exclude things too. Not only do they neglect or ignore some things that we ought to accept, but they actively oppose us to those things, incline us to fight against what we should embrace. As long as that’s our position, we are warped, misshapen intellectual monstrosities.

Insofar as we can beat our own biases, we end up miles ahead of everyone else who hasn’t even managed to do that much yet. Trying to find a way to escape your biases is the most basic level of clear thinking. But even just doing that demands huge effort.

And I know there are some people who have no desire to escape their biases and are proud of it, and will scold anyone for having such an outdated desire in the first place. They will have no interest in what I wish to say, and I am happy to leave them, in turn, to their devices.

But if we want to start to extricate ourselves from bias, there are two things I’ve found to be most helpful. Firstly, a respect for expert consensus. It’s not necessarily a good idea to accept at face value everything said by a person with letters after their name, though if that’s all a person has access to it’s better than nothing. But much better is to see what consensus exists in a field, and commit beforehand to accepting it as the best that can be said at this point (at least from the perspective of that one field; often different fields will contribute different perspectives on a single question, which need to be integrated together as much as possible). We as non-experts aren’t in a position to judge between experts who disagree with one another, but the consensus within a field shows how the people who are experts pass judgement on such disputes. Expert consensus can certainly be wrong, but it is the best we have in any given moment. By following the consensus rather than hand selecting the experts we want to believe, we eliminate a lot of the contamination our biases can introduce.

And beyond that, it is good to try to find the best representatives of an opposing view and learn as much truth from them as it is possible to find. It’s a way to trick our minds into opening up beyond the point they are usually capable of. This doesn’t necessarily take us out of our biases, but it certainly begins to broaden our views in a powerful way. Find the best libertarians and see what intelligent things they have to say. Find the best socialists, conservatives, progressives, reactionaries, pacifists, militarists, atheists, theists. It is amazing how much there is in apparently opposite viewpoints that can be extracted and drawn together.

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