WHAT IS (UNBIASED) REASONING?


Those whose views are narrow-minded cannot be simply reasoned out of their Bias because it was not reason that caused their Bias in the first place 


A 2010 study* carried out at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland made some speculations, but one conclusion was founded on sound experience: that humans do not use reasoning as a way to expand knowledge and make better decisions as is generally assumed. Rather, human reason is no more than a means to construct arguments for the purpose of persuading others.

 

The problem with this as a social science conclusion is that it argues against itself. If it is true - and my experience is consistent with it – then it must be presumed the reasoning of academic groups would only lead to better ways to influence others, and not result in higher quality insights. Recognizing this issue the Neuchâtel authors supplemented their finding with an analysis of other reports, on related topics, which lead to corollary findings on "Why academic groups are resistant to bias".

 

The additional reports that were selected to support the final conclusion addressed many aspects of human thinking including: how we change our minds; how we persuade; how successful we are at establishing facts in various contexts; whether we are attacking or defending a particular issue; when we are alone and when we are in a group; when the facts are firmly established or perhaps shaded by complexity; and whether we have any investment in the outcome.

 

After analyzing this prior work the report's implied conclusion was that any individual or typical group (meaning you and me) will naturally be biased, caused by a failure to understand their biases, a poor knowledge of statistics, or even a lack of logic. However, when concepts are discussed between those who have different and diverse knowledge and opinions, then each side’s biases will offset each other. A diverse group of experts (meaning the authors and their colleagues) will thereby yield the best solutions.

 

But to an independent observer the issue is exceedingly complex, and the referenced reports have so many assumptions and anomalies, that the scope for bias is overwhelming. The social sciences are not kind to the educated: repeated tests indicate bias is independent of education; and Dr. Laurence J. Peter (of Peter Principle fame - "In any group people will rise to their level of incompetence"), nearly half a century ago, observed: “Education is a method whereby one acquires a higher grade of prejudices”.

 

So how do university faculty stand apart from other groups of people with respect to controlling their biases?

1.    Academic staff members have egoistic biases like the rest of us – perhaps even more so. Bias is influenced by the need to be right, the pressure to hold group opinions, and the desire to influence the thinking patterns of those who rely on their work, including students.

2.    Systemic bias is involved: the staff and students in academia should be selected to produce a diversity of opinions. Currently it is based on the possession of very particular knowledge or specific interview skills. The practice of selecting on a basis of visible group membership should focus instead on the diversity of the ideas the candidates hold. The process of evaluating ideas would likely reveal other valuable insights about a candidate .

3.    Research biases are a known issue at universities. Examples are publication bias, peer pressure bias, focusing bias, complying with the goals of the funding body, and slanting proposals expected to receive funding.    

 

University faculty do have quality assurance procedures to follow but proactive measures against potential biases are evidently not at the top of the list. If academia is to claim immunity to bias, as they currently do, they shoulder the burden of proof to assert that privilege; not simply use questionable reason to conclude they are not.

 

To paraphrase comedian Groucho Marx: There's one way to find out if someone is unbiased (honest): ask them; if they say “yes" you know they're narrow-minded (a crook)! 

 

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* Mercier, Hugo and Sperber, Dan, Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory (June 26, 2010). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011.