Individual Bias and Collective Truth?

Freek’s latest post on confirmation bias notes that intellectual commitments can bias which research findings one believes. The tone of the post is that we would all be better off if such biases didn’t exist, but there is definitely a tradeoff here. Greater objectivity tends to go with lower intensity of interest in a subject. (Disinterested and uninterested are correlated, for those old-timers who remember when those words had different definitions.) That’s why you often find that those with strong views on controversial topics–including those with minority or even widely ridiculed opinions–often know more about the topic, the evidence, and the arguments pro and con than “objective” people who can’t be bothered to dig into the matter. Other than partisanship, the only thing that will get people interested enough to seriously assess competing claims is a personal stake in the truth of the matter. (And in all cases, Feynman’s admonition that the easiest person to fool is yourself should be borne in mind.)

Historians of science of all stripes, from romanticists like Paul de Kruif (author of the classic The Microbe Hunters) to sophisticated evolutionists like David Hull in Science as a Process, have reported that intellectual partisanship motivates a great deal of path-breaking research. “I’ll show him!” has spawned a lot of clever experiments. Burning curiosity and bland objectivity are hard to combine.

But how can such partisanship ever lead to intellectual progress? Partisans have committed to high-profile public bets on one or another side of a controversy; their long-term career and immediate emotional payoffs depend not directly on the truth, but on whether or not they “win” in the court of relevant opinion. The key to having science advance is for qualified non-partisan spectators of these disputes be able to act as independent judges to sort out which ideas are better.

Ideally, these adjacent skilled observers would have some skin in the game by virtue of having to bet their own research programs on what they think the truth is. If they choose to believe the wrong side of a dispute, their future research will fail, to their own detriment. That’s the critical form of incentive compatibility for making scientific judgments objective, well-described in Michael Polanyi’s “Republic of Science” article. If, for most observers, decisions about what to believe are closely connected to their own future productivity and scientific reputation, then the partisanship of theory advocates is mostly a positive, motivating exhaustive search for the strengths and weaknesses of the various competing theories. Self-interested observers will sort out the disputes as best they can, properly internalizing the social gains from propounding the truth.

The problem for this system comes when 1) the only scientific interest in a dispute lies among the partisans themselves, or 2) observers’ control over money, public policy, or status flows directly from choosing to believe one side or another regardless of the truth of their findings. Then, if a false consensus forms the only way for it come unstuck is for new researchers to benefit purely from the novelty of their revisionist findings–i.e., enough boredom and disquiet with the consensus sets in that some people are willing to entertain new ideas.

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