Critical Thinking and Bias

The reason bias is such a frequent topic of conversation in both critical thinking and politics is because it is an issue all of us grasp intuitively.  Unlike other critical-thinking tools which need to be learned, bias is something that so permeates and surrounds us that most of us simply “know it when we see it” (especially when we see it in others).

But, as I mentioned during this week’s podcast, bias is not something we should be ashamed of since many biases – called cognitive biases – are part of the human condition.  In fact, there are over 100 such cognitive biases that we can all fall prey to simply because of the way our brains are wired.

The most significant cognitive bias that impacts how we think about politics is confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and believe information that conforms to existing pre-conceptions and dismiss or reject information that challenges these closely held beliefs.

As Kevin deLaplante describes in this podcast (and I highly recommend you listen to his entire series), systems such as science have developed tools and processes to try to overcome confirmation bias (via experiments such as double-blind tests).  But politics has no similar formal filters, meaning that most of us still gravitate towards and accept those newspapers, radio and TV shows, blogs and other online sources that tell us what we want to hear, while dismissing comparable media sources that we don’t agree with as horrifically and embarrassingly biased.

This is a pity since both bias itself and inappropriate ways of trying to compensate for bias can lead to error.

Most people, for example, simply embrace their biases (even as they construct elaborate mechanisms to convince themselves that both they and their news sources are “fair and balanced”).  But in addition to closing the mind, this combination of bias and self-deception leaves one vulnerable to (among other negative consequences) disappointment and surprise.  (Think of someone who dismisses sex scandal allegations against a favored candidate because charges first appear in a news source beloved by “the other side,” only to watch their candidate – and their own hopes – implode when those charges turn out to be true.)

Another common mistake is to assume that since everyone is biased (which we all are, at least with regard to hard-wired human cognitive biases) that no one is in a position to either claim truth or judge others.  But assuming that we are made up of nothing but our biases (either cognitive biases, or biases that result from our membership in a particular age, gender or demographic group) can paralyze us, preventing us from thinking of ourselves as free, independent and critical thinkers.

Is there a solution?  Well, there is a rule thumb that can use to help guide us through this quagmire: The Principle of Charity. (Stay tuned…)

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