Friday, September 21, 2007

Deck-Stacking Bias

One of the great intellectual challenges is to be consistent in the way that you approach evidence. What most people do, however, is hold one side of a debate to a much higher standard of proof than the other. That is, if Side A and Side B are fighting about something, then Side A will trumpet to the heavens every study and report and news story and anecdote and sheer speculation that supports Side A, whereas even the most meticulous study supporting Side B will be nitpicked to death and then ignored.

Consistent with what Taber and Lodge found, I think this may be most often true of professors and intellectuals -- they're smart enough to come up with a post hoc rationalization for any prior belief, they love to nitpick any contrary evidence, and they can walk away from any debate more convinced than ever that they are right, regardless of the evidence or arguments brought to bear on the other side.

Most recently, I've seen it in a new book by Greg Anrig, "The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing. But I could give many more examples if I wished; this pattern of intellectual behavior shows up everywhere, in every public policy debate.

It's a real struggle to try to avoid this bias in your own thinking. Not that many intellectuals try, for all that I can tell.


Blogger Drake said...

The interesting, and challenging, thing is that deck-stacking is in some sense a practical necessity. Consider the weight we give to information from different sources. For instance, I'm resistant to evidence proffered by young-earth creationist biologists against evolution; I'm likely to scrutinize their claims more aggressively, and (ceteris paribus) therefore more likely to dismiss them as wanting, than I am arguments on the same issue proffered by a mainstream biologist. This is a bias, but I think it's an awfully good one. I should (by my lights) take a more open epistemic posture toward biological claims forwarded by a mainstream biologist than toward those forwarded by a creationist. The one type has (in my judgment) proved more trustworthy than the other.

Now, this bias is almost certainly uniformly illicit as to claims made in areas where I'm truly competent to analyze the evidence and fundamental arguments for competing interpretations, and I'm publishing original scholarly work on the topic. Maybe this situation is more what you have in mind. But at some point everyone is going to have to rely on professional testimony, and in doing so much of the filtering of irrelevant noise is going to turn on an assessment of witness credibility based on extrinsic (i.e., extrinsic to the evidence itself) factors. I think this is totally Kosher.

Of course, this just bumps the question back to how one ought to go about choosing authorities. Obviously, a creationist will privilege the the evidence floated by creationist authorities. And in a sense, they should (if they don't have competence in biology -- a good bet). The complaint here, then, shouldn't be that they're over solicitous to creationist authorities, but that they've selected the wrong authorities. And unfortunately the ability to do that may be a result of historical, cultural accident.

That all being said, you're right that most people approach arguments they're fully competent to analyze with whichever strategy (credulity, skepticism) is better geared toward preserving their beliefs.

Except me. I never do that.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

But I don't think that's really deck-stacking that you're talking about here. For example, it would be deck-stacking (in my sense) if you: (a) ridiculed a young-earth creationist article because it wasn't peer-reviewed, while (b) citing in response nothing more than a pro-evolution article that was not peer-reviewed either. It's not deck-stacking, in other words, to trust a mainstream biologist more than Ken Ham when you can point to the legitimate differences between them; it's deck-stacking only if you hold Ken Ham to an higher standard while trusting pro-evolution speakers who would fail to meet that same standard. Does that make sense?

1:58 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

The real deck-stacking (akin to what I pointed out in the link) would be, for example, if you nitpicked to death a data-laden creationist article by a Harvard professor, while citing for your position *nothing* other than an pro-evolution article that was published by an ideological foundation and that consisted only of anecdotes. I think that's quite different from the real-life example of (as you say) being able to point to innumerable mainstream biologists to support your position.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

I look at this as a matter of "treat something as a failure without waiting for the evidence that it is a failure." My introduction to this was the post-Three-Mile-Island chorus of "It's time for supporters of nuclear power to admit they made a mistake." We listened to that a bit too much.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Drake said...


9:23 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

OK, even more succinctly: Believing that your side of a debate has better and more rigorous evidence (which may or may not be true, depending on the issue) is not the same thing as holding your side to a lower standard. Indeed, those two approaches are more like opposites.

1:30 PM  

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