Biased against Bias (ep 3)

Show Notes

This week on the show we look at BIAS – and the the way it completely ruins our ability to judge the truth of things. I’m talking biases I have, you have, the political parties have, all types of biases. Even the bias AGAINST bias. We’ll also explore why learning to consider our bias and see past it is so important. 

1) Introduction

HOW BIASED ARE WE?

I explore a few biases I have and explain why it’s so important to be aware of your own biases.

Now, onto chapter 3 of the money good podcast, titled Biased against Bias, in which I look into bias. The aim of MONEYGOOD is to understand what the hell’s going on with our economy and our society and figure out what to do about it. Well, in order see the truth, first we have to see past our own bias.

I’m talking personal biases I have, biases you have, the economy has, the political parties have, all types of biases. Even the bias against bias. Seriously: Why is everyone always beating up on bias while impartiality gets all the love? It’s not fair. Impartiality is like that prick Hunter my exgf left me for. Ohhh everyone thinks impartiality’s sooo cool because it wears plaid and drinks pbr and plays guitar but just for fun at parties.

Man I hate that guy. But bias… well. I wouldn’t say bias is a friend of mine, but we’ve all spent a lot of time with him. So before we explore bias in general, I wanna admit to a few I have.

My first bias is about me. I like me. I think I’m smart and have something important to say. My shrink and my mom agree. But despite the genius you’ve been enjoying in the first few episodes, technically I’m totally unqualified to do this podcast.

I am a completely spoiled non-expert, a half-assed autodidact, a shamefully proud dilettante; a tinkering polymath and an intellectual tourist.

But I don’t think any of that matters. We’re trying to answer questions that the so-called “experts” of the world haven’t been able to. I’ll be sitting on the shoulders of giants here, and I won’t call myself tall, but – regardless of how short you are – if you sit on a giant’s shoulders you are high up. And maybe in the world of modern ideas height isn’t what’s really important but climbing ability.

I have a ton of other biases as well, but I try to be conscious of them. While I classify myself as a liberal and not a conservative, and an atheist not a believer, how I really identify myself is as someone struggling to remain a skeptic and avoid becoming a cynic.

Skepticism is a constant, exhausting exercise – trying to question not only what other people tell you, but what you tell yourself. Second-guessing your own beliefs to make sure you’re not totally full of shit.

2) Vocabulary

This week’s word: ‘PREJUDICE’

Finally, a word I can look up in the dictionary.
Prejudice is defined as an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.

I’m guessing you’ve always been taught that prejudice is a bad thing and to avoid it. It’s judging a book by its cover, crossing a street to avoid someone because of how they look or cops stopping people just because of their race.

But bare with me here, cuz I want to attack this from the other side. I read recently about a completely different definition of “prejudice,” one that makes it seem like kind of a good thing.

So there was this Irish guy Edmund Burke. Irish guys always seem to be the center of history, huh? Anyway, Edmund Burke was an 18th century philosopher, born in Dublin and moved to England and served in the house of commons.

Edmund Burke was a lot of things. He was a critic of the French Revolution but a supporter of the American one. IN fact, for a guy in the British Parliament during the 1770s, he was incredibly pro-America. Although on the other hand, he did think democracy was a terrible idea and a threat to society. (Laughs) And I admit it’s biased of me to order it this way, but he’s also considered the father of modern conservatism. So, you know.

But on to his definition of PREJUDICE.

Burke didn’t see prejudice as bigotry or unfair pre-judgment. He saw prejudice as the collective wisdom of all society. All that shit people have learned and passed down both consciously and unconsciously over the generations.

Burke was reacting directly to the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason and analysis and individualism over traditional teachings. And Burke basically said: “Yeah, you know, prejudice is judging a book by its cover, but sometimes the book is fire, and you can hate the man for saying ‘don’t touch fire’ and think tradition is bullshit and depend only on reason, but if you do, you will put your hand in the fire and get your ass burned.” (That’s not a direct quote, by the way.)

Burke he saw prejudice as an asset that society desperately needed. He said things that actually make some sense like “The individual is foolish, but the species is wise” and “Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit” And “Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”

Just prejudice. Or was it just prejudice? I actually spent 3 minutes on the internet trying to figure out how Burke meant it. Did he mean “just” as in “only”? Liiike: What does that douchebag Hunter have that I don’t? Just a hipster mustache. Or did he mean “just” as in “fair and reasonable” Liiike: Um, no, Nina, Leaving me for that hemp-wearing designer t-shirt buying co-op-joining poser manboy son-of-a-bitch Hunter is not just.

I couldn’t figure it out, but Burke was definitely of the position that PREJUDICE was fair and right.

Which – if you think about it – is the same shape as that really stupid argument you hear from people trying to rationalize saying dumb shit like “that car cut me off. Musta been a woman driving.” They say “stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. Know what I mean?”

BUUUT, I do have to go back to the other side, (this is what it’s like to be me: exhausting). Because Burke’s positive view of prejudice does make some sense when you think about evolutionary psychology and natural selection. Most fucking lions – and I don’t want to be a lionist – but most lions will fucking eat you. So being prejudiced against lions – back in the day – not so bad. In fact, people who are lionists, they’re a lot more likely to survive cuz they run away from lions and don’t get eaten, which means they survive to fuck a lot and have kids, and since they’re lionists, they raise their kids as lionists and they in turn have a bunch of lionist grandkids and on and on and on and on.

But in my opinion: the problem with Burke’s conception of prejudice as a good thing is that prejudice doesn’t do so well with gray areas. LIONS: pretty black and white. Humans – they’re black and white but also brown and yellow and a lot of other colors, which all end up actually being GREY when we’re talking complicated messy humans with their consciousness and emotions and thoughts.

Burke’s idea of prejudice basically assumes that the group and tradition knows best. That every person trying to start over every generation and figure things out on their own will drive the individual nuts and destabilize society.

I think that made sense when all we had to deal with was lions and finding shit to eat. I think it made less sense – but still quite a bit – when it took 3 months on a wooden ship to send a letter to another country.

But now? No. Now, prejudice, or as he’s using it, the wisdom of tradition, it’s just one source of information of many. It should be combined with all the others we have and weighed as to how relevant it is.

So yes – HUNTER who’s dating my ex – I’m pretty sure he’s the most dangerous threat humanity has ever faced and I should ambush him outside his Williamsburg apartment and beat him to death with my bare hands. That’s how it feels, certainly, and if this was back in the day when men used to just pick the woman with the best child-bearing hips and claim her as property, maybe that’d make sense.

Buuuut. Maybe – maybe my conviction that he’s the worst human ever to exist is a prejudice I have based on the fact that he fucks my ex-girlfriend. Who by the way I’m totally over so whatever. But I mean: I’ve never actually met Hunter myself. And I’ve never seen him kill children or litter or perpetrate mass genocide. So even though he’s got that stupid mustache and those plaid shirts and he rolls his own cigarettes for no fucking reason at all! (sighs) maaaaybe I should just give Hunter a pass.

Maybe my prejudice isn’t a just prejudice, but just a prejudice.

3) Cognitive Dissonance

Post-Judice

There’s another type of bias that doesn’t happen ahead of time – not prejudice, but more like… Postjudice.

Orrr. Confirmation Bias. You know the phenomenon: Basically we all have a natural tendency – once we believe something – to interpret the world in a way that supports our belief.

So not only do we judge a book by its cover, which is prejudice, but we do even worse shit once we OPEN the book. We ignore undeniable facts. Or we dismiss legitimate arguments as bullshit because they contradict our beliefs. Or we even go so far as to completely misconstrue the meaning of the book to make it agree with our ideas.


(The full context of Rush Limbaugh’s “No means Yes” comments.)

In my opinion this is really really dangerous for you as an individual and society at large. And I only need 3 facts to show you why.

Fact Number 1: People are more polarized than ever. More different politically than ever.

Okay. Why do I say this? To be transparent, because I had this feeling it was true, and then I went searching for evidence of it. But I did find some pretty compelling evidence. The best of which is a study released in June 2014 by the PEW Research Center.

Link to THE FULL STUDY

The Pew research center is a non-partisan body that conducts research and does polls but never takes policy positions, so they’re pretty neutral.

Their study finds that democrats and republicans are more ideologically divided than they were in the past. IN 1994, 10% of people were either extremely liberal or extremely conservative. Basically, 10% of all people were dyed in the wool followers of one of these two opposing worldviews. But by 2014, 20 years later, 21% fell into that category. Double the percentage are hardcore fundamentalist conservative or liberal.

DEM v REP 94 Dem v REP 2014

Here’s a direct quote from the study: “Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right. People with down­the­line ideological positions … are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. (I did a fuller quote here)

And not only are there many more extremists on either political side, but there’s less common ground in between. What do I mean by that? For one, the middle of the road “average” liberal is much more liberal than she used to be. And the middle of the road “average” conservative is much more conservative than he used to be. The middle left and middle right are both farther from the ACTUAL middle now. And the outliers – those republicans that are actually pretty liberal or those democrats that are fairly conservative – there are a lot fewer of those around.

THE SHIFT

By the numbers: in 1994, 64% of all the republicans were more conservative than the median democrat. That meant there were 36% of republicans that were more liberal than the average democrat! Crazy.

But by 2014, the numbers moved so that 94% of republicans are now more conservative than the median democrat. That leaves just 6% of them to be more liberal than the average democrat. That’s what they’re talking about when they’re talking about polarization, and the numbers are pretty much exactly the same on the other side.

So everything is more extreme and the center is shrinking.

Which – okay, maybe that’s fine because things change and maybe everything will move back to the center in the next 20 years, right? Well, no, that’s kind of unlikely because of:

FACT NUMBER 2: The way we consume media is changing and becoming ever more ideologically self-selecting.

This is connected to that concept of cognitive dissonance I brought up in the first chapter of the podcast: the mental displeasure you feel when you see evidence that contradicts what you believe. So to avoid that, we now flock to Fox news and msnbc and Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh.

FOX NEWS

It’s nice to be comforted by the confirmation that our worldview is fundamentally correct. Once upon a time, there were 3 TV channels – not news channels, but 3 CHANNELS – and they were all pretty much impartial and down the center because there were only 3 and if any one of them wanted to be successful they had to appeal to a huge percentage of people and not offend.

But these days there are entire media conglomerates that don’t report the weather without bringing their ideological bias into it. No matter how crazy or extreme your viewpoint is, you can probably find a website that analyzes every news item that happens through that lens.

And to some degree this is a fait accompli of fact 1, that we as a country are becoming ever more ideologically polarized.

BUT as all these more extreme information sources present themselves, we tend to choose only that which fits our philosophy. We tend to stick to our silos more and more even as those silos grow further apart.

How many times have you heard someone complain about some crazy shit a facebook friend of theirs posted? Some long lost high school friend with the post about how gun ownership saves lives or antivaccing or how Obama needs to admit he’s a Kenyan communist martian.

It seems like facebook just opens you up to all kinds of crazy opinions from crazy people. But Facebook is just like the rest of the world these days: your media is self-selecting. You can choose exactly what you want to hear and what you don’t. If you think Republicans are crazy, or you think Democrats are crazy, you can shut yourself off from not only the other side’s extreme crazy people, but the other side’s half of the middle.

How heated you get when you randomly see that crazy person from the other side in your facebook feed – that’s actually a testament to how ISOLATED we are from those we disagree with. It basically takes a glitch in an app for us to see another point of view, and we can correct it with a click or two.

You can build a newspaper of your own in which only the facts that paint all republicans as evil come through and none of the ones where they seem kind of reasonable do. You can guess what this does to your bias: it only INCREASES IT! It kind of makes sense that the further we get into the digital revolution, the more everyone becomes either “extremely conservative” or “extremely liberal.” That our beliefs get stronger and more politically polarized

And this is a huuuge problem. WHY? Because of:

FACT NUMBER 3: We don’t just avoid or ignore the facts that contradict our beliefs. Our minds work against us to manipulate reality and change the facts to fit our beliefs.

It’s a study eloquently titled: Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government. I know. Sexy. Tons of car crashes in this thing.

But here’s what they did: they took a bunch of people and asked them to interpret a table of numbers… the same exact set of data. But in one group, the subjects were told the data was about how effective a skin cream was at stopping rashes. In the other group, the subjects were told it was about how effective gun control was at decreasing crime.

The test

There are actually 4 different versions of the graph you can get – 2 about the skin cream, and 2 about the gun ban. For each, there’s a version where the data show the thing worked: the skin cream/gun ban decreased rashes/crime. And there’s a version where the data show the thing made it worse – the skin cream/gun ban actually increased rashes/crime.

Before the experiment they give you a survey on your political leaning and a widely accepted test that measures how good you are with numbers and science – a skill called numeracy. So Onto the findings:

Looking at the skin cream data – people with higher “numeracy” were more likely to come up with the correct conclusion based on the data. And their political leaning didn’t affect their ability. Whether they were given the chart that says the skin cream worked or made it worse didn’t matter at all. They’re bad with charts, they get it wrong. They’re good with charts, they get it right.

Here’s where it gets disturbing: The same exact data – literally the same 4 numbers in an identical table, just with the headings changed to being about gun control? That produced very different results.

the four versions

Here’s what’s not surprising: When the data conflicts with a person’s beliefs, they get the answer wrong. So liberals that get the chart that proves gun bans increase crime: they say the data suggests they decrease crime. Same thing on the opposite side: when conservatives get evidence that gun bans decrease crime, their math skills all of a sudden get worse and they flip it.

But here’s the ball breaker: when it comes to politically charged topics, on either political side, high numeracy – being good with science and math – it doesn’t make you any more likely to come out with the correct answer. In fact it makes you less likely to be correct.

four graphs

The more mathematically advanced you are, the more likely your political views are to fuck you in the head and make you get the chart wrong.

What the fuck? I mean, if anything, the people who are good with numbers should be the ones who see past their bias and get the right answer, right? That’s intuitive, but apparently the evidence doesn’t support it. Apparently intelligence is just another tool belief uses to pull the wool over our eyes.

Let’s review our 3 facts about bias:
1) Our country is more politically divided than ever
2) We self-select ideological news sources and social groups that isolate us from the other side
3) Bias doesn’t just turn off our reasoning skills, bias takes over our reasoning skills and manipulates the facts so that the smarter we are the less likely we are to see the truth.

Those 3 facts right there are a recipe for a polarized world with an ever-widening gap between two sides and no common ground between. Soon, there will be no commonly excepted, rational truth. Climate change, religion, evolution, world hunger, racism, sexism, taxes, terrorism, are cops heroes or thugs, gun control, whether economic stimulus works, whether universal health care is a good thing, what citizenship means, what are basic human rights, how to fix our economy and our democracy…? Where we’re headed on all of these issues are just two huge mobs on opposite sides shouting at each other and not listening.

The solution? Listening to this podcast. No, I’m kidding. Well, yes, but no, I have something more as well. We need to welcome the other side.

We need to embrace the dark side… Whatever the dark side is for us. We gotta get Republican or dem or whatever. Black lives matter or blue lives matter. Or whatever color you didn’t think that godawful stupid dress was a little while back. You have to open yourself up to that other side.

We have to imagine a world where we are the bad guys. Where we’re wrong. And as an exercise we have to honestly consider what it means if that’s the case.

Of course I’m not saying support anti-vaccers or holocaust deniers or blue and black dress people… But it is absolutely vital that you and I expose ourselves to whatever ideas we most strongly disagree with. We HAVE TO try to understand the mind of someone who believes that which we know in our hearts to be dead wrong.

I NEED TO at least CONSIDER THE IDEA THAT MAYBE NINA IS BETTER OFF WITH HUNTER. EVEN IF IT KILLS ME.

The writers of the skin cream/gun control paper – they have a great theory about why people – even smart people – fuck the facts to fit their beliefs. Paraphrasing, basically they say that people need the validation and support of their ideological group, and will use their brain power to twist the data to fit the group’s mentality because positions on these policy-relevant facts are now like a varsity letter jacket. They show your loyalty and they make you feel cool and accepted.

How many people listening to this show support NPR to get the tote bag or “like” I fucking love science on facebook because it’s cool or drive a hybrid not just because it’s good for the environment but also because it’s hip? I’m not saying that’s the only reason, but that’s some of the reason. There’s a cache to these things – a social benefit to being publicly part of it. And the same on the other side. I don’t care how correct your side might be: every movement’s got a bumper sticker.

And flying that bumper sticker or shocked outrage over your socio-economic group’s in-vogue passion issue has another benefit: it’s also a form of protection.

Call it hashtag activism, or twitterversy, or redditor rage. Parroting popular positions also protects you from the internet flash mobs.

And this is going to cut deep, but it’s true: reposting an article and noting your personal outrage at the other side’s reactions to the most recent mass shooting while you do absolutely nothing but nod your head at Jon Stewart and watch DVR’d America’s next top runway cooking idol afterwards is bullshit.

If you feel strongly about an issue, you better understand the other side really well and be able to have a civil conversation with them and you better be DOING SOMETHING to convince them that YOU ARE RIGHT.

What this study suggests – and what I think what we need to do – is for any given argument, we need to make a conscious effort to disconnect that feeling of validation and belonging from our beliefs. We need to make the cool kids club not about what side of an issue you’re on, but about being skeptical. We need to make skepticism and open-mindedness the new Varsity jacket.


It’s not easy, but I’m gonna strive to do it on this show, and I hope you’ll join me in it. I think it’s the only way to really find the truth and it’s the only way to get people working together again. Onto Primary Source.

4) Primary Source

Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution–As Told by the Thinkers and Doers Who Made It Happen

I probably should’ve found a book that’s specifically about bias for the chapter on bias, but I didn’t. Instead, I’m picking one about conservatism, which is something I tend to be biased against.

The Big Tent is a collection of essays and lectures by conservative thinkers. The subtitle is “The Story of the Conservative Revolution as Told by The Thinkers and Doers who made it happen.” It’s edited by Mallory Factor and includes essays by big conservatives such as Rand Paul, Donald Rumsfeld, and even Newt “eating ain’t cheating” Gingrich.

The topics covered are all over the map – the American Revolution, The New Deal, foreign policy, the economy, religion. The book is extremely partisan – it’s very rah rah for conservatism, but it works as a solid primer to their ways of thinking. Here’s a bit from the intro:

“If you have begun to perceive the wasteland produced by the vague, lawless leftism now pervading America and global culture; (…) if you sometimes worry that, without a course correction, America too may be left on the ash heap of history, read on. We will show you something different from the shadows and illusions of leftism. We will show you a mighty, eternal river of truth.”

Usually I’m recommending books I agree with and think you’ll like. But if you’re like me, this won’t be a book you agree with a ton. But if you go in with an open mind I think you’ll be surprised at how much sense some of these ideas make – at least in a vacuum:

“The man who refuses to judge, who neither agrees nor disagrees, who declares that there are no absolutes and believes that he escapes responsibility, is the man responsible for all the blood that is now spilled in the world….”

Interesting, right? I can’t say I completely agree with that, but there’s something to it. There’s some truth there. But that ideology goes further:

“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”

That just made me scribble “bullshit” in the margin. That’s where the book gets reductionist and kind of nuts and wrong. But it’s still interesting. There are a lot of things like that in this book

What I think: we can’t be apathetic, we can’t be in the middle, but we also can’t be on one side or the other out of blind faith or allegiance or intellectual laziness. There is a fight coming, not a dramatic movie battle with a thousand cgi warriors, but a slow, subtle fight that’s much more important. It’s not how you win the girl in the movies by running to the airport, but how you lose the girl to that prick hunter in real life: slowly, gradually, and over a hundred small moments, that in the end might just mean you didn’t belong together in the first place.

Anyway, even if you don’t find anything to agree with in The Big Tent reading it is an important exercise because when you disagree with what you’re reading you’ll have to ask yourself why? You’ll have to figure out if you disagree for a good reason or just because you’re biased. You’ll have to figure out if conservatives are wrong or if they’re just fucking your ex girlfriend.

Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution–As Told by the Thinkers and Doers Who Made It Happen

5) Next Week On Money Good

Capitalism Begins

On the 4th episode of the podcast we will begin our recurring series on the HISTORY of the capitalism. And appropriately: we’ll begin at the beginning. How did capitalism start? When did capitalism start? How did it change things immediately, and what does that mean to us today? We’ll get into it.


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