Fair and Balanced

We all have our prejudices and saying that we see the world from our point of view is a tautology. The world is too complicated to understand without the use of mental models. The model determines which parts of reality we will emphasize and which we will ignore. Most models are unconscious, which is why we sometimes just can’t understand other points of view.

Bias is simple when you strip away value judgments. It means that a measure systematically over or underestimates actual results. Most standardized tests (like SAT), for example, are not biased, since they don't underestimate or overestimate systematically. Some people call them biased because they don't like the results they report, but this is a misuse of the term. It is hard to say if Fox News, CNN, NPR or other networks are biased, since they don't usually make predictions that we can check on later. We could, I suppose check on individual pundits to see how they called elections for the last ten years. Maybe they should be required to post their results, like mutual funds do.

I suffer from various systematic biases. The reason I know that is because I keep records. I recommend this to all of you. Write down your predictions for various events. When you are done, put the prediction aside. After the event and BEFORE you consult your notes, write down what you thought you predicted. If you are like most people, you have fooled yourself. Your memory of your prediction is influenced and improved by subsequent knowledge. You give yourselves the benefit of the doubt. If asked about your prediction, you could pass a lie detector test, but you are not telling the truth. If you know the direction of your bias, you can try to compensate. If you think you are fair and balanced already, you can't.

Self-deception explains a lot about society and people. It is why so many people claim to understand the stock market, but so few are rich. It is why so many claim to understand diet and exercise, but so many are fat. It explains the persistent triumph of hope over experience and why old people (and some not so old) remember the past as being better than the present.

Returning to my discussion about models and biases, the lefties are now thinking how this reveals the self-deceptions of the righties. Interestingly, those on the right are thinking the very same thing about the other side.

Posted by Jack at June 13, 2005 10:25 PM