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Author Topic: Bias
scifibum
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I'm entertained at times by watching how bias influences the way that people argue and reason. In a lot of cases, it leaves what seem like enormous holes or even contradictions in their arguments. The same people can spot logical flaws in other arguments, but don't seem to be able to see the problems with their own words.

It makes me think about how brains work and how powerful subtle subconscious rules can be. People can forbid themselves from asking certain questions, and from thinking about the ban. Of course they don't actualy do anything of the sort - it's not achieved via a hypnotic suggestion, or the like - but the effects are the same.

I think our brains have filters (i.e. masks, or transforms) that underlie and protect this kind of barrier. The mechanisms that would normally identify and analyze gaps or contradictions can be fooled into thinking everything is fine. Just like a cleverly made 2d image at a tiny scale could fool an observer into thinking it was a much larger object much further away, the bias transform fools the brain into thinking there is congruity where it is absent. (Or to put it a different way, it fills in gaps and smoothes edges in a way that the result is congruent, internally, but only artificially so.)

How do you learn to see through an optical illusion? You change your perspective. Hold a ruler up to the image, or close one eye, or look at it from an oblique angle. I think we can discover and compensate for our mental filters this way as well. If we consistently come to a false conclusion through one mental attitude, we can shift and approach the problem obliquely, and the transform no longer rectifies things.

Sometimes a change of perspective can be suggested/supplied by another person. I think some of the more profound biases might be more likely to be overcome unintentionally, though. For instance, I've found that I've made profound changes in my thinking on certain topics by not thinking about them for a while.

I think "rut", as in an eroded track, is an apt metaphor for certain mental habits (no wonder it's a popular one [Wink] ). If I approach a problem or idea really frequently, I can sort of wear a mental path for it. Each time I return, I fall into that same path, because it's the easiest one (having already been carved). Sometimes I can't seem to muster the strength to climb around it, and take a different tack.

Getting out of a rut to change your perspective can be hard, although it's usually achievable. You have to be willing to recognize that you're in a rut, and work hard to climb out. But when a rut is so deep that you can't really see anything except the familiar path, you might never realize such a thing is possible. But climbing out the steep way isn't the only option. You can just back out, and not return for a while. In nature, weather will eventually erode untravelled ruts away, or at least fill in their deepest valleys. In brains, evidence and memory, and whatever else creates the charge of cognitive potential, will filter their way in, slowly altering and eroding the familiar pathway. If given long enough, these subtle, subconscious changes can make the rut much shallower.

By avoiding a topic, we can give ourselves a better chance to approach it later without falling into the same pathway. A smooth causeway permits one to tack from side to side, enhancing our limited binocular perception, seeing behind and past things that used to fill our field of view.

I would venture that once a deep mental rut is formed, the surest way to preserve it is to travel it frequently. Of course, a road becomes rutted because it gets people somewhere they want to go. Entrenched arguments fulfill some urge or need as well. So it's not like it's an easy task, to abandon a road to wait for it to heal.

(Actively repairing the road, in this metaphor, would amount to taking a step forward - only a step - and examining the landscape. If there's a flaw in the path, you can stop and work on it, before you take the next step. It's a hell of a lot of work, but I think it's another way to discover and overcome bias.)

P.S. With regard to my first paragraph, I'm sure that I suffer from the same thing, and do not mean to imply I'm above the same sorts of errors.

Edit: I forgot to add the controversial bit: I think that many institutions benefit from this phenomenon by encouraging and guiding people into a certain pathway of reasoning, and reinforcing it as frequently as possible. They can characterize any disengagement as a loss of purity, which corrupts thinking, but in effect they might simply be maintaining the deeply carved track, actively preventing a change in perspective.

[ March 05, 2010, 05:24 PM: Message edited by: scifibum ]

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Al Wessex
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==>" If I approach a problem or idea really frequently, I can sort of wear a mental path for it. Each time I return, I fall into that same path, because it's the easiest one (having already been carved). Sometimes I can't seem to muster the strength to climb around it, and take a different tack. "

Some kinds of learning are done in the "subconscious" or out of the focus of the conscious mind. Tutors and trainers often tell students not to cram the night before a test, but that they will synthesize and retain more information if they get a good night sleep instead.

As for ruts, crossword puzzle enthusiasts who don't solve for speed, but for pleasure, usually find that they solve harder puzzles in less time if they work on it in two sessions.

You don't talk about repetition and practice as a learning tool, but that is probably the best way for athletes and musicians to progress.

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vulture
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quote:
Originally posted by Al Wessex:

Some kinds of learning are done in the "subconscious" or out of the focus of the conscious mind. Tutors and trainers often tell students not to cram the night before a test, but that they will synthesize and retain more information if they get a good night sleep instead.

As for ruts, crossword puzzle enthusiasts who don't solve for speed, but for pleasure, usually find that they solve harder puzzles in less time if they work on it in two sessions.

You don't talk about repetition and practice as a learning tool, but that is probably the best way for athletes and musicians to progress.

From my experience in science research (and from friends in a variety of disciplines including pure maths research) most academics understand the value of subconscious working. If you can't solve a problem, then don't keep hammering at it. DO enough to fix the concepts clearly in your mind, and then go for a walk in the park, or work on something else entirely (preferably in a different location). And often after a while the solution will suddenly occur to you.

BTW I'd suggest that repetition and practice are just as important for mental learning as physical learning. Doing 30 very similar maths problems might be dull once you have got the hang of them, but the repetition ingrains it in your brain much more thoroughly. It's the difference between knowing and grokking something - being able to solve it by applying rules vs being able (for example) to spot the same problem disguised in a completely different context. There is no short cut to learning something deeply. You simply have to use the relevant skills over and over and over.

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Pete at Home
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I don't know if this is the sort of rut that you mean, but when I first came to Ornery, there was one fellow (not here anymore) that just could not get it through his thick nut that someone that opposed ssm could support socialized medicine. I'd post arguments saying that our lack of socialized medicine was sending US jobs oversees, etc., and he'd come back targeting me with other arguments in favor of socialized medicine. Took weeks for him to stop trying to argue with me about socialized medicine ... it wasn't until his own friends started posting and asking him to read what I was saying, that I actually agreed with his position. There's no way in hell he'd have read it from me. Talking to some folks about politics is like trying to negotiate your way through a really poorly designed phone tree. They've got their script and their list of characters, and if you're not with them on one thing, you're against them in all things.
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Al Wessex
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I agree with that. It's also crucially important for small children to learn through repeated play, but what looks to us as simple diversion is physically altering their brains. The best example of that I can think of is how a child learns to speak "without an accent", but languages acquired later in life are almost always spoken with one despite how intensively they are studied/learned.

[ March 05, 2010, 06:09 PM: Message edited by: Al Wessex ]

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edgmatt
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My mother once told me that people get stuck on one channel. All they see is channel 3, for example. Every thing they see comes from channel 3, they don't know what channel 4 is, can't comprehend it, don't want to think about it, don't believe it exists. The hard part is helping them change the channel.

Go mom.

[ March 05, 2010, 11:35 PM: Message edited by: edgmatt ]

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