Sufficiently sincere confirmation bias is indistinguishable from science

by Benquo 3y15th Mar 201719 comments

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Some theater people at NYU people wanted to demonstrate how gender stereotypes affected the 2016 US presidential election. So they decided to put on a theatrical performance of the presidential debates – but with the genders of the principals swapped. They assumed that this would show how much of a disadvantage Hillary Clinton was working under because of her gender. They were shocked to discover the opposite – audiences full of Clinton supporters, watching the gender-swapped debates, came away thinking that Trump was a better communicator than they'd thought.

The principals don't seem to have come into this with a fair-minded attitude. Instead, it seems to have been a case of "I'll show them!":

Salvatore says he and Guadalupe began the project assuming that the gender inversion would confirm what they’d each suspected watching the real-life debates: that Trump’s aggression—his tendency to interrupt and attack—would never be tolerated in a woman, and that Clinton’s competence and preparedness would seem even more convincing coming from a man.

Let's be clear about this. This was not epistemic even-handedness. This was a sincere attempt at confirmation bias. They believed one thing, and looked only for confirming evidence to prove their point. It was only when they started actually putting together the experiment that they realized they might learn the opposite lesson:

But the lessons about gender that emerged in rehearsal turned out to be much less tidy. What was Jonathan Gordon smiling about all the time? And didn’t he seem a little stiff, tethered to rehearsed statements at the podium, while Brenda King, plainspoken and confident, freely roamed the stage? Which one would audiences find more likeable?

What made this work? I think what happened is that they took their own beliefs literally. They actually believed that people hated Hillary because she was a woman, and so their idea of something that they were confident would show this clearly was a fair test. Because of this, when things came out the opposite of the way they'd predicted, they noticed and were surprised, because they actually expected the demonstration to work.

But they went further. Even though they knew in advance of the public performances that the experiment got the wrong answer, they neither falsified nor file-drawered the evidence. They tried to show, they got a different answer, they showed it anyway.

This is much, much better science than contemporary medical or psychology research were before the replication crisis.

Sometimes, when I think about how epistemically corrupt our culture is, I'm tempted to adopt a permanent defensive crouch and disbelieve anything I can't fact-check, to explicitly adjust for all the relevant biases, and this prospect sounds exhausting. It's not actually necessary. You don't have to worry too much about your biases. Just take your own beliefs literally, as though they mean what they say they mean, and try to believe all their consequences as well. And, when you hit a contradiction – well, now you have an opportunity to learn where you're wrong.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

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