confirmation bias

Listen Carefully

Written by Stephen Rainey, and Jason Walsh

Rhetoric about free speech as under attack is an enduring point of discussion across the media. It appears on the political agenda, in various degrees of concreteness and abstraction. By some definitions, free speech amounts to an unrestrained liberty to say whatever one pleases. On others, it’s carefully framed to exclude types of speech centrally intended to cause harm.

At the same time, more than ever the physical environment is a focus of both public and political attention. Following the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet Two’ documentary series, for instance, a huge impetus gathered around the risk of micro-plastics to our water supply, and, indeed, how plastics in general damage the environment. As with many such issues people have been happy to act. Following, belatedly, Ireland’s example, plastic bag use has plummeted in the UK, helped along by the introduction of a tax.

There are always those few who just don’t care but, when it comes to our shared natural spaces, we’re generally pretty good at reacting. Be it taxing plastic bags, switching to paper straws, or supporting pedestrianisation of polluted areas, there is the chance for open conversations about the spaces we must share. Environmental awareness and anti-pollution attitudes are as close to shared politics as we might get, at least in terms of what’s at stake. Can the same be said for the informational environment that we share? Continue reading

Confirmation bias, embarassment and organisational ethics

Matthew Harwood has an interesting essay about how a FBI investigation suffering from confirmation bias relentlessly pursued an innocent person based on an accidental partial fingerprint match at the Madrid bombings, leading to him being detained for two weeks – despite plenty of strong evidence against the suspicion. In fact, the dis-confirming evidence was in several cases seen as confirming (No passport? Aha, he must have been travelling abroad secretly!)

Confirmation bias is something that modern police is taught to guard against, but that is of course not enough: knowing about a bias does not mean it will go away. Actually fixing the problem requires institutional structures that balance the human tendency towards bias, and maintaining those structures require proper buy-in from management and correction when they fail.

But there might also be a deeper institutional ethics problem going on here. In a recent ruling a judge ruled the TSA no-fly procedures unconstitutional. As the Kafkaesque shenanigans of the case show, the government spent significant effort, money and political capital in obstructing a case where they actually admitted the plaintiff on the no-fly list did not pose any threat. Indeed, it was a clerical error that put her on the list. While one can argue that maybe the real issue was defending an important administrative tool rather than defending the erroneous decision, it still seems likely that a significant motivator was simply preventing embarrassment.

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