DHS

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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