Monday, April 8, 2013

Implicit assumptions: the duty to make them become explicit

Unconscious bias can only be dealt with by making it conscious, by ensuring an instantaneous assessment is backed up by evidence and not just by one’s unthinking gut.

(from Athene Donald,  Systematic Errors of Judgement)

For more on my personal crusade against implicit assumptions, see this post, this one and, more loosely connected, this one.


Jayarava said...

That sentence has it's own implicit assumptions.

The idea that the gut does not think is itself an implicit, and erroneous, assumption. The gut, in fact, contains about 100 million neurons. About the same number as found in the brain of a cat, or about 1/1000th of the number of neurons in an average human brain. The gut literally does think.

However the author is implicitly using a metaphor here to refer to conclusions reached in non-linear ways. These are nothing to do with the 'gut' per se (another erroneous assumption) but better explained as unconscious mental processing. The implicit metaphor here is that an assessment is a structure that must be "backed up" so that it does not collapse. This works OK because it's a widely shared metaphor, but it remains in the background. This kind of unconscious assumption seems to be fine most of the time.

The trouble with the contention that unconscious bias can *only* be dealt with by backing it with evidence is that if we have unconscious bias it is all too easy to select evidence which confirms our view. The implicit assumption here is that we alone can uncover and remove our unconscious bias. This seems to be a overly optimistic proposition. "Making conscious" and "backing up with evidence" are hardly synonymous.

The way to deal with unconscious bias, it seems to me, is through receptive dialogue with someone who doesn't share our assumptions. It's only when other people point out our bias that it can become conscious.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for engaging again in this discussion, Jayarava. My basic point is: we have a moral responsibility to try to become aware of our implicit bias. And I agree with you that this is best done through exposing oneself to people sharing different views.

Jayarava said...

I neglected to mention that exposing oneself in this way is one of the most difficult and painful experiences life has to offer, since one must inevitably allow cherished ideas and ideals, and even versions of oneself to die.

A moral responsibility? Is there any word in the lexicon less explicit than "moral"? Surely you jest?

elisa freschi said...

No, I was not joking, but you are right, I wrote the way *I* think about it, I would not impose such a duty on everyone. Still, I would strongly recommend to everyone writing for a public to expose herself to opposite ideas and would blame her if she refutes to do it notwithstanding the responsibility she has before her readers. It goes perhaps without saying that this responsibility is bigger if she pretends to be impartial (a newspaper journalist writing for a specific audience is less responsible than a member of a search committee hiring only people sharing her own political ideas).
What do you think?

Jayarava said...

Only herself? I'm off the hook then? Great.

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