Saturday, December 21, 2019

In Defense of Cognitive Biases

Many books have been written during the last two decades about cognitive biases.  Some of the authors have been awarded Nobel Prizes for their work in this field.  Kahneman's "Thinking Fast, and Slow" is a major work in this category.

During my college years, we undertook a course in Logic which told us that "ad hominem" is a bad argument, and so is "appeal to authority" and so on.

During recent years, "victim blaming" and "whataboutism" have become four-letter words.

In formal journals, the scholar Gigerenzer has been a formidable adversary to Kahneman et al in his defense of such "fallacies" and "biases".  Interested readers can follow his work and read his papers.

In this essay, I will touch upon two modern sins that I listed above, and why they are not the sins that people claim they are.

Victim Blaming

Victim blaming is to hold the victim of a crime or injustice partly responsible for the crime.  It is most vehemently cited when a sexual assault victim is blamed for acting in a reckless manner.  In most cases, however, nobody disagrees that the criminal is wrong and he/she should be punished.  The argument that the incident could have been avoided had the victim taken better precautions is considered blasphemous. 

However, all precaution against criminality is of the same nature.  As long as we live in an imperfect world, it is important to continue to punish the criminals as well as  to take precautions to avoid becoming a victim.  If you put your wallet in the front pocket in a pickpocket-ridden area, if you drive defensively, if you watch your step in an unfamiliar location, you are protecting yourself from harm.  Yes, you may be able to file a police complaint or sue if your pocket gets picked, if you are hit by another car, or if you fall and break a bone in a hotel lobby.  But most reasonable people avoid harm rather than invite harm and then seek damages.

Traditionally, the adage "better safe than sorry" has been a heuristic to follow.  In modern times, unfortunately, the media and the "wise" tell you otherwise.  While they continue to take precautions, they ask you to be flagrant.

Ignore such advice, and be safe.

WhatAboutery

This is a recently coined word which means: To attack a critic with an allegation of a wrongdoing at their end.

Say, politician A says to politician B: "You spend your Sundays at leisure instead of working for the country."  And B replies: "You have no right to lecture me as you go on a two-month vacation every year instead of tending to your constituents."

The first criticism gets deflated by such a response, but the WhatAboutery brigades say: "No, no, answer the allegation on its merits.  Don't accuse the accuser of something else."

The problem is, human activity is acceptable or not depending on the norms prevalent in a setting.  If everybody is breaking rules, you cannot be expected to follow them.  If someone expects you to follow a rule, they must first demonstrate that the rule is followed quite generally, especially by themselves, and that you are an exception.

Traditionally, an allegation of theft coming from a thief was called Hypocrisy.  Whataboutery is calling out the hypocrisy.  Even if the reverse allegation is of a different kind ("you have no right to call me fat when you dropped out of college"), it is still reasonable in the sense that the accuser must first put their house in order before being considered a serious voice of morality or ethics.  If the accuser has multiple failures of their own, traditionally they have little right to criticize others.

Traditionally, the heuristic has been: "Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others."  And it is a good heuristic.  Only someone relatively blameless and upright has the moral right to criticize someone else for their failings.  Yes, their criticism stands on its own in a formal sense, and a mature individual would take their admonition at face value and try to determine whether self-improvement is warranted, but in a social sense, their criticism will not be considered worthwhile. 

People expect a moral policeman to be moral himself.  For good reason.  It is hard to be moral and ethical, and if the accuser finds it hard, the accused is saying, in other words, "Fix yourself before you try to fix me."

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