The Objectivity Illusion

The other day I posted an angry rant opinion about this whole sorry “trouble with girls” debacle. Don’t worry, I won’t write any more about this bullshitstorm “debate” in any further detail. There just wouldn’t be any point. I will, however, write a general note about perception and debates.

As a psychic (debating with psi people is contagious), I knew from the start that the reaction to my post would serve as a perfect example of what I was talking about. Or perhaps I planned this all along? It was an online experiment to show how any given piece of speech can be understood in at least as many different ways as there are people listening. (Actually, if that were true, Chris Chambers and Dorothy Bishop would call this HARKing and tell me I should have preregistered my hypothesis – so I can’t claim to have predicted this really :/)

In all seriousness though, the reactions – including the single commenter on my post – illustrate how people can take just about anything from what you say. People just hear what they want to hear – even if they really don’t like what they’re hearing. While my post expressed no endorsement or defense of any one side in that debate, certain readers immediately jumped to conclusions based on their entrenched philosophical/political stance. I obviously have an opinion on this affair and repeatedly explained that I wouldn’t state it. Unlike for the brainless jokers and paranoid nutcases that populate both sides of this twitter fight (some notable exceptions notwithstanding), my opinion on this is a bit more complex and thus I’d be here all day and I seriously have no appetite for this.

My post wasn’t about that though. It was about the idiocy and total irrelevance of whether Tim Hunt did or did not utter certain words in his speech. It stressed the pointlessness of arguing over who “lied” about their account of things when there is no factual record to compare it to and no tangible evidence to prove that somebody was deliberately distorting the truth. These things are pointless because they really don’t matter one iota and don’t address the actual issues.

As I discussed previously, our view of the world and our reactions to it are inherently biased. This is completely normal and defines the human condition. I don’t think we can entirely overcome these biases – and it isn’t even a given that this would be a good thing. The kinds of perceptual biases my colleagues and I study in the lab (things like this) exist for good reasons – even if the reasons remain in many cases highly controversial. They could reflect our statistical experience of the environment. Alternatively (and this may in fact not be mutually exclusive) they could be determined by very fundamental processes in the brain that backfire when they encounter these particular situations. In this way, perceptual illusions reveal the hidden workings by which your brain makes sense of the world.

Discussions and catfights, like those about climate change, gun control, religious liberty, about psi research, Bayes vs frequentism, or the comments made by certain retired professors are no different. Social media makes them particularly vitriolic and incendiary. I don’t know if this is because social media actually makes them worse or if this is just because it makes the worst more visible. Either way, fights like this are characterised by the same kinds of biases that distort all other perception and behaviour. People are amazingly resistant to factual evidence. You can show somebody some very clear data refuting their preconceived notions and yet they won’t budge. It may even drive them deeper into their prior beliefs. Perhaps there is some sort of Bayesian explanation for this phenomenon – if so, I’d like to hear it. Anyway, if there is one thing you can trust, it is that objectivity is an illusion.

Now as I’ve said, such cognitive and perceptual biases are normal and can’t be prevented. But I think all is not lost. I do believe they can be counteracted – to some extent at least – if we remain vigilant of them. We may even make them work for us instead of being swayed by them. I am wondering about ways to achieve that. Any ideas are welcome, I’d be happy to chat about this. Here is the first principle though according to the (biased) worldview of Sam:

If anyone tells you that they are objective, that their account is “investigative” or “forensic” or “factual,” or if they tell you outright that the other side is lying, then it doesn’t matter who they are or what credentials they may have. They are blinkered fools, they are wrong by definition, and they don’t deserve a second of your time.